“I‘d been drinking whiskey all of my adult life … and maybe a little bit before that.”
Ann Marshall is a born-and-raised South Carolinian. She has the sandpaper voice, razor-sharp wit, and dark hair of a modern Scarlett O’Hara. Marshall is also the only distillery owner in Charleston’s booming craft liquor industry who is a woman.
Women are drinking liquor. Women are running companies. But women are not running liquor companies. At least not in Charleston … not yet. Killing time in the Charlotte airport recently, I ended up reading the book Whiskey Women: The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch, and Irish Whiskey by Fred Minnick. Minnick tells tales of how women not only saved but sustained and even pioneered distilling, from Mesopotamia through Prohibition. With the simultaneous rise in female entrepreneurs and craft distilleries in Charleston, I thought there would surely be women in the industry to discuss this with back home?
“I’m the only female at my company right now,” says Marshall, who co-owns High Wire with her husband Scott Blackwell. “I’m very used to someone asking a technical distilling question and they look straight to Scott. And he’ll look to me.”
Charleston has seen a snowballing of craft distilleries since 2008, when Newitt at Wadmalaw’s Firefly Vodka lobbied Congress to change the liquor-squelching laws. After the tasting room ban and $50,000 state fees were eliminated, distillery applications boomed, largely taken up by men. There are women blazing trails in the distillery world; Charleston’s BevCon creator Angel Postell and FAB founder Randi Weinstein are beacons to ladies in the booze biz. But females are still unicorns in the liquorsphere.
“Most women are in marketing and PR,” says Firefly’s Scott Newitt, who started working with Tito’s in 2000, “back when you couldn’t give it away.” It’s not that he agrees with the dearth of female distillers and owners: “It is a very male-dominated field, I think because it’s such an old-school, moonshine atmosphere.”
If distilling was truly old-school, though, women would be running everything. In ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia women made all the booze. A woman is credited with inventing the alembic still, a.k.a. the holy grail for distilling. Back in the 1800s, men seeking wives advertised for ladies with distilling skills in newspaper classifieds. But when the industrial revolution turned distilling into a machine-driven, capitalist industry, men took over. Women were barred from working in distilleries because it was indecent to climb the ladders in dresses and slacks weren’t yet an option; or because a woman menstruating in the fermenting room might throw off the scent. Still, female bootleggers out-smuggled men five to one during Prohibition. In 1957, Marjorie Samuels created the iconic design for a Maker’s Mark bottle using red wax and her deep fryer. In 1999, Ms. Lesley Gracie developed the recipe for Hendrick’s Gin and Charlotte Voisey built the company’s branding. In 2016, Joy Perrine became the first woman inducted into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame. And just this year, a woman established the first Scotch malt whisky distillery in over 200 years. All this is to say, ladies have just as much claim to hard liquor as any gentleman, if not more.
“It’s something that’s on my mind often,” Johnny Pieper of North Charleston’s Striped Pig Distillery says of women in the industry. “Out of all the microdistilleries I’ve been to or visited basically none have women owners. I don’t know why that is, because taking out a business loan has nothing to do with your genitalia.”
Science has history’s back here, too. Females in general have more taste buds, 50 percent larger olfactory centers in their brains, and, statistically, tend to detect more flavors than men. Even though women do have less of the alcohol-metabolizing enzyme dehydrogenase than men, they are starting to imbibe more and more in recent years. The alcohol gap is closing, largely because women are working more outside the home, having children later, and making more money than before — liquor ain’t cheap, after all. Less sexist regulation helps too; it wasn’t until 1987 that the U.S. Distilled Spirits Council lifted a ban on advertising directly to women. Now millennial females are twice as likely to drink alcohol as their grandmother’s generation according to Columbia University research. So when are women going to start producing the liquor they’re now imbibing en mass?
“What I find offensive is when a new brand launches for women that is obviously not created by a woman,” says Colleen Finger, a former flight attendant who switched careers after 9/11 to become Blue Chair Bay Rum’s South Carolina manager. “Like Whiskey Girl [in Greenville],” she says. “It’s all feminine flavors and there’s a pair of lips on the label, like in order for a woman to drink it they think it has to be caramel with lipstick on it.”
Like most women, Finger and Marshall would rather run the business or make liquor than be seen as just a target demographic. “There is nothing I hate more than a whiskey label that’s geared toward women,” says Marshall.
“I think it is time for a female distiller,” says Firefly’s Newitt, who’d like one at Firefly. “A woman could probably do it better than a male.” In Charleston especially, female entrepreneurs are pushing upward — so why not in distilleries? Here in the Holy City, female entrepreneurship organizations are proliferating. From the College of Charleston’s Women Entrepreneur’s Summit to the membership-only Women Entrepreneurs of Charleston (WEofC), the South Carolina Women’s Business Center (SCWBC) and the Center for Women, which recently doled out awards like the Queen of Hearts and Wrecking Ball to Charleston women — there are too many to list. Just this month, the local fempreneurial powerhouse behind Launchpeer, Belinda Hare, opened a succulent-laden coworking space called Eves Collective “to meet the unique needs of fellow women business owners in Charleston.”
If any city’s boss babe population is on-point, it’s Charleston’s. “Charleston is such a bright star in the country right now as far as culinary influence,” says Marshall at High Wire, “and there’s certainly no shortage of female entrepreneurs.”
“All of our most interested interns have been women, and one of our best distillers was a woman,” says Pieper at Striped Pig. “They’re more focused and just as willing to get dirty … I don’t give a shit what you’ve got between your legs, if you’re willing to take a chance like I did, I’ll help you out.”
It’s not just Whiskey Women; female distillers and owners are a hot topic in the booze industry today. Though Charleston’s lone brew master, Taneal Escartin, left Palmetto last February, women are slowly taking leadership roles at distilleries, led by firsts like Marianne Barnes at Castle & Key, who became Kentucky’s first female master distiller, and Heather Nelson, the first woman to open a Scotch whisky distillery — both last year. Charleston is poised to be next. As Scarlett O’Hara said, tomorrow is another day.
“Some women are fortunate to discover their strength by just having to do it, in that Scarlett O’Hara sense,” says Marshall. “There’s definitely a thing with strong Southern women. Sometimes you just have to do stuff you never thought you could do and discover.”
Correction: In the article “Charleston only has one female distillery owner. The could change soon.” published in this week’s paper on Oct. 25, we mistakenly attributed quotes to Striped Pig Distillery owner Todd Weiss. Those quotes actually came from Striped Pig co-owner Johnny Pieper.