Women in Spirits

Women in Spirits

By Laura Fagan Published February 2022

Aside from the awesome alliteration, the combination of women in whiskey, females in fermentation, ladies in liquor - are all very powerful. Throughout the spirit industry, females are emerging and gaining well-deserved attention. With a symphony of talent, expertise, passion and innovation, these women are distinguishing themselves in a historically male-dominated industry. These forward-thinking women are blazing new trails, building brands, telling stories through spirits and making sought-after bottles of distilled liquor and cocktails. ABC Fine Wine & Spirits is excited to peel back the label to showcase and celebrate the women who are blending, vatting, distilling, tasting, crafting, founding – and leading. Join us as we unpack and share the stories of the women making waves in the distilling world. Scroll to read or use the buttons below to drop down to their sections.

Lexie Amacher-Phillips

Lexie Amacher-Phillips

Assistant Distiller | Jack Daniel’s

With familial ties and agricultural roots – Lexie is a progressive female whiskey distiller who honors the past but looks ahead to Jack Daniel’s future.

ABC: What was your journey in getting this role? How did it come about?

Lexie: I began my journey here in bottling and quality control in 2013. By the end of 2014, I had been inspired to come up to the Stillhouse to be a distiller. Between the people I worked with and the process that we followed - it became a true passion. Within a couple of years, I had become one of the Lead Distillery Operators - with a focus on training new employees and ensuring day-to-day operations ran smoothly. Then I started helping with Barrel Proof Selections in 2018-19. Chris Fletcher [Master Distiller] saw my passion for Jack and knew I had deep roots here at the distillery. When Chris stepped up to be the Master Distiller, he wanted me to be the Assistant Distiller working side-by-side with him protecting the traditions of making great whiskey. Being the first woman here at Jack to hold this position is such an honor and I cannot wait to see what the journey will bring!

What has been your experience as a female in the industry?

I was only the 6th woman to be a distiller at Jack Daniel’s. It’s a physically demanding job. Mechanical mindset, critical thinking and problem-solving are necessary, even at 2 a.m., since we are a 24/7 operation. You must be confident in your work but also be able to deliver that with effective communication. People think since this is a male-dominated job that it’s a “boys club, no girls allowed,” but that is far from the reality. What I experienced was that the guys just wanted someone who will work as hard as they do and be a good team member. It doesn’t matter if you are a man or woman, it comes down to work ethic. I’ve had many allies/mentors/leaders throughout my time in this industry, all these men and women have had an impact on my life, and I will always be grateful for that.

What would you tell a female who is hoping to create a similar path as you?

Do it! Just jump in. Read books, listen to podcasts, go to whiskey tastings; there are a lot of first steps you can take, all that matters is you take the first step. Don’t be afraid to start at the bottom and work your way into the thing you love, you’ll gain a lot of respect that way. I am very lucky to work with a lot of people that love what we do and are very willing to share that knowledge, look for those people. Be confident but stay humble and never lose your curiosity.

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Jackie Zykan

Jackie Zykan

Master Taster | Old Forester

Jackie’s palate and principle are well developed, and humble. As a female Master Taster, she admires Old Forester for its unwavering commitment to quality and for honoring the human-element of crafting, tasting and sharing whiskey.

ABC: What is your background and how has it helped you in your current role?

Jackie: My background is an interesting mix of science, as an educational focus and on-premise as an industry element. Having been a buyer for a high-volume restaurant group has blessed me with perspective when it comes to user experience as well as given me cross category exposure for palate development. Understanding the needs and thought processes of a bartender’s mindset has been crucial to the curation and execution of many successful programs in which we introduce Old Forester to that audience.

What is your favorite part about your job?

My favorite part of my current role is being able to witness moments of discovery with consumers as they taste our brand. The plethora of sensory elements in a glass of whiskey is sure to ignite memories and, when these associations are inspired by our products and expressed, it generates an air of vulnerability and trust among the group which I am so grateful to be able to be a part of.

When you aren’t working – what are you doing?

