Women have a long and significant history in the production and distribution of alcohol. Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets as far back as 4000 BC suggest that women invented beer by fermenting barley. In third century Egypt, an Alexandrian chemist, Maria Hebraea, invented an alembic still (two vessels connected by a tube) that is used as the model for Appalachian moonshine stills to this day.[1] In 1818 America, Catherine Spears Frye Carpenter was credited with the first recipe for sour mash. Throughout time and place, from Peru to the Netherlands, from Scotland to the United States, women have played a crucial role in producing alcohol.[2]


Still, 1890s, metal. The Farmers’ Museum, Cooperstown, New York, F152.86A

This object is a still – specifically, a pot still, a design descended from Maria Hebraea’s alembic model. Pot stills in particular tend to be used to distill rich, flavorful alcohols such Scotch whiskey, rum, and cognac. In the 1890s, when this object was in use, there were a number of entrepreneurial women across the country who distilled and sold alcohol. However, during this time period, whiskey was most heavily associated with sex workers, since they sold it legally and collected generous commissions for their brothels.[3] In fact, in the 1850s, sex workers made more than two million dollars a year off of liquor, two thirds of what they made from prostitution.

This association of alcohol with sex work stoked the flames of one of the most significant movements of the Progressive Era: the temperance movement. Temperance was a cause célèbre for many late nineteenth and early twentieth century reformers because they saw it in large part as a fight against the domestic violence perpetrated on women and girls by drunk husbands and fathers. The temperance movement was focused on morality and avoiding temptation, so brothels and the alcohol they sold represented exactly the type of sinful values they fought against.

Eventually, temperance reformers were successful: Prohibition laws were


Gertrude “Cleo” Lythgoe

enacted in 1920 and stayed in place until 1933. In response, a huge network of bootleggers emerged all over the country, in which women played a significant role. One woman in particular, Gertrude “Cleo” Lythgoe, was a legendary rum runner. She evaded prosecution by running a wholesale liquor business out of the Bahamas, and thrived in a male-dominated industry on guts, nerve, and wit.[4] Throughout the Progressive Era, women fought for both sides of the war over alcohol in America.

Today, the distilling industry is still male dominated, but women are beginning to own and run more and more distilleries themselves. Samantha Katz, who founded the organization Ladies of American Distilleries, says, “It’s important for women to see that opportunities don’t just exist in marketing and branding; women can own, run, and operate distilleries.”[5] Women like Samantha Katz continue the storied legacy of women in alcohol production that began all the way in Mesopotamia six thousand years ago.

Miranda Pettengill, class of ‘16

[1] Fred Minnick, Whiskey Women: The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch, and Irish Whiskey (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013), 1-10.

[2] Lyndsey Gilpin, “Women Making Whiskey: An 800-Year History,” The Atlantic, May 14, 2015, accessed December 2, 2015, http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/05/women-making-whiskey-an-800-year-history/393260/.

[3] Gilpin, “Women Making Whiskey.”

[4] Ibid.

[5] Tyler Wetherall, “Female Distillers Prove Women Know Their Alcohol – And Always Have,” The Guardian, April 20, 2015, accessed December 2, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/apr/20/women-distillery-industry-alcohol.