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Women In Whisky: A Global Revolution


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By Kevin Pilley on 14th September 2022

Traditionally, women have always been dissociated from whisky. Just imagine... old leather armchairs, men & their cigars sat in smoky bars sipping on the golden elixir. But where has this perception come from? Kevin Pilley sets out to explore the whisky myth, and how women are breaking these stereotypes in 2022.

The ‘workmans’ perception led to early film imagery of miners, farmers and lonesome cowboys being pictured drinking whisky. However, a typically masculine drink is being diluted with femininity by women around the world.

The Nc'nean Distillery

Annabel Thomas is the founder and CEO of Nc'nean on the Morvern peninsula in Scotland. Thomas has fulfilled her ambition to own her own distillery, as well as make and drink her own whisky.

After leaving a management consulting and strategy career with Bain & Co in London, Thomas ventured into making independent, organic experimental spirits, ultimately running a pioneering green Scotch whisky distillery with super-sustainable credentials.

The distillery has an annual production capacity of 96,000 litres or 700 casks, with the latest release being the non-chill filtered Huntress 2022 which was distilled in 2018 and bottled in March.

Says Thomas:

“We try to make small batch whiskies from low yields and good soils which enables the underlying spirit to shine through.”

Nc’nean’s renewable energy-powered distillery on Essex-born Thomas’ parents farm near Oban uses organic Scottish barley, recycling 99.97% of its waste. Production started with a botanical and aged botanical spirit, and in 2020 came the first whisky. The distillery is now Scotland’s leading certified organic whisky producer.

Named after the ancient Gaelic goddess of the spirits, Neachneohain, the fierce protector of nature , the Highland producer became the first whisky distillery in the UK to achieve net zero emissions. 

“Zero waste takes a lot of effort and vigilance,” says Thomas.

Nc’nean’s inaugural single malt was Ainnir. With only 1,320 bottles released of the unpeated, no-age-statement expression, the exclusive single malt was even auctioned to raise money for charity. Bottle one of the original batch set a new world record after fetching £41,004 (US$54,650), and the combined sale of all 10 bottles exceeded £92,000 (US$122,575).

Women & Whisky: A Legacy

Women are now leaders of new makes and legacy brands, but it was American women who led the way. By the late eighteenth century, women in the US were distilling at home. By 1850, it was common for prostitutes to legally sell whisky. Alongside the prohibition of alcohol in the 20’s, this led to women being banned from drinking liquor at bars after the prohibition ended in 1933.

  • Bessie Williamson was the only women in the twentieth century to own and run a distillery. Having worked at Laphroaig as a shorthand typist , the owner left the Islay distillery in her name.

  • Rita (Roberta Cowan) Taketsuru met her Japanese husband when he came to study whisky-making in Scotland and together they founded Nikka

Whisky is rapidly moving away from the Old Boys image and chauvinistic mentality. Many whisky-loving women around the world are now rebalancing the gender bias within the whisky industry. 

  • Laura Davies is the distillery manager at the Welsh Whisky Company at Penderyn

  • Dawn Davies is the head buyer at Speciality Drinks Group and The Whisky Exchange

  • Jackie Zykan is Master Taster for Louisville’s Old Forester Bourbon.

Zykan, a biology and chemistry graduate, spoke about what whisky meant to her, and why it is so important for women to enter in to this world,

"The smell of whisky became near and dear to my heart from a very young age. Every Christmas, my grandmother would make “whiskey cookies” with Jack Daniels. Sharing whiskey and tasting in a communal setting is such an impactful experience.“

In honour of our late Queen, we would like to raise a glass of her favourite Scotch whiskey in remembrance of her. Rest in peace your majesty.

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