When I’m not working, I prefer to spend my time outdoors to ground myself. My position requires a high allocation of energy in public facing settings, and as a natural introvert, being in nature is my way of resetting and returning to work fresh and ready to take on the day. I have a seven-year-old son who accompanies me on these adventures, and we both enjoy hiking, kayaking, climbing, camping and any and every opportunity to sit around a fire under the stars. I have an affinity for travel and have become quite seasoned at long distance backpacking as well as high altitude adventures. If there is any time left over, I also own a self-care product line and fragrance company which gives me a balanced, creative outlet.

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Clara Robbins

Clara Robbins

Quality Control Manager & Gin Distiller | St. Petersburg Distillery

From chemical engineering to Kentucky distilling – and then on to gin school, Clara brings confidence and feminine craftsmanship to St. Petersburg Distillery gin.

ABC: What was your journey in getting this role? How did it come about?

Clara: After graduating with my bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering - I worked in a craft brewery, on the side, while working full time in a medical lab. During this time, I was approached by a distillery in Kentucky to come work for Kentucky’s first female distiller. Upon learning about their story, I knew this was my next step. Throughout college I focused on fluid flow operations and knew I wanted to work with some form of distillation. I never expected it would be spirits; however, I am incredibly grateful it worked out this way. My time at Castle & Key began my journey in spirits and I fell in love with it quickly.

What separates your brand from others in the same category?

St. Petersburg Distillery thrives to make sure we are using as many local ingredients as possible. It is not easy sourcing Florida grains and botanicals, but it is a priority for us. We strive to support St. Pete local businesses and Florida fresh ingredients. This is not limited to our suppliers and distributors; we also love to shine a light on other distilleries and breweries in the area. As an industry, we are stronger together and enjoy recommending other spirits and brews to people that stop into our tasting room.

What has been your experience as a female in the industry?

I was blessed in the early days of my career in the spirits industry while working with the first female master distiller in Kentucky. I had a female leader who was a beautiful example of how to command respect gracefully and kindly. I try to remind myself of that every now and then. When I, eventually, did not have that anymore and I was the only female in many meetings and situations I realized I had to speak up more and with more confidence than ever before. I was being looked over and not being heard - but this challenged me to learn to step into the role that I had been prepared for. Being a woman in this field means owning your confidence and femininity to offer a perspective that others cannot. Our thoughts are intense and beautiful, the spirits industry would be remiss without our perspectives.

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Trudiann Branker

Trudiann Branker

Master Blender | Mount Gay Rum

Mount Gay’s first female Master Blender, Trudiann Branker, is trending in the world of rum. While honoring centuries of rum-making heritage, Trudiann is experimenting and innovating to distill and deliver new styles and flavors of rum.

ABC: Why is this spirit your passion?

Trudiann: People often think that rum is just about a summer drink, pirates, or parties. So, for me, I think that it’s an exciting challenge to change the overall perception of rum and lead people to understand that we’ve been making this beautiful spirit for over 300 years on the same land in St. Lucy, at the northern tip of Barbados. Blending allows me to weave together my passion for science with art and I’m proud to be able to do this in the birthplace of rum.

What was your journey in getting this role? How did it come about?

I was incredibly interested in chemistry from a young age. I initially studied at Howard University, where I received dual degrees in biology and chemistry. This really acted as the basis for my future in blending. After university, I went on to study at Siebel Institute and the Institute of Brewing and Distilling, which both prepared me for my career. I then returned to Barbados where I worked with a brewer, and following that, I moved to Mount Gay where I worked as Quality Assurance Manager. It was then that former Master Blender, Allen Smith, took me under his wing to prepare me for my current role of Master Blender.

What has been your experience as a female in the industry?

Although the spirits industry is quite male-dominated, rum has seen many women working as Master Blenders and Distillers over the last few years. It’s an honor for me to be the first female Master Blender for Mount Gay, and in fact, in Barbados. And I’m proud to join the ranks of other women in the rum industry leading brands like Appleton, Brugal and Zacapa.

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Abby Long

Abby Long

Quality Control Specialist | Heaven Hill Distillery

Leading with science and a serious love for spirits – Abby ensures Heaven Hill is distilling consistent products for their customers while also focusing on continued progress.

ABC: Can you explain your role at Heaven Hill Distillery?

