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Top 10 women in the spirits industry

In what is typically perceived as a male-dominated industry, a number of trail-blazing women have made their mark in the spirits world over the ages.

Boundary breakers – this is our selection of the top 10 women in the spirits industry
Boundary breakers – this is our selection of the top 10 women in the spirits industry

While it’s true that women have long had a valuable presence in the spirits sector, master distiller, CEO and senior brand ambassador roles are often occupied by men.

Looking across the ages, we therefore thought it appropriate to pay overdue plaudits to women who have carved a pioneering and enduring legacy in the industry.

From master distillers to marketing innovators and business leaders, this is our selection of the 10 of the top women in the spirits industry.

There are, of course, many more who have made an invaluable contribution to the sector – let us know of any more in the comment box below.

Rachel Barrie

Rachel-BarrieAs master blender for Morrison Bowmore, Rachel Barrie is the nose, palate and hands behind popular Scotch whisky brands such as Bowmore, Glen Garioch and Auchentoshan.

Having got her first taste of whisky – a Glen Garioch in a Hot Toddy – at the age of seven and studied chemistry at the University of Edinburgh, Barrie won an internship as a research scientist at the Scotch whisky institute in 1991. She then went on to work for Glenmorganie for 13 years, becoming master blender in 2003.

After joining Morrison Bowmore in 2011, Barrie pioneered a new water programme to “ensure there are no tainted notes” by experimenting on the PH of mineral water.

Of her 23 years in the industry, she told The Spirits Business during an exclusive interview: “When I started in the industry I was the element of surprise at tastings – a young female conducting a tasting, how dare she? Whereas now there are 19-year-old female whisky drinkers really into it.

“As an industry we are making whisky accessible for more people and the demographic will continue to widen and get more women into it.”

Stella David

Stella-DavidStella David is the CEO of UK drinks group William Grant & Sons –  producer of Hendrick’s Gin and Glenddich Scotch whisky – the world’s best-selling single malt.

Since joining the group in 2009 after spending 15 years at Bacardi, David has seen William Grant retain what she claims is its “long-term vision”, helping it to top sales of £1 billion for three years running.

However, speaking to The Spirits Business earlier this year, David said financial results are not the long-term goal and that she aims to “build the business without dancing to the tune of other companies.”

One of the few women in the world to head an international drinks group, David has helped steer both innovation and growth in the spirits world.

Margie Samuels

Margie-SamuelsMargie Samuels may not be the most well-known name on this list, but her legacy is one of the most enduring in the spirits world. In 1958, she helped her husband Bill Samuel’s Sr. launch Maker’s Mark Bourbon, suggesting the name, bottle design and red wax label for the iconic brand which have helped it become one of the world’s best-selling Bourbon’s to-date.

Margie, who died in 1985, was awarded posthumous acceptance into the Bourbon Hall of Fame earlier this month for her enduring contribution to the world of Bourbon. She was the first woman directly connected to a distillery to receive the honour.

Fred Minnick, author of Whiskey Women: The Untold Truth About How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch & Irish Whiskey, said Margie Samuels is “arguably the most underrated Bourbon figure of all-time”.

“She absolutely changed the spirits industry,” he said. “Her feminine bottle design and dripping wax was the beautiful red dress in a sea of boring gray dresses.”

Lesley Gracie

Lesley-Gracie-Hendrick'sWorking in collaboration with Charles Gordon, life president of William Grant & Sons who recently passed away, Lesley Gracie was tasked with creating a gin which used two antique stills – a rare Carter-Head and 19th Century Bennet.

With a long-established love of interesting botanicals, Gracie achieved “a peculiar sort of deliciousness” by creating a gin distilled with cucumber and rose, ingredients rarely seen in mainstream gin production, in both stills.

Thus Hendrick’s gin was born, “an absolute power-house brand” according to current William Grant CEO Stella David, leading the way for the great super-premium gin renaissance which we continue to see to this day. Gracie continues to experiment with wacky botanicals, and even trekked into the Venezuelan jungle in search of rare ingredients with Hendrick’s global brand ambassador, David Piper (pictured).

