Meet The Women Pushing Boundaries In The Whiskey World

“I look forward to the day when women being the face of the [whiskey] brands ... is no longer an anomaly."
Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Getty

“Oh, you’re a whiskey drinker?”

It’s a question that women in the whiskey world (including me) get asked all the time — and we’re tired. Unfortunately, the microaggressions implying that whiskey is a “man thing” still remain as much of a challenge today as they did a decade ago.

Whiskey expert and writer Gabrielle Nicole Pharms
Whiskey expert and writer Gabrielle Nicole Pharms
Gabrielle Nicole Pharms

Marianne Eaves, the owner of Eaves Blind and Kentucky’s first female master distiller since Prohibition, attests to this despite the many whiskey-related milestones in her career.

“My biggest personal challenge has been overcoming my introverted nature to become a spokesperson and stepping into my accomplishments as a female leader in a male-dominated industry,” Eaves says. “I have always been very shy. But passion and confidence in my knowledge and experience have really helped me to successfully navigate the spirits industry’s old boys club and rise through the ranks.”

According to a 2019 study by consumer market research company MRI-Simmons, women account for approximately one-third of whiskey sales in the U.S., and that number is expected to increase. But despite women’s significant purchasing power, female distillers, educators, owners, blenders, tasters, and brand ambassadors in the industry still face discrimination.

Amanda Victoria, the CEO and a co-founder of canned cocktail company Siponey Spritz Co., has nearly 20 years of industry experience and continues to experience resistance.

“From being taken seriously as a Latina, to fighting for a decision-making seat at the table, to eventually building my own table, I’ve had my fair share of challenges to overcome,” Victoria says. “These days, my biggest challenges still stem from a pursuit to be taken seriously enough to lead an organization worthy of financial support.”

Overall, she spends her time speaking up, building her company as transparently as possible to gain recognition. The goal is to grow Siponey into a legacy brand, she says.

“I look forward to the day when women being the face of the brands — and leaders of the companies and production facilities behind those brands — is no longer an anomaly,” says Elizabeth McCall, an assistant master distiller with Woodford Reserve. “This will shift innovation and take the spirits culture to places we can’t even envision today.”

Progress starts with awareness. So, HuffPost has compiled a list of just some the many women pushing boundaries in the whiskey industry, one dram at a time.

Amanda Victoria, CEO and co-founder of Siponey Spritz Co.

Siponey co-founder Amanda Victoria
Siponey co-founder Amanda Victoria
Cris Moor

For Victoria, community and camaraderie are the biggest perks of working in the industry.

“Somewhat unusually as a woman, when I personally entered the world of whisky as a full-time professional, I found a wonderful and accepting community of nerds like me, from Scotland to the U.S.,” she says.

Her path was undoubtedly paved by female professionals she greatly admires, such Becky Paskin, Heather Greene, Kerrin Egalka and Rachel Barrie.

“I had been a whiskey lover since the early aughts, drinking old-fashioned cocktails before they were back in fashion, and I had even named my dog Whiskey!”

Victoria’s love of whiskey can be attributed to her work in esteemed New York City cocktail bars, as well as her formal studies in advertising and marketing communications. In her first full-time job, she was a national spokesperson for Lillet, an aperitif from France’s Bordeaux region. Next, she expanded her proficiency by studying in the Court of Master Sommeliers before eventually working at Bacardi as a national spokesperson after it acquired St-Germain.

In 2019, Victoria launched Siponey — a B Corp, or “benefit corporation,” that is certified for its focus on social and environmental impact — with a super-premium canned whiskey spritz. In addition, Siponey Royale was the first canned cocktail to use an aged spirit —a distinct, 4-year-old rye whiskey — as the backbone of its flavor.

Tracie Franklin, whiskey educator and distillation apprentice

As one of the industry’s most established figures, Tracie Franklin’s invaluable experience inspires the next generation of Black women seeking to get involved with whiskey. Franklin worked as a brand ambassador for Glenfiddich for nearly four years and lent her unique prowess to Angel’s Envy, Ardbeg, Johnnie Walker and Hudson Whiskey.

In October 2020, she kicked off a yearslong training journey to becoming a master distiller through the Nearest & Jack Advancement Initiative, a program aimed at promoting diversity in the whiskey industry.

Nicole Young, CEO and co-founder of Frisky Whiskey

Nicole Young, the CEO of Frisky Whiskey
Nicole Young, the CEO of Frisky Whiskey
Courtesy of Nicole Young

Nicole Young is paving the way for the next wave of imbibers and C-suite professionals as the only Black female owner of a flavored whiskey brand. Her accessible yet authoritative voice has resonated in the lifestyle space for years, hosting and producing broadcast content for outlets such as E! News and ABC’s “World News Now.”

An experienced and passionate recipe developer, Young has created recipes for leading food and beverage brands like Blue Diamond Almonds, Patrón Tequila, Cîroc and Planet Oat. Frisky Whiskey, produced in Charleston, South Carolina, soft-launched in March and was initially created as an extension of William Wolf Whiskey. The award-winning Frisky is infused with pure caramel and raw vanilla, delivering a creamy mouthfeel with a subtly sweet finish.