Abby: I am a Quality Control Specialist, which means I am responsible for all aspects of quality control for distillery operations, from grain receipt through distillation. I develop and implement quality control best practices as they relate to production monitoring, process optimization and continuous improvement. I develop and implement data collection and analysis systems to drive a culture of continuous improvement.

What is your background and how has it helped you in your current role?

I have had the privilege to work at some of the largest whiskey distilleries in the country. My microbiology and fermentation knowledge and research background drive results at the distillery. I'm able to explore new opportunities and innovations to make us even more efficient and consistent. Having a science degree has helped to frame questions and critically think. While I may not be carrying out the full scientific method, I am often asking questions and trying to work backwards to identify a quality issue.

What has been your experience as a female in the industry?

Distillery production environments can be demanding and intimidating (you can't make bourbon fast enough right now!) and these spaces are predominantly male managed. I'm lucky to have found mentors in all my jobs that have given me wonderful life and career advice. I am lucky to have had progressive managers who champion my career development. I've yet to work with someone who is stuck in the past when it comes to women in the workplace. I've worked with a handful of brilliant women at spirit companies. They may not be on the covers, but they are behind the scenes making sure you have the best product possible. Women have worked in distilleries since before Prohibition. Back then, it was considered unsavory for women to have a job in general, much less at a distillery, so their stories weren’t elevated. I want people to see that you don't have to fit a stereotype to work in a distillery. We need all types of people to continue making the best bourbon possible.

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Meghan Ireland

Meghan Ireland

Chief Blender | WhistlePig

At WhistlePig, Meghan manages the whiskey from barrel to bottle as their Chief Blender while also capitalizing on creative freedom to pioneer new finishes and flavors.

ABC: What was your journey in getting this role? How did it come about?

Meghan: After finding my love for chemistry in high school, I went on to earn my bachelor’s in chemical engineering from Clarkson University. During my freshman year, I read an article in Whisky Advocate about a female chemical engineer turned Master Distiller and knew that I wanted to get into the spirits industry. Soon after college, I started in craft hard cider, before making the switch to whiskey in 2018, joining WhistlePig. I oversee quality at WhistlePig, ensuring with careful testing and tasting that the whiskey maintains its award-winning taste. I also direct the whiskey from barrel to bottle and manage WhistlePig’s robust Single Barrel program–a treasure trove of cask strength whiskeys and experimental finishes that serve to incubate future WhistlePig innovation.

Why is this spirit your passion?

When I was in college, I realized that most students in my class were going into plastics or oil, but distillation sounded like a lot more fun. I have really enjoyed working in spirits and love how creative you can get, especially at a place like WhistlePig - which is a whiskey distillers’ playground with a ‘drink your mistakes’ attitude. As the Chief Blender, I oversee the finishing on our whiskey, and love seeing how much impact different types of barrels can really have on the flavor profile of our whiskey.

What has been your experience as a female in the industry?

When I first read the article in Whisky Advocate about a female chemical engineer turned whiskey distiller, I was inspired to jump into the business. I am fortunate to have the support of WhistlePig to innovate with some of the best whiskey in the world and with amazing teammates - including Emily Harrison, our Head Distiller, who I am very fortunate to work alongside.

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Lesley Gracie

Lesley Gracie

Master Distiller | Hendrick’s Gin

At Hendrick’s Gin, Lesley has helped to lead a major gin renaissance as Master Distiller. With a targeted focus on innovation, flavor and quality – Lesley has laid new tracks for the future of gin from the Gin Palace.

ABC: What separates your brand from others in the same category?

Lesley: What the customer might see is the rose and cucumber that makes us stand apart. Our classic cucumber garnish, old Victorian style apothecary bottle and perhaps, our quite peculiar events. But underpinning of all this is the liquid. We act a little unusual because we’re made unusually. Hendrick’s is distilled using not one, but two utterly dissimilar types of stills. A Bennett, which is an antique copper pot still dating right back to 1860, and a rare Carterhead from 1948 of which only a handful exist today. The Bennett style stills steep their botanicals, resulting in a rich, complex spirit, whereas the Carterhead gently steams the botanicals in a basket atop its long neck, creating a lighter, more delicate spirit. The precise marrying of these two types of distillate, alongside our trusty cucumber and rose, results in a rare combination of lightness, depth and intricacy. Each batch of Hendrick’s Gin is crafted 550 lovely liters at a time in batches at the Hendrick’s Gin Palace and benefits from the plentiful soft water of the nearby Penwhapple Reservoir.

