With all the elements of an epic adventure—think guns, bootleggers, and high speed car chases—Whiskey Women: The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch, and Irish Whiskey (Potomac Books) is no mere fable, but an engaging and meticulously researched dip into American history. Author Fred Minnick, a cocktail historian based in Louisville, eagerly spills the beans on the heroines of hooch.
You write, “In a time when their gender kept the country dry, whiskey women kept the country wet.” Can you give me an example from the book of a woman who really stepped in and “saved” whiskey? Pauline Sabin [an influential suffragette and a first female member of the Republican National Committee] publicly changed her stance on Prohibition and wrote a very influential essay as to why—eventually turning the tide of public opinion towards repeal—by arguing that the lost tax revenue could have prevented the Depression.
The book makes a detailed case that the role women have played in bourbon production has always been critical. What inspired you to tell their stories? I’ve been in so many professional situations—including my time serving in Iraq [with the Army in 2004]—where I saw women in decision-making roles and they straight-up outperformed men, even literally under fire. Having that as an influence made me eager to tell a story like this. A lot of women I talk about in the book, the traditional whiskey world had never heard of them. But when I started looking at wills, letters, and business correspondence, their stories resonated with me. I wanted to paint a picture of what they went through.
This must have been a fun book to research. Who was your favorite character? If you talk about falling in love with a historical subject, and finding yourself wishing you could go back in time to ask her a few questions, it would be the so-called “Queen of the Bootleggers,” Cleo Lythgoe, who hails from Bowling Green, Ohio. She never backed down during countless threats to her personal safety, and she made a fortune. But at the same time, reading through her memoir, you never got the feeling that she was really telling you the whole story.
You highlight a few contemporary heroines as well. Women like Sally Van Winkle Campbell, and Hollis Bulleit, who have revitalized family businesses, as well as Bushmills master blender Helen Mulholland, whose tasting panel is made up entirely of women. Who are some other modern “Whiskey Women”? Victoria MacRae-Samuels is head of operations at Maker’s Mark and Pamela Heilmann is a distiller who is now vice-president of operations at Michter’s. We’re really seeing more women who have been recognized for their craft and moving into leadership positions within distilleries. This is why I’m working on a second edition of the book!