Whiskey Women by Fred Minnick
I am whiskey drinker. I usually choose Jameson or Bushmills on the rocks, although I’m also a fan of the Four Roses Bourbon out of Lawrenceburg. Until my trip to Edinburgh last year I thought I loathed Scotch whisky; I couldn’t take the peaty, smoky smell. Upon being introduced to the Speyside single malt Scotch whiskies, however, I found another brown liquor to add to the rotation.
Given my love of whiskies, and knowing my feminist views, my husband found the perfect book to surprise me with earlier this month: Whiskey Women. I found it easy to read and full of the type of trivia I enjoy – facts that might come in handy during a pub quiz. But the book contains more than anecdotes that might help me cover my bar tab on a Tuesday night; it tells stories that I had never heard, and would wager most readers have not heard either. Aside from one discussion about Prohibition, everything in this book was new to me, providing a basic overview of a field that is wrongly assumed to be a men-only club.
Mr. Minnick starts this history with a primer on early distilling – think Egypt and the Middle Ages. But he quickly shifts his focus to the 1600s and beyond, usually breaking the stories down by region of the world. He discusses poitín makers in Ireland who cared for the community, widows in Scotland who kept family distilleries running, and U.S. women who subverted the 18th amendment by selling moonshine. Despite my assumption that this book would comprise mostly Irish and Scottish history, a large piece focuses on Prohibition, covering the role of women in its passage and its repeal, as well as the women who worked to survive when their livelihood was made illegal.
I noticed two themes appearing in every chapter through the repeal of prohibition –unsavory law enforcement tactics and clever women. Taxation and implementation played large roles in many of these stories, with revenue police who used reprehensible means to administer their versions of justice. This meant anything from arresting bootleggers to destroying all of the equipment being used in legal operations. I was not surprised to read this; power leads many people to do unsavory things, often under the protection of the law. But women repeatedly found ways to either subvert the law or work within it to continue making liquor available. Their stories are not just interesting; they are stories that anyone who appreciates quality liquor (or the right to access it) should know.
The book wraps up with a brief look at modern women distillers and whisk(e)y fans, including heads of tasting panels and creators of tasting shows that bring distillers and consumers together to provide an opportunity for these buffs to enjoy new and old favorites. This section is thin, squeezing many stories into a tight space. These stories also lack the romance found in earlier sections of the book, such as the Lady of Laphroaig, who kept her distillery running during the war.
It’s great to learn about the women who influenced a field that brings so many people enjoyment; I only have two critiques of the book. The first is that the book focuses on white women; given the pictures Mr. Mennick includes in the book, apparently only white women are ‘whiskey women.’ I do not believe this can be the case, but even if so I think the book would be better for some discussion about why women of color are not well represented in this field.
My second criticism is that while I do not think women should be compared to men, many of the statistics Mr. Mennick includes would be stronger if they were provided in context. Seven women filling a role means one thing if there are seven men doing it, and another thing if there are 700 men doing it – the former might show women were viewed as equals, while the latter might suggest that those seven women were trailblazers. Either way the context would be more interesting for me than the raw numbers.