10 Female Pioneers in the Spirits Industry

From the first female whisky blender ever to the first black woman to distill gin in South Africa, these ladies are making waves in the spirits industry.
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As long as spirits have been around, they've been associated with men. Men are the heads of companies, the big guys doing the labor-heavy work of distilling, and the people at the bar drinking whisky.

But women have long been involved in the industry in various ways—they just haven't been celebrated. That's changed in the last decade. Women around the world are running distilleries and producing some of the finest spirits in the world. 

Of the countless amazing female distillers and owners, here are 10 who accomplished a major "first" in the spirits industry. 

Joy Spence of Appleton Estate

Joy Spence

Joy Spence is the first woman in the spirits industry to hold the title of master blender, a title she earned at Jamaican rum company Appleton Estate in 1997. A science lover since childhood, Spence earned a Bachelor of Science at the University of the West Indies, which helped her become Appleton Estate's chief chemist in 1981. Sixteen years later, she rose to the role of master blender, and she's been the central force behind the company's spirit production ever since. In 2005, the Government of Jamaica awarded Spence the Order of Distinction in the Rank of Officer for her extensive service to the industry. In 2018, she was awarded the National Medal for Science and Technology, making her the first woman in Jamaica to receive that award.

Rachel headshot vertical

Rachel Barrie

As master Scotch blender for Brown-Forman's three distilleries in Scotland, Rachel Barrie is credited with being one of the only female Scotch whisky blenders in the spirits industry—and some say the first ever. After studying chemistry at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, Barrie became a research scientist at the Scotch Whisky Research Institute. She worked at various distilleries before moving to Brown-Forman's BenRiach, Glenglassaugh, and GlenDronach distilleries. In 2018, she was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Edinburgh for her 26 years of service to the whisky industry, making her the first female master blender to receive that distinction.

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Chanel Turner

In 2009 at age 25, Chanel Turner was believed to have become the first African-American woman to head a vodka company when she founded Fou-Dré. While working full time as a web developer at the Pentagon, Turner noticed how underwhelming most vodka tasted on its own. Drinkers almost always mixed it with other beverages to mask its flavor. So Turner set out to craft a vodka that was good enough to be enjoyed on its own. She tested 80 formulas before settling on one. Her vodka is now sold in states around the country and internationally in Singapore.

Maria Teresa Lara of Herradura

María Teresa Lara

María Teresa Lara started her career at Mexico's Tequila Herradura in 1987 as quality control supervisor. By the end of her 30-year career there, she became the first female master distiller in the tequila industry. After five years as quality control supervisor, Lara was promoted to quality assurance manager and, later, manager of research and development. In 2001, Lara became the first known woman to lead production at a tequila distillery. She made history again when she was promoted to master distiller in 2009. Lara is now retired, but her expertise remains thanks to her apprentice, Karinna Enriquez, serving as the distillery's current master taster

Heather Nelson of Toulvaddie

Heather Nelson

The last time a woman opened a whisky distillery in Scotland was almost 200 years ago, when Helen Cumming opened Cardhu Distillery with her husband, John, in the early 1800s. Heather Nelson became the first woman to found one since then when she announced she was opening Toulvaddie whisky distillery in Scotland. She established Toulvaddie Distillery Ltd. in 2015, and production and development are still in the works. Nelson's opening of the distillery makes her the first woman to ever head a Scotch whisky distillery alone. 

Melanie Asher

Melanie Asher

Before Melanie Asher founded Macchu Pisco in 2006, the Peruvian-made white brandy was little-known in North America. Using her Peruvian heritage and business background, Melanie and her sister, Lizzie, launched Macchu Pisco, making Melanie the first woman to found a Pisco export business. Her efforts to make Pisco well-known on a global scale earned her Tales of Cocktails Foundation's Pioneer of the Year award in 2015. 

Photo of Naledi Goottsch

Naledi Goottsch

At just 22 years old, Naledi Goottsch became the first black woman to distill gin in South Africa when she founded Ledi Craft Gin. Goottsch became interested in gin through her partner, James, who worked in marketing at a gin distillery. She fell in love with the process and decided to invest all her money into starting her own distillery. In addition to being South Africa's first black female gin distiller, Goottsch is the first distiller to create handcrafted pineapple-infused gin. 

Heather Manley

Heather Manley

Heather Manley is the sole owner of Minnesota-based micro-distillery Crooked Water Spirits, which was the first spirits company to be certified as woman-owned by the Women's Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC). Manley started the company after noting the significant quality difference between micro- and macro-distilled spirits. She used her experience starting and running multiple companies to found Crooked Water Spirits in 2013, and she sought out certification from the WBENC soon after. Manley is among the small group of certified female whisky sommeliers. 

Photo of Marianne Barnes, the first female master distiller in Kentucky since Prohibition.

Marianne Eaves 

Marianne Eaves made waves in 2015 when she became Kentucky's first female master distiller since prohibition. Eaves began her career in the spirits industry at Brown-Forman, where she interned as part of her chemical engineering program at the University of Louisville. The internship sparked her interest in spirits, and she took a job with the company after graduation. In her six years at Brown-Forman, Eaves rose the ranks to become master taster of Kentucky bourbon and whiskey. She'd gained such recognition in the industry that a team tasked with opening a distillery on the site of Kentucky's historic Old Taylor Distillery sought her out to be their master distiller. She accepted, becoming the master distiller at Castle & Key and making state history at 28 years young.

Photo of Becky Harris, chief distiller at Catoctin Creek Distilling Co., the first legal distiller in Louden County, Virginia, since Prohibition.

Becky Harris

When Becky and Scott Harris founded Catoctin Creek Distillery in 2009, they became the owners of Loudon County, Virginia's first legal distillery since prohibition, making Becky the county's first female chief distiller in almost a century. Prior to opening the distillery, Becky worked as a chemical engineer at companies, including Amoco and YDK America. Opening the distillery was her husband's idea, and though Becky wasn't a big whisky drinker before opening the distillery, she applied her science background to the distilling and production processes to create high-quality spirits that have earned great acclaim.