Women who kept spirit of Scotch whisky alive

PIONEERING women changed the face of the Scotch whisky industry in the 19th and 20th centuries, turning the distilleries they owned into thriving businesses and propelling single malts on to the world stage, according to a new book.

Bessie Williamson, who owned Laphroaig. Picture: Contributed
Bessie Williamson, who owned Laphroaig. Picture: Contributed

In Whiskey Women: The Untold Story Of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch And Irish Whiskey, US writer Fred Minnick says that despite the drink’s macho image, women played a key role in its history. Not only did they invent the first stills, they were involved in bootlegging during the Prohibition era, led the repeal movement and whipped up demand for uisge beatha worldwide.

But it is those Scottish women who not only owned and managed distilleries, but modernised them, increasing their capacity and profile, that Minnick credits with transforming the industry.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

Minnick singles out two women – Elizabeth Cumming who owned the Cardow (Cardhu) distillery in Speyside in the late 19th century and Bessie Williamson who owned Laphroaig in Islay in the 20th century – as particularly influential.

“Scottish women were amazing when it came to running businesses and they often catapulted their respective brands into national and sometimes international importance,” says Minnick, an award-winning wine and spirits writer. “Both women increased their brands’ stature, demand and distillation capacity, but they were also incredible philanthropists and became true pillars of the community.”

When her husband Lewis died in 1872, Cumming had two young sons and was pregnant with her third, but instead of selling the distillery and living comfortably on the profits, she took it on and transformed it. Realising its “straggling and primitive” buildings could not keep pace with the growing demand for the thick, rich whisky, which was ideal for blending, she bought four acres of land and built a new distillery, with an 18ft water wheel, selling the old facility to William Grant.

The new distillery increased capacity from 20,000 to 60,000 gallons a year. Cumming continued to run a thriving business, refusing to bow to pressure to sell to the increasingly powerful blenders, until 1892 when she accepted an offer from “distillers, brokers, blenders and exporters” John Walker & Sons (now Johnnie Walker, the world’s best-selling whisky). As a result of buying Cardhu, Johnnie Walker was able to consolidate its operations and start forging the empire it has today.

More than 40 years later, Bessie Williamson’s decision to take a summer job as a secretary at Laphroaig on Islay was to have an equally profound impact on the industry. The owner Ian Hunter took a shine to the Glasgow University graduate and she stayed on, taking over much of the day-to-day running of the distillery after he suffered a stroke in 1938, and its ownership after his death in 1954.

Minnick says Williamson’s managerial skills ensured the distillery remained in good working order after it was requisitioned during the Second World War. Where other distilleries were effectively destroyed during other conflicts, Williamson successfully campaigned for the warehouse keeper to be granted an exemption from service so he could look after the 8,000 casks of malt, and fended off an attempt to secure the dried grains loft for military use.

After Hunter’s death, Williamson began to take the business in a new direction. She had already ensured Laphroaig was one of the most sought-after whiskies for blending. But early in the 1950s, she noticed newspapers were giving increasing coverage to the merits of Scotch whisky’s peaty notes. Instead of wasting this distinctive character in blends, Williamson wanted to market Laphroaig single malt. As soon as she became owner, she started laying the groundwork for today’s world-famous Islay brands, such as Bowmore, Lagavulin, and Ardbeg.

Her efforts were noticed by the Scotch Whisky Association and in 1961 she was appointed its US spokesperson, travelling from bar to bar and liquor store to liquor store, promoting all Scotch whisky, but particularly single malts.

“One could not give credit solely to Bessie Williamson, but the single malt success was most certainly her vision when she took over Laphroaig,” writes Minnick. “And it is most certainly not a coincidence that single malt Scotch whisky became premium liquor during her time as an industry spokesperson.”

So influential was Williamson she became known as The First Lady of Laphroaig and was awarded the title of Woman of the Year in the 1950s.

“Laphroaig was one of the pioneering single malts. The footprint for it was starting to be put down in the 1920s, but it was still very pioneering to be marketing single malts in the 1960s,” says Vicky Stevens, manager of the Laphroaig visitor centre where Williamson’s role is celebrated.

Today, Minnick says, women are once again coming to the fore. “When you look across the industry today you will see a lot of blenders in big companies are women and there are more distillery managers: Georgie Crawford at Lagavulin, for example. It’s much more common than when Bessie was alive.”

Minnick points to Stella David, the CEO of William Grant, which owns Glenfiddich, and Deirdre Mahlan, the CFO of Diageo. “Women also blend Dewar’s, Glenmorangie, Johnnie Walker, Morrison Bowmore and many others,” he says. “They are not only influential; they are running whisky.”