The recent upsurge in women taking prominent roles in the Scotch whisky industry may seem like a new thing, but without the pioneering work of women like Elizabeth “Bessie” Williamson, the industry may not have become as successful as it is now, especially on a small corner of Islay.
The first woman to manage a Scotch whisky distillery during the 20th century, Elizabeth, or Bessie, as she was more commonly known, helped to build the reputation of one of the world’s most famous single malt whisky brands and in doing so helped to forge a path for the many, many women who would follow in her footsteps in making the industry the success that it is today.
Born in 1910, Elizabeth graduated from Glasgow University before taking up a summer administration position at Laphroaig distillery under then owner Ian Hunter.
Not an Illeach herself, she was none the less taken to the heart of the island community, as though she was one of their own.
Quickly gaining the trust of her boss for her quick wit and management skills, Bessie took on greater responsibility when Hunter suffered a stroke in 1938.
She oversaw the running of the distillery during the war years, when it was used for munitions storage and ensured the thefts and damage that were rife in other distilleries used in a similar fashion, were kept to a minimum.
Thanks to her efforts, she was rewarded with greater control of the distillery in post-war time and when the heirless Hunter died in 1953 he naturally chose her as his successor, gifting her his controlling stake in the company along with a house on the island.
Bessie’s strength came from her foresight when it came to business matters and her ability to mix it with the men, in a time when women having that kind of control was extremely rare.
Maneuvering the distillery into a position where it was more likely to take advantage of sales in the burgeoning US market, Williamson was one of the pioneers of the idea that single malt could be sold on its own merit.
Making an appearance in a documentary on the island in the 60s, Williamson was quoted as saying: “The secret of Islay whiskies is the peaty water and the peat, which we can get on the island. There’s an increasing market for the Islay whiskies. We can’t supply the demand that we have for our whiskies.”
Her keen eye for business and her natural ability to understand the industry made her an appealing figure for the Scotch Whisky Association who arranged for her to tour North America, giving talks on whisky distilling and Scotch from Islay.
It was on one of her tours here that she met her future husband Islay-born Canadian singer and entertainer Wishart Campbell.
Bessie continued to work at the distillery until 1972, though she sold the majority of her stake to American-owned Long John Distillers, she helped steer the modernisation of the distillery and continued to remain at the centre of operations and island life.
She will of course be best remembered as one of the first women to to take such an important role in the industry but that would of course be doing a disservice her skills and the wonderful work she did in guiding the distillery through thick and thin, indeed without her, it is highly unlikely that Laphroaig would be the brand we know and love today.