Women at Work Diversity in the distilling industry

What it’s like for women who make liquor for a living

Female-owned distilleries are a small part of the spirits sector. But the numbers don’t tell the larger story of trials encountered and conquered.

Did You Know? Tap to expand
The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States reported record spirits sales in 2017, with a 4% increase for a total of $26.2 billion. Source: Foodie Travel USA

When Chemist Spirits owner Debbie Word decided to open a distillery in downtown Asheville, N.C., she visited lending institutions in the area. Each one turned her down.

“They were always men I was speaking to,” Word said. “The reaction was universal. I walked away every time feeling like they had zero confidence in me and in the business model.”

Word launched Chemist Spirits in 2018 without borrowing from the banks. “I thrive on a challenge. The fact that they didn’t have any confidence (in me) fueled my passion to make this work and make them realize that this was a great idea and business plan,” she said. “In the end, it spurred me on. They made it hard but made me more determined.”

Debbie Word, owner of Chemist Spirits in Asheville, N.C., is shown in this November 2019 photo taken at her distillery. She says that when she launched her company in 2018, she was the only woman at the table. The men directed questions to Word’s male employee. “It was a struggle to even get anyone to look me in the eye,” she said. (Photo by Jill Schwarzkopf / Realities Photography and Chemist Spirits)

Word also faced challenges at meetings with local business owners. In the early stages, when she met with male brewery owners to collaborate, she was the only woman at the table. 

The men directed questions to Word’s male employee. “It was a struggle to even get anyone to look me in the eye,” she said. “They basically acted like I wasn’t in the room.”

Word understood what was happening and conspired with her male employee: He redirected all questions to Word at future meetings. “I started speaking up more in those situations,” she said. “Since then, things have changed dramatically. 

“I’ve met a lot of the brewers and the makers in the community; I’ve gained more confidence,”  Word said. “I’ve come a long way, and they’ve come a long way. I garner the respect I was looking for.”

The practice of making spirits goes back to Rome in 28 B.C., according to “Distilling History” on the website for Montgomery Distillery. The summary is based on C. Anne Wilson’s “Water of Life: A History of Wine Distilling and Spirits 500 B.C. – A.D. 2000” (Prospect Books, 2006). The online synopsis references a book, published in 1477, with a picture of a woman operating a still over hot coals, which is evidence that women entered the distilling business long ago.

According to a report by Michael Kinstlick, co-founder of Coppersea Distilling, “The number of identifiable craft distilleries in production has gone from 24 in 2000, to 52 in 2005, to 234 at year-end 2011.” The American Distilling Institute’s Map of Distilleries indicates that 150 distilleries are now owned solely by women. 

Chaunci King, owner of Royalty Spirits in Portland, Ore., developed a recipe for Miru Pear Vodka after hearing King opened her business in 2014, but struggled to secure a business loan and had to turn to her savings. “It took some time to really earn the respect of the industry,” she said. (Photo courtesy of Chaunci King.)

Chaunci King, owner of Royalty Spirits in Portland, Ore., always turned to bartending when she needed extra money. When she heard women complaining about the high calories in syrups, she developed a recipe for Miru Pear Vodka. 

King opened her business in 2014. Her products are available in hotels, restaurants, grocery stores, liquor stores and online. In 2021, Total Wine will carry Royalty Spirits in five states.

But King’s success didn’t come without struggle. Applying for funding through banks was a barrier. She was turned down and had to use her savings. “I totally bootstrapped my first couple of years,” she said. “It took some time to really earn the respect of the industry. 

“It is a male-dominated industry, and most men don’t feel like we are well-versed or knowledgeable.”

Liquor-store owners’ reaction to King’s skin color is another problem she fights. King said liquor-store owners turn her down for in-store taste tests for customers, but she’s found a workaround. “I said to myself, ‘Let me get someone who doesn’t look like me and who looks like the owners,’” she said. “I would send a white woman, and they wouldn’t have a problem. The liquor store would let them schedule a tasting.”

Karen Locke, owner of High-Proof Creative, a marketing and branding agency for businesses in the distillery industry, thinks the reported statistics fail to reflect the number of women who work at the distilleries on the executive teams, in marketing, production and sales. “Women are definitely the minority,” she says, “but there are a lot of women doing excellent things in the industry, and maybe they’re not getting the exposure that they need.” (Photo by So-Min Kang Photography)

Karen Locke, owner of High-Proof Creative, a marketing and branding agency for businesses in the distillery industry, thinks the reported statistics fail to reflect the number of women who work at the distilleries on the executive teams, in marketing, production and sales. The 7.3%, or 150 female-owned distilleries, reveals a small portion of the role women play in the industry. 

“It is frustrating to me because I think if we don’t have that data in our own industry, then certainly the average consumer would be led to believe that there are very few women in the industry,” Locke said. “Women are definitely the minority, but there are a lot of women doing excellent things in the industry, and maybe they’re not getting the exposure that they need.”

Locke’s company is using Small-Batch Maps, a software that the company developed in-house to map women-affiliated distilleries in the United States. She hopes it will help consumers and add to the data available about how many women are in distilling.

“I do think the distilling industry has some work to do,” Locke said. “Luckily, there are people putting in the work and trying to uncover women’s roles and how many women are in the industry.”

Share your thoughts

Vanessa Infanzon

Women at Work

Stepping up to the mic

Stories left today Choose a subscription level (one is free) or login
Episode Diversity in the distilling industry