Deirdre Mahlan

Deirdre-MahlanAs the person in charge of the books at the world’s largest drinks group, Diageo, Deirdre Mahlan has certainly given women a presence at the top of the spirits industry table.

Mahlan was appointed Diageo’s chief financial officer in 2010 and since then has overseen numerous changes and challenges across the business and the wider spirits industry. She first joined the group in 2002 following its high profile acquisition of Seagram, where she held a number of high profile roles. After serving as head of Diageo’s tax and treasury in 2002, she worked as senior vice president and chief financial officer of Diageo North America from 2004 to 2007.

She has overseen not only the drawn-out acquisition of United Spirits, but also Diageo’s ambitious aims to cut costs by £200 million a year until 2017.

Joanne Moore

Joanne-MooreJoanne Moore is part of the rare breed of female master distillers in her role at G&J Distillers, formerly known as J&G Greenall. Her appointment in 2006 marked the first time G&J – which has been producing gin since the reign of 2006 – appointed a female distiller.

She joined G&J in 1996 after graduating with a degree in Biochemistry. Last year, she told The Spirits Business of her appointment to master distiller: “It was a very proud moment for me. Obviously it’s a bit of a male-dominated industry, but I’ve always been a bit of a tomboy growing up so it didn’t really matter that I was going to be surrounded by men. And nowadays there are more women coming into the industry, so I’m not alone.

G&J ethos of female empowerment was also apparent with the launch of its Bloom Gin Inspired by Nature female-only cocktail competition.

Rita Cowan


Often referred to as the “mother of Japanese whisky, Rita Cowan brought the techniques of Scotch whisky distillation over to Japan with her husband Masataka Taketsuru, founder of the company which later became Suntory.

In 1918, Cowan met Taketsuru while he was studying distillation at Glasgow University, eventually marrying in 1920. In 1921 the pair travelled back to Japan to set up a whisky distillery at Kotobukiya – later Suntory – before creating independent distillery Dai Nippon Kaju, which would be renamed as the Nikka Whisky Distilling Company.

By supporting her husband, Cowan was seen as having an instrumental in the creation of Japan’s now thriving whisky industry, prompting one television company to chart her life in a mini-series, entitled Massan.

Elizabeth Cumming

Elizabeth-CummingsElizabeth Cumming owned the now Diageo-operated Cardhu distillery in Speyside in the late 19th century, tripling its capacity under her management. The distillery was first set up by in 1824 by whisky smuggler John Cumming, but its running was largely credited to his wife Helen Cumming, who used to sell bottles of whisky to passers-by through the window of their farmhouse.

In 1885 it was rebuilt under the management of Elizabeth Cumming, the daughter-in-law of Helen Cumming, who was able to triple the amount of whisky it had previously produced which led to Johnnie Walker and Sons buying much of Cardhu’s output to use in its own blends.

Claire Smith

Claire-SmithOften referred to a the “first lady of vodka”, Claire Smith, head of spirit creation and mixology at Belvedere vodka, helped advance the traditionally Scotch and Cognac-focussed portfolio of Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy (LVMH) into the world of white spirits.

Smith joined LVMH in 2003 as a brand ambassador for the recently-launched Belvedere vodka after graduating in Law from Nottingham University, where she also learned the ways of mixology at the city’s first cocktail bar, Synergy.

After winning numerous competitions and taking on various brand ambassador roles, she moved to London to study under two revered names in the bar world – Dick Bradsell and Henry Besant.

Smith has helped merge the world’s of distilling and bartending, creating a number of flavoured and unfiltered Belvedere variants.

Bessie Williamson

Bessie-WilliamsonBessie Williamson came to Islay for three months to work as a secretary for the Laphroaig Distillery – one of the world’s most popular Islay Scotch whiskies – and ended staying for the next 40 years, eventually becoming its owner.

Ian Hunter, distillery manager, and last in line of the family owners, left the distillery to Bessie in his will when he died in 1954. Bessie managed Laphroaig until her retirement in 1972.

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