In his new book, Fred Minnick reveals the truth behind the testosterone-driven world of whiskey.
Think of a 1920s bootlegger. Does he wear a fedora? Does he wear spats? Does he have a shifty grin?
Better yet: Why is he a he at all?
That’s the question raised by author Fred Minnick, who tells of women’s roles in driving the creation, distribution, perfection and smuggling of some of the world’s oldest liquors in Whiskey Women: The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch, and Irish Whiskey (Potomac Books, $27).
Indeed, women were involved in the imbibing business as far back as 4000 B.C., when female Mesopotamians cultivated barley for beer. In the Middle Ages, Dutch women were considered better brewers than men, an opinion that held true in Ireland and Scotland. There, major distilling operations were run by women at times when women weren’t seen as power figures, right up through World War II. In America, maternal household duties included making whiskey that was used for everything from cold remedies to anesthesia.
Minnick handles this background succinctly and sufficiently, but his writing is at its best when he jumps into Prohibition. Here, he must detail warring sides — women who were leading the charge toward Prohibition and others who facilitated bootlegging — and he does so without passing judgment on either. The divide was wide, with wives and mothers arguing that bars and alcohol were tearing their families apart and other women smuggling moonshine, according to Minnick, in “baby carriages, beneath skirts and in their blouses.”
Following a dark post-Prohibition period for women and spirits, Minnick points to proof that women are once again playing a major role in the liquor world, with whiskey producers such as Morrison Bowmore Distillers and Bushmills employing females as their master blenders. And it seems that more and more, those enjoying classic spirits are women as well. Consider Whiskies of the World, a tasting event started in 1999 by whiskey critic Riannon Walsh. The first year, only 3 percent of participants were female. By 2009, women made up half the crowd.
In the end, this enjoyable book leaves readers feeling a way they’re likely not accustomed to after such a wild, whiskey-soaked ride: enlightened.