Famous Female Figures in Wine and Spirits

A Sip of Herstory: The Women Behind Iconic Bevs

By Peyton Whittington Published February 2024

It takes a lot of art, science and business savvy for your favorite bottle of wine or spirits to make it from the winery or distillery to your kitchen counter. It should come as no surprise that there are many women who are the magic makers behind the scenes, but who are these ladies? How did they enter the beverage industry, and what impact have they made on the world of wine and spirits today?

Keep reading for the fascinating stories of eight female figures throughout history who forever changed the way we enjoy our favorite sips.

Who is the woman behind the Yellow Label?

Madame Clicquot | Veuve Clicquot

Madame Clicquot

Unless you know a little bit of French, you might not know that the “Veuve” in Veuve Clicquot translates to “widow;” and yes, an incredibly entrepreneurial, business-savvy widow was indeed behind this iconic yellow Champagne label.

Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin married Francois Clicquot, the son of her father’s business partner, in 1798.1 Although his family ran a successful textile business, Francois and Barbe-Nicole were more interested in running the family’s small winemaking side business. They did just that, but after only six years of marriage, Francois fell ill and died. Determined to continue her late husband’s dream, Barbe-Nicole asked her father-in-law if she could run the business, something that was unheard of in Napoleonic France. Surprisingly, he agreed. She went on to build the brand into a huge success while revolutionizing the winemaking process along the way. (NBD, right?)

We can thank Madame Clicquot for developing the Remuage or riddling process, a technique for removing yeast and sediment from wine that is still fundamental in Champagne making today.

Learn more about her story by watching our full video below.




Who is the mother of Japanese Whisky?

Rita Taketsuru | Mother of Japanese Whisky

Rita Taketsuru

You may know Masataka Taketsuru as the father of Japanese whisky, but you may not know the story of his wife, Rita Cowan Taketsuru: the mother of Japanese whisky. Young Masataka rented a room in her family’s home in Kirkintilloch, Scotland, when he was visiting the country to learn the art of whisky distillation. The two fell in love, married in 1920 and moved to Japan the same year. Rita helped her husband start his whisky business, then a completely new market to the beer and sake-obsessed peninsula. She worked as an English teacher at a local university to support them until the business was successful enough for her to begin working at the distillery alongside her husband.2 Together, they built Suntory and Nikka into the world-renowned names in spirits we know today.

Despite the hardships Rita faced as a Scottish woman living in Japan during World War II, she quickly fell for her new home and its culture. Her memory is respected in Japan and Scotland alike for her great love for both countries she called home and her undying support for her husband’s dream.

Who was the first female winemaker for SIMI Wines?

Isabelle Simi | SIMI Wines

Isabelle Simi

In 1876, Isabelle Simi’s father Giuseppe and his brother Pietro produced the first wines under the SIMI name in Sonoma County and had the first harvest in SIMI’s stone cellars in 1890. But, when her father and uncle suddenly died within weeks of each other in 1904, Isabelle took over management of the young winery at just 18 years old.

When Prohibition began in the U.S., Isabelle kept the winery in business by taking advantage of a loophole that allowed the sale of sacrament wine to churches. When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, SIMI had 500,000 gallons of perfectly cellared wines to sell thanks to Isabelle’s good business sense. Isabelle’s savvy move solidified the success of the SIMI name.

SIMI has been led by equally passionate, innovative female winemakers ever since Isabelle’s passing in 1981. She truly paved the way for this award-winning, woman-led winery to flourish.

Who is the woman behind the Maker’s Mark red wax seal?

Margie Samuels | Maker’s Mark

Margie Samuels

It is said that Margie Samuels, co-founder of Maker’s Mark Bourbon, is the reason most folks buy their first bottle of Maker's Mark. The shape of the bottle, look of the label, signature red wax topper and even the name itself are all thanks to Margie and her creativity.

Her influence on the bourbon industry continued to resonate even after her passing in 1985. She was posthumously inducted into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame in 2014 for her monumental contributions to bourbon production and marketing. Not only was she the brains behind one of the most iconic spirit bottles in the world, but she also pioneered bourbon tourism: the idea that bourbon tasting is about so much more than the product itself; it’s about immersing oneself in the rich history of distillation alongside the people who dedicate their lives to the craft. Margie changed the way bourbon enthusiasts engage with and appreciate the world of handcrafted spirits forever.

