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Whiskey was never just a man's drink: The untold story

Thursday - 10/24/2013, 8:29am  ET

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In his book, Fred Minnick chronicles women and their importance in the whiskey business. (Courtesy Fred Minnick)

WASHINGTON -- Whiskey and women might sound like the makings of a great song, but it's also part of the world's untold history.

Consider Laphroaig Scottish whisky distillery, which was operated by a woman, Bessie Williamson, for decades. Williamson was not a member of the founding family, but she was so trusted by the surviving members that she took over operations in 1954 when no heirs remained. Under her leadership, Laphroaig sales soared.

This is just one of the stories explored in "Whiskey Women: The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch and Irish Whiskey" by best-selling author Fred Minnick. He read from the book during a signing and tasting event Wednesday evening at Jack Rose Dining Saloon in Northwest D.C.

Minnick starts his book by looking into the history of beer, which was first brewed by ancient Sumerian women thousands of years before the Old Testament was written. He then dives into whiskey distillation, another process invented by women, he says.

"These women have been absolutely paramount to the future of whiskey and they never really received any credit," Minnick says.

In 2006, Stephanie Macleod became the master blender for Dewar's. Glenkinchie's master blender is also a female, and Gillian Macdonald is the distiller at Penderyn, Beverage Media reports. In 2010, Jack Daniel's launched a marketing campaign targeted at female whiskey drinks, and now "Mad Men" actress Christina Hendricks is Johnnie Walker's new spokesperson.

"They have been there all along, but we still think of [whiskey] as a man's drink."

It's nothing new, per se, but Minnick says the stereotype that women don't drink whiskey hasn't quite caught up with reality.

Minnick attributes this to the rise and fall of prostitution in the 19th century. Brothels often sold hard liquor to their clients during visits. In fact, houses of ill repute were making more money off whiskey than some food and beverage estalishments, Minnick says. Temperance proponents targeted brothels and prostitutes during Prohibition, and whiskey was never able to shake the stigma of being associated with rowdy and raunchy behavior, he says.

"After Prohibtion, the distillers were very concerned about having that sexual connection again, so they decided to not market to women," Minnick says.

"They decided to be very cautious about including women in any type of advertisement. That lasted for a very long time, well into the 1980s."

Even today, many women receive raised eyebrows when they order whiskey, however anyone who has recently visited or worked behind a bar knows more females are opting out of "girly" drinks like mixed cocktails and going for the hard stuff.

Minnick's wife is a Maker's Mark enthusiast, but has often been patronized by incredulous bartenders.

"[They] would say, 'Are you sure, honey?'" Minnick says.

The irony that a bartender would question a female ordering Maker's Mark is not lost on Minnick. The famous bourbon received its name and signature red wax label from Marjorie Samuel, wife to founder T. William "Bill" Samuels Sr.

Read more about "Whiskey Women: The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch and Irish Whiskey" here.

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