Can you describe the Gin Palace?

The Hendrick’s Gin Palace is my playground, filled with all my favorite things. You follow a path lined with wildflowers and enter the walled garden through this beautiful old door. If you are lucky enough, I’ll be waiting to let you in. The Hendrick’s Gin Palace was built in the image of an old Victorian Palm House. It has this incredible domed glass ceiling and is flanked by my beloved hothouses, which is where I tend to all manners of weird and wonderful botanicals and flora from around the world.

There’s a tropical hothouse to the left, which to me is the scent of the Amazon—a place I was lucky enough to explore back in 2013 on a wonderful quest for rare and unusual botanicals. Now, it contains everything from Scottish-grown bananas, mango, hibiscus and pineapple, to coconut, coffee, cacao and peppercorn. To your right, is my Mediterranean hothouse, which houses many varieties of citrus trees, such as orange, lemon, lime and grapefruit. It can also be used for other experimental plants, such as prickly pears and agave, which I have managed to source and will be harvested, distilled and experimented with. Inside you will find six beautiful stills that make Hendrick’s. My favorite is the original Bennett still. Upstairs you’ll find my laboratory where I experiment with different flavors, and understand how they interact with each other, a lecture theatre where we deconstruct the Hendrick’s Gin for our friends in the trade and a very nice bar where others get to be creative, and I just get to sit and enjoy the results. I never make cocktails - I leave all that shaky-shaky stuff to the experts.

When you aren’t working – what are you doing?

When I’m not working, my favorite thing to do is walk my dog. I’m a big animal person. I have one dog, two tortoises, two rabbits, a hamster and lots of fish. I’d have more if I could. I also love being outside, walking and exploring the different scents you find outdoors. I’m forever wandering around gardens of country houses and just sniffing everything I see and occasionally acquiring an odd cutting. I love flowers, especially orchids and spend a lot of time gardening.

Read the full interview with Lesley Gracie here.

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Elizabeth McCall

Elizabeth McCall

Assistant Master Distiller | Woodford Reserve

At Woodford Reserve, a brand that sets the bar for classically made whiskeys - Elizabeth takes lead on quality control as Assistant Master Distiller.

ABC: What was your journey in getting this role? How did it come about?

Elizabeth: I received my undergraduate degree in counseling psychology, and I thought my plan was to be a therapist. Then I got into the field and realized it wasn't what I was hoping for. Right before I was getting ready to graduate, I discovered a job opening at Brown-Forman, our [Woodford Reserve’s] parent company. It was for a position in the sensory lab. They hire people with psychology backgrounds because, in the sensory world you're using human beings as your instrument. That was my in into Brown-Forman and into the more science-y, technical side of whiskey making.

From there, I eventually ended up going to our global production facilities - Finlandia and Chambord in France, Herradura in Mexico, Canadian Mist in Canada and Jack Daniel’s in Tennessee. I was educating our team on how to properly nose and taste, what defects to look for and to ensure we use a similar methodology in our production facilities. I participated in a program designed by Chris Morris, our Master Distiller, who brought me on as Master Taster for Woodford Reserve and Old Forester in April of 2015. A year later, I was moved out to the Woodford Reserve facility and worked as Senior Quality Control Specialist and Master Taster.

Then, in 2018, I got promoted to Assistant Master Distiller. It's been an interesting journey, but one that's really fit and felt good for me. It's been a natural progression for my interests and passions within our company.

What has been the most memorable moment in your career?

I've had a lot of great moments. I'd have to say the biggest moment in my career, other than my first Derby experience on the brand team, was in 2018 when Woodford Reserve became the presenting sponsor of the Kentucky Derby.

My manager asked if I would make a toast on national television before the race. I knew there were nine million people watching me on TV, all around the U.S. and possibly around the world, additionally, everybody there at the track that day. That was the coolest moment that this job has ever afforded me to have. It was pouring down rain and afterwards I was like, "Oh my God, I did it and nailed all my lines and didn't screw up." It was awesome and I'll never forget that moment.