Who sold the Cardhu Distillery to John Walker & Sons?

Helen & Elizabeth Cumming | Johnnie Walker

Helen & Elizabeth Cumming

While most of us are struggling just to get through the holidays with our mothers-in-law, mother-in-law and daughter-in-law duo Helen and Elizabeth Cumming established a whisky empire together.

It all started when Helen and her husband John bought a small farm in 1811, which they named Cardhu. Like many folks at the time, they set up an illicit distilling operation out of their new home. The English were exerting control over the Scots at this time by enforcing strict whisky taxes, so the couple had to do what they could to keep their business on the low. Helen devised a cunning ruse: whenever local officials came to town, she would welcome the gentlemen in by offering tea and nibbles.3 As they stuffed their faces, she would slip out the back door and raise a red flag to warn her fellow distilling neighbors that the tax men were afoot.

Thanks to Helen’s smarts, Cardhu continued to experience great success for its single malt whisky. Helen’s daughter-in-law Elizabeth continued developing the family business well into her old age. She eventually sold the distillery to John Walker & Sons (of Johnnie Walker fame), securing the family fortune and the legacy of Cardhu.4

Who was the first woman to manage a Scotch distillery?

Elizabeth Leitch 'Bessie' Williamson | Laphroaig

Elizabeth Leitch 'Bessie' Williamson

In the summer of 1934, Bessie Williamson went on holiday to Islay and applied for a shorthand typist position at the Laphroaig distillery. Owner Ian Hunter took a shine to Bessie, and she worked her way up in the company quickly, eventually becoming the only woman to own and run a Scotch distillery in the 20th century.5

Bessie became Ian’s right hand. While whisky production ceased during WWII, she oversaw the conversion of the distillery into an ammunitions hub, keeping the business afloat during a crisis. Ian left Laphroaig to Bessie when he died in 1954. She was a pioneer for Islay whiskies and single malts and will forever be remembered for steering the distillery through difficult times and protecting the whisky’s good reputation.

Who was the first female Master Blender?

Joy Spence | Appleton Estate Rum

Joy Spence

Joy Spence is the first woman ever to hold the position of Master Blender in the spirits industry. Spence has created world-class rums at Appleton Estate, Jamaica’s oldest distillery, for over 20 years, including Appleton Estate Signature Blend Rum and Appleton Estate 12 Year Rare Casks Rum.

Along with her elite status in rum, she also holds a seemingly endless list of degrees, including a Bachelor of Science with honors, a Master of Science, an honorary Doctorate of Science and an honorary Doctorate of Law. If that wasn’t enough, she was also the first woman to receive the Jamaica Prime Minister Medal for Science and Technology.

But Spence knows that rum blending is just as much art as it is science. Her artistic flair and attention to detail is what keeps rum enthusiasts coming back.

“My natural creativity sets me apart,” Spence told Refinery29 in 2023. “This is an experience inside of an experience, and it’s the experience that sells the product.”


Who is the woman carrying on Uncle Nearest’s legacy?

Victoria Eady Butler | Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey

Victoria Eady Butler

Jack Daniel might be the most iconic name in whiskey, but ole Jack learned everything he knew from an enslaved man by the name of Nathan “Uncle Nearest” Green. Orphaned, 7-year-old Jack apprenticed under Uncle Nearest on a farm, where he was taught the Lincoln County Process, a sugar maple charcoal filtering process that distinguishes Tennessee whiskey from bourbon. Jack acquired the farm after emancipation and appointed Nearest Green, by then a free man, to be the Jack Daniel Distillery’s first master distiller, and thus the first Black master distiller on record in the United States.6

Although his name fell into obscurity for some time, Nearest’s descendants are honoring his legacy with a brand-new whiskey that bears his namesake. As the great-great-granddaughter of Nearest Green, Victoria Eady Butler crafted the very first batch of Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey using the very technique he developed. Named Master Blender of 2021 by Whisky Magazine, Butler has played a crucial role in the development of the brand's distinctive flavors. Butler's expertise and dedication to producing high-quality, handcrafted whiskey has contributed to the brand's success and recognition as a top player in the industry.

“That’s why I truly believe whiskey is in my blood, that what I'm doing just passed down from Nearest. I can’t explain it any other way. It’s unheard of, what we’ve done—winning awards for having the best whiskey, all the firsts we’ve accomplished,” Butler told Liquor.com in 2021. “And we’re just getting started.”

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