Women who shaped whisky history

8th March, 2019 by admin

Bessie Williamson, Laphroaig

As Hitler bombed the UK, a young woman managed Islay’s Laphroaig distillery in Scotland. Elizabeth Leitch ‘Bessie’ Williamson, a level-headed and sharp­-witted woman, joined Laphroaig in 1934 and earned the manager title after the owner, Ian Hunter, suffered a stroke.

When the Scottish government requested Laphroaig’s facilities for the war effort, a distillery representative wrote to the Ministry of Supply: “We would suggest that our secretary, Miss E.L. Williamson, should take charge of the management, as she has been in our employment for over 10 years, and is quite capable of discharging the duties pertaining thereto, and is fully conversant with the supervision of our property.”

Bessie took over Hunter’s full-­time duties in the midst of the Second World War. Within months of Laphroaig receiving trademarks in New Zealand and Canada, Bessie added military liaison to her managerial duties. She kept several of her workers from getting drafted, protected her whisky as soldiers were billeted at Laphroaig, and quietly hid 400 tons of ammunition in the malt barns. Boats pulled into the Sound of Islay and were loaded with bullets, artillery shells and large bombs, while Bessie signed off on every shipment. Had the Germans known Laphroaig stored munitions, it most certainly would have been an air-­raid target.

After Hunter had passed away and left Laphroaig to Bessie in his will, she expanded the distillery. Bessie also carried the weight of the Scotch industry on her shoulders as she toured America and tried to introduce stateside drinkers to single malt, which at the time was a relatively foreign concept. She spoke with the same level of sophistication as today’s master blenders and distillers: “Take it slowly, do not toss it down. Whisky should be sipped either neat or with water when the drinker is relaxed or wants to become relaxed. The fashionable time is before or after dinner, or after a hard day at the office,” she told the Chicago Tribune in 1965.

Bessie also had a giver’s heart, lending workers money, clothing children and generally helping the needy. For her philanthropic efforts, Queen Elizabeth II was “graciously pleased” to sanction Bessie’s appointment to the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem on 15 January 1963.

However, the business owner’s kindness did not meld well with the realities of a multinational corporation – she often looked beyond the numbers and employed older or under­-qualified workers so that they could put food on their family’s table. Her ‘people first’ mentality would clash with profit-­driven ideals of US firm Long John International, a Schenley subsidiary, which acquired Laphroaig in the 1960s. When Long John distiller John McDougall, who managed Tormore Distillery, moved to Islay, he noticed right away that Bessie still ran the show, even though she no longer owned the majority of the company. “She was very much the matriarch of Laphroaig,” McDougall wrote in his memoir, Worts, Worms & Washbacks.

Leave a Reply

Subscribe to our newsletter