Naomi Leslie, The Balvenie brand ambassador

Naomi Leslie, a brand ambassador for The Balvenie
Naomi Leslie, a brand ambassador for The Balvenie
Courtesy of The Balvenie

After college, Naomi Leslie moved to New York City to foster her love of the chemistry of a good cocktail. After she rose through the ranks at some of the most renowned local bars, including Dear Irving and BlackTail, she went to Scotland to train at The Balvenie distillery, immersing herself in the craft of whisky-making directly from the ones who know it best. Leslie has a passion for not just whisky education, but encouraging diversity and advocacy for women in the spirits industry.

I’ve been quite grateful in my journey through the whisky world to have received strong support and guidance from my mentors, women and men alike,” she says. “From the bars I worked at, to the Scotch industry I’m in now, I’ve found the greatest help anyone can give is to share their own experiences and lead by example.”

Now, as a brand ambassador for The Balvenie, she hopes to dive even deeper into what makes sipping whisky a divine experience. In addition to her whisky expertise, she’s also a certified cigar sommelier tobacconist.

Fawn Weaver, CEO of Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey

Fawn Weaver, the CEO of Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey
Fawn Weaver, the CEO of Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey
Ryan Anderson / Fawn Weaver

After the Civil War, a formerly enslaved person from Lynchburg, Tennessee, known as Nathan “Nearest” Green taught Jack Daniel — the man who became the brand — how to make whiskey. Though Green’s history was largely unrecognized until recent years, his legacy is being upheld by Fawn Weaver and her team at Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey.

Green’s story inspired Weaver to move from California to Tennessee to dive deeper into researching his background and create a product that would honor his legacy. She contacted his descendants to start the brand in 2017 and debuted the Nearest Green Distillery in 2019.

In less than two years, Uncle Nearest expanded to all 50 states, as well as a dozen countries, becoming the fastest-growing whiskey company in U.S. history. Weaver and her all-female leadership team have made Uncle Nearest a success with their award-winning mélange of high-quality spirits and inspiring storytelling.

Marianne Eaves, owner of Eaves Blind

Marianne Eaves, the owner of Eaves Blind
Marianne Eaves, the owner of Eaves Blind
Courtesy of Marianne Eaves

Eaves kicked off her career at Brown-Forman, the Louisville, Kentucky-based makers of Jack Daniel’s, Old Forester and Woodford Reserve. After learning the ropes, Eaves left in 2015 to join a startup distillery called Castle & Key. There, she operated as a partner and the master distiller, making her the first woman in Kentucky to hold that title since Prohibition.

“Whiskey is a fusion of science and art, and the thing I love most is the opportunity to challenge the traditions of spirits and blaze new trails,” Eaves says. “I want to see a more diverse future in the spirits industry, which will help push the boundaries of innovation. I plan to be a part of paving the way to that future.”

She has since departed Castle & Key to work on consulting projects, including for Sweetens Cove, a bourbon from athletes Peyton Manning and Andy Roddick. She also launched the concept for Eaves Blind, a palate development and bourbon education program. Since then, she’s dabbled in other booze-related ventures where her leadership can serve as a springboard for other women.

Nicole Austin, master distiller at George Dickel

While earning a degree in chemical engineering from Manhattan College, Nicole Austin began volunteering at Kings County Distillery in Brooklyn, New York, eventually becoming its master blender in 2010. In 2013, she helped found the New York State Distillers Guild and later worked with the late whiskey legend Dave Pickerell, before moving on to the Tullamore Distillery in Ireland.

In 2018, she returned stateside to become the head distiller at Cascade Hollow in Tullahoma, Tennessee, the home of George Dickel Tennessee Whisky. Given the brand’s tumultuous path — the distillery had been shuttered twice — Austin had a particularly arduous journey ahead. Since joining the Cascade Hollow team, Austin has played an integral role in the arrival of award-winning George Dickel releases. Additionally, in March 2020, Austin was named Artisan Spirit Magazine’s inaugural Distiller of the Year.

Elizabeth McCall, assistant master distiller at Woodford Reserve

Elizabeth McCall of Woodford Reserve
Elizabeth McCall of Woodford Reserve
Courtesy of Woodford Reserve

As one of the youngest female distillers in the nation, McCall’s passion for whiskey and keen work ethic come naturally. She represents the second generation of her family to take part in the bourbon industry, following in her mother’s footsteps, and started as a sensory expert. In 2018, she was named Woodford Reserve’s assistant master distiller, working directly with master distiller Chris Morris on developing new products.

McCall finds joy in interacting with consumers through personal barrel selections, teaching sensory methodology while staying invested in quality control.

“There are always new processes and ways to improve what we are doing,” she says. “I find myself now learning about farming practices and how we can grow grains in Kentucky that don’t grow well in our climate on a large scale. Innovation is another area always evolving and pushing me to think outside the box.”

Emma Walker, master blender at Johnnie Walker

Dr. Emma Walker
Dr. Emma Walker
Courtesy of Diageo

Emma Walker flourished in her career through her own talent and volition, not her last name. (She’s not related to the Johnnie Walker family.)

Walker was working as a pharmaceutical chemist when she interviewed with Diageo, one of the spirits industry’s largest companies and Johnnie Walker’s parent company. Upon accepting a project scientist role there, Walker spent four years on the whisky team learning about flavor, the distillation process and more while earning a diploma in distilling with London’s Institute of Brewing and Distilling.

After 14 years with Diageo, she took on her current role of master blender with Johnnie Walker in 2022.


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