What would you tell a female who is hoping to create a similar path as you?

My biggest advice to anyone is to not be afraid to create your own path. Find what you’re passionate about. I didn’t realize I was as passionate as I am about whiskey. My passion comes down to quality and wanting to produce really good whiskey. I spoke up about it and it landed me where I am. Be vocal and don’t be afraid to stretch yourself, even if you don’t think you’re 110% qualified. Push yourself and fake it until you make it!

Read the full interview with Elizabeth McCall here.

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Kat Hantas

Kat Hantas

CEO & Co-Founder | 21 Seeds Tequila

Kat Hantas pivoted from the world of film to a career in the spirits industry, creating an infused tequila that stands out in the category.

ABC: What separates your brand from others in the same category?

Kat: 21 Seeds is an award winning all-natural real fruit infused tequila that allows you to make easy low-calorie cocktails with absolutely no sacrifice on taste. Unlike most “flavored” spirits in the industry, 21 Seeds is infused with real fruit and botanicals, so there’s a hint of flavor without being sugary - that’s what makes all the difference. Also, our commitment to quality. We knew that we would only get one chance at this, and it had to be right. We are lucky to have Sarika on our team, who is a Stanford educated mechanical engineer. She helped figure out the processes that allow us to create our real fruit infusions so that our liquid is consistent and delicious.

What is your background in? Has it helped you in your current role?

I was a filmmaker in my prior career and my job was to tell stories. I think this is the key to how you build any brand—through storytelling. The tequila is the object, ‘the what.’ The real reason is ‘the why.’ That’s where storytelling comes into play big time. And not just with our consumers but in every aspect of our marketing, even with our distributor. We always need to tell a compelling story because that’s what sets our brand apart from any other.

What is your favorite part about your job?

Connecting with other female founders who have created trailblazing companies and working with my amazing team, we have learned and grown so much together.

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JoAnn Elardo

JoAnn Elardo

President & Founder | Wicked Dolphin Rum

With a passion for philanthropy and Florida – JoAnn, President and Founder of Wicked Dolphin, manages the distillation of award-winning rum while also acting as an agent of positive change in her community.

ABC: What was your journey in getting this role? How did it come about?

JoAnn: I live in Florida and love gardening and working with all our naturally grown fruits and botanicals. I had the time, and my nephew was also interested in distilling, I really liked working with him and quickly Wicked Dolphin Distillery was born.

Why is this spirit your passion?

Almost 80% of the sugarcane in the United States is grown about 30 minutes from the distillery. I really wanted to create a Florida style and taste. We use local ingredients from Florida for our rums.

What would you tell a female who is hoping to create a similar path as you?

If you love what you do and make, working hard and not compromising is the best path. Don’t take ‘no’ for an answer.

Shop Wicked Dolphin Rum Collection

These leading ladies all arrived in their trade through a tale that is uniquely their own. Their experience, enthusiasm and knowledge are personified in the bottles that their hands, hearts and minds create. The presence and excellence of these women, in the distilling world, is inspiring and encouraging a larger space for women in spirits. ABC is thrilled to celebrate all women in the industry, be witness to and share in their accomplishments and excitedly look-forward to their future innovations.

Discover More Women in Spirits

Carin Luna-Ostaseski

Carin Luna-Ostaseski

Founder

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Victoria Eady Butler

Master Blender

Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey

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Emily Harrison

Emily Harrison

Head Distiller

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Nicole Austin

Nicole Austin

General Manager & Distiller

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Tawnie Gootee

Tawnie Gootee

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Iona MacPhie

Distillery Operator

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Lauren Pratz

Head Distiller

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Caroline Martin

Caroline Martin

Master Blender

The Busker Irish Whiskey

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Sam Olvera

Sam Olvera

Production Operator & Bourbon Distiller

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Stephanie Macleod

Stephanie Macleod

Master Blender & Malt Master

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Kelsey McKechnie

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Learn about more women in wine, beer and spirits who are breaking ceilings and building brands.

Interested in learning more? Visit our ABC Articles page.