In the 1860’s, When former slave, Nathan ‘Nearest’ Green, became the first head distiller at the Jack Daniels Distillery and the first African American head distiller in the United States, I doubt if he envisioned that Fawn Weaver, 150 years later, would name her distillery after him. And that Uncle Nearest Whisky would be a gold medal winner at the 2020 World Spirits Competition in San Francisco. But that’s exactly what happened. In fact, she is the first African American woman to head a major spirits brand. She is also the first African American to be on the cover of American Whiskey Magazine. Trail blazers, in different centuries.
These are the stories of today’s women – pioneers in the modern world of whisky. Like Victoria MacRae-Samuels, the Vice-President of Operations at Makers Mark. Originally hired as a chemist to study whiskey aging, she quickly moved up the ranks while studying for her MBA AND fighting breast cancer. Several years later, she became Senior Director of Global Quality at Beam Suntory, before assuming the VP role back at Beam’s Makers Mark Distillery. She has been twice honored by Whiskey Magazine with the Icons of Whiskey America Award.
Meanwhile, back in Scotland, at the Benriach Distillery, Master Blender Rachael Barrie is putting her three decades of experience and knowledge into creating Benriach’s major relaunch of four single malts. Dr. Barrie recently received her honorary degree from the University of Edinburgh, for her expertise and service to the whisky industry. She has also been inducted into Whisky Magazine’s Hall of Fame for her efforts. A chemist by trade, she honed her whisky skills as a research scientist at the Scotch Whisky Research Institute. By her own estimates, she has tasted whisky from over 150,000 casks. Some people have all the luck. She has one of few women to be inducted as a ‘Keeper of the Quaich’. That pretty much sums it all up.
The list of female whisky superstars is long, so we’ll need to speed up things a bit. We certainly can’t overlook the contributions of Nicole Austin, who made her way from a career in Chemical Engineering to her current role as General Manager and Master Distiller at Cascade Hollow Distilling (former George Dickle Distillers). Along the way she helped found the New York Distiller Guild, and the American Craft Spirits Association.
Also to our list, let’s add Myra Barginear, a medical doctor and 7th generation whiskey maker, who, in 2014, co-founded (with her husband) Paul Sutton Bourbon. Starting out with a daily production of 20 barrels/day of sweet mash whiskey, today this family reserve whiskey is hand bottled in seven sided bottles which represent the seven generations of Sutton family whiskey tradition.
A final footnote to acknowledge a few others – Becky Harris of Catochtin Creek Distillery in Virginia, Victoria Eady Butler, a master distiller and descendent of Nearest Green, and Heather Nelson, founder of the Toulvaddie Distillery in Scotland. And finally, from one of my favorite independent bottlers, Douglas Laing & Co, third generation family member Cara Laing is making her mark as Director of Whisky. She also holds the coveted distinction of Keeper of the Quaich.
A stellar line-up of next generation experts that clearly demonstrates that the future of whisky is in good hands. I hope that you all tip your glass in appreciation of their fine products. I know I will. Until next time, when we venture into the vast world of Indian whiskey, cheers!