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By Fred Minnick. Potomac Books, $26.95.
While browsing through Binny’s, perhaps you've found yourself in the whiskey section, admiring the rows and rows of deliciously brown bottles lining the shelves. There are many varieties. But did you know most of them exist thanks to the efforts of women?
We don’t mean to play the feminist card and separate the fairer sex’s efforts in the industry. But that’s essentially what Louisville-based author Fred Minnick does in Whiskey Women: The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch and Irish Whiskey, and for good reason: It’s unlikely that the average reader (or drinker) is aware of the incredibly significant roles that women have played in the spirits industry. Starting with Mesopotamian beer making, circa 4000 B.C., Minnick spends more than 200 pages putting women in their place—right in the thick of it all, where they've always been. The only trouble is, most of his heroines are simply mentioned in passing. Thus, we get quick shots of their history, rather than a healthy pour of their undoubtedly fascinating stories.
The book follows a chronological trajectory, introducing us to notables such as an Alexandrian Egyptian chemist called Maria the Jewess, an early innovator of distilling; and rugged Irish women of the 1600s and beyond, who home distilled for celebratory and medicinal purposes—and then some. It eventually works its way over to the not-yet-united States, where women used whiskey for everything from surviving the awful boat ride over (they doled it out via seashells as “medicine” for their babies) to bathing the bugs away (thanks to its bacteria-killing potency). Learning just how commonplace whiskey was for everything beyond good times at the bar makes Prohibition all the more unimaginable. But women played major roles on both sides of that movement, too: the advocates hoping to reverse the curse of the drinking class, and the opponents hoping to strip the feds of their punishing power, bringing liquor laws back down to a local level.
Given all of the various roles women played over the course of whiskey’s history, what’s most surprising about this collection is that we haven’t heard of more of these pioneers. Jim Beam, we know. But without Mary Myers Beam, and her 100 acres of prime distilling land in Kentucky, the world’s best-selling bourbon wouldn’t exist. We know Bushmills as a solid Irish whiskey maker. But it’s a little-known fact that the brand has more or less retained its early 1800s integrity thanks to its founder’s business-minded widow, Ellen Jane Corrigan. Our personal favorite is Carrie Nation, the hell-on-wheels member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union who created her own version of Prohibition by cracking saloon windows and bars with a hatchet. Now that’s a badass whiskey woman—er, anti-whiskey woman.
We’d love to hear more about colorful characters like Carrie Nation, but that's the book's flaw: By casting an enormously wide net over whiskey history and only tossing out the men, we’re left to drag through quite a few pages of regurgitated history of ladies whose names we’re unlikely to remember after closing the book. Fortunately, the ones who stand out make it a worthwhile read for anyone curious about whiskey history, period.