Whiskey, conventionally perceived to be a man’s drink, surprisingly shares a long association with femininity. Women have always enjoyed whiskey as true connoisseurs and served as active contributors in all circles of a distillery-- working in the roles of owners, distillers and bottling plant managers. Quite sadly though, their feats have remained largely unnoticed amidst a horde of ad-campaigns and a subtly biased pop culture aggressively portraying whiskey as a male-centric drink for decades.
The discrimination is clear. When Don Draper sips on a dram, he becomes a character worth rooting for – in spite of being blatantly errant in most of the occasions. On the contrary, when Sugar Kane, a character played by Marilyn Monroe in ‘Some Like it Hot’ drinks whiskey, it’s solely because she’s just an unstable renegade who keeps falling for musicians.
In his book ‘Whiskey Women: The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch, and Irish Whiskey’, Fred Minnick brings recognition and praise where it was long due. He closely focuses on breaking the biggest gender stereotype plaguing the whiskey world by simply sharing stories about women who played a significant role in shaping the history of whiskey.
The overall contextual framework of the book might sound familiar to readers who are well aware of the history of whiskey but the female characters that the author uses to build the story are totally obscure, yet highly captivating. The only problem, however is that all the heroines and their respective achievements are only mentioned as ephemeral narrations. As a result, we only get quick glimpses of their history, and not a more generous account of their stories.
Minnick follows a chronological storyline, gradually introducing the notables to the readers. For instance, the Alexandrian – Egyptian chemist named Maria the Jewess who is celebrated as a legendary innovator of distilling and the medieval Irish women who distilled whiskey solely for celebratory purposes. The flow of the story eventually makes its way to US, where whiskey was used as a medicine by women, at times even to get rid of the bugs.
These small anecdotes not only help in establishing the fact that whiskey was just as mainstream as every other ordinary thing out there but it also makes Prohibition even more unconceivable. But, closely analyzing the stories will reveal that women actually played critical roles in the movement, and that too, both as advocates and opponents. While on one hand they strived hard to put an end to the oppression of the upper class people, on the other they took initiatives to bring the liquor laws down to the local levels.
Perhaps the most intriguing thing about this book is that it unearths some of the lesser known facts about some of the pioneer brands. Jim Beam, for instance, wouldn’t have existed, had it not been for Mary Myers Beam who gave away almost 100 acres of Kentucky-based land to the distillery. Minnick also sheds some light on the long and illustrated history of Bushmills which managed to regain its integrity back in early 1800s resting on the shoulders of Ellen Jane Corrigan, the business-minded widow of the founder. The best among the lot though, is the tale of Carrie Nation, a member of Women’s Christian Temperance Union. She took Prohibition a bit too personally and went on to shatter saloon windows and bar counters with the help of a hatchet.
The reader would definitely love to know more about such colorful characters, but there’s a point after every tale where Minnick draws the line. We don’t know whether the author does this deliberately, but it definitely manages to hook the reader and makes him want for more.