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6 Trailblazing Women Who Helped Shape Whiskey History

It’s not easy being a trailblazer in any industry or area of work, and it was no exception for the women in whiskey.

To pay homage to all the women who established the firm foundation upon which the whiskey industry stands today, this month, Women’s History Month, we are celebrating six key women in whiskey history.

Join us as we honor their achievements and learn just what it takes to make one’s mark in an ever-expanding field.

Margie Samuels, Maker’s Mark

women in whiskey

Margie Samuels, 1916-1985

It is impossible to talk about Maker’s Mark without mentioning the amazing Margie Samuels.

She is the force behind some of the most recognizable aspects of the iconic bourbon brand, including its name, bottle design, logo and signature red wax dip. In addition, Samuels was instrumental in the progress of bourbon tourism thanks to her efforts restoring Star Hill Campus and opening up the distillery for consumers.

Margie was a marketing genius ahead of her time who was married to Bill Samuels Sr., founder of Maker’s Mark. While they worked together to create a recipe for an exceptional bourbon whiskey, it was Margie who came up with all of the branding ideas that have made this brand so iconic and recognizable in the industry today.

This includes creating an old-fashioned label for their whiskey bottles, inspired by a 19th-century apothecary bottle she found in their home. She also came up with the idea for the distinctive red wax seal that is now a trademark of Maker’s Mark.

It’s often been said that Margie was the reason most folks bought their first bottle of Maker’s Mark, and Bill was the reason they’d buy their second.

The Legacy Of Margie Samuels

Margie was recognized as an innovator in Bourbon history as well as a pioneer among women in Kentucky industries when she was inducted into the Bourbon Hall of Fame. While she wasn’t the first woman to be inducted into the Hall, she was the first to be inducted for her work with a distillery.

Her legacy lives on through Maker’s Mark; we can thank her for revolutionizing modern whiskey packaging with her creative ideas and designs that are still used today.

Bessie Williamson, Laphroaig

women in whiskey

Bessie Williamson, 1910-1982

More than any other spirit, scotch whisky was not thought of as a woman’s game in the 1930s. So, to say Bessie Williamson was a trailblazer in the whisky industry does not do justice to her impact.

In 1934, she took a summer job as a shorthand typist at Laphroaig distillery on Islay and eventually became office manager. With operations paused during World War II, Williamson succeeded in preventing the theft of stock or damage to equipment that could have hindered the recovery of production after the war. Once production restarted, Williamson pursued blending sales and started guiding the business away from what it had been before.

When the then-owner of Laphroaig distillery, Ian Hunter, passed away in 1954, Williamson inherited his controlling interest in the company. She is credited with being one of the first to anticipate the trend for single malt scotch and put Islay whisky on the map for American buyers and distributors.

From 1961 to 1964, she served as spokesperson for The Scotch Whisky Association and toured the U.S., showing Islay whisky to buyers and distributors.

She continued working at Laphroaig until her retirement in 1972. Williamson passed away at Gartnavel General Hospital in Glasgow on May 26, 1982, at age 79.

Under the leadership of Williamson, Laphroaig Distillery underwent significant expansion and modernization. This was instrumental in turning the iconic scotch whisky company into the globally recognized brand it is today.

Rita Taketsuru, Nikka

Women in whiskey

Rita Taketsuru, 1896–1961

Rita Taketsuru may be famously known as the wife of Masataka Taketsuru, the founder of Nikka Whisky, but she was so much more than just a supportive spouse.

Born in Scotland, the Scottish-Japanese Rita studied chemistry at Glasgow University and was the perfect partner for Masataka, who had a dream of “making real whisky in Japan.”

Rita and Masataka’s families were against them getting married. But despite opposition from both families and difficulties brought on by World War II, Rita stood her ground, provided financial support for her husband’s endeavors and created an invaluable network of contacts that helped him succeed in his endeavor to build a distillery. Her efforts have earned her the nickname “Mother of Japanese Whisky.”

It is said that in her life, she embraced the Japanese culture. She taught English, played the piano, and even after her death in 1961, achieved countrywide fame. In 2014, a TV series, “Massan,” based on the life of Masataka and Rita, aired.

In honor of their loyal companionship throughout the years, a street in Yoichi, Japan, was named “Rita Road.” Rita is an inspiring example of resilience who has been remembered long after her death.

Helen and Elizabeth Cumming, Cardhu

Women in whiskey

The left is a depiction of Helen Cumming with her iconic red flag, which she would raise over the distillery when she caught wind that tax collectors were in town to warn other distilleries. To the right is an image of Elizabeth Cumming, Helen’s daughter-in-law, who took over ownership of the distillery after Helen’s death in 1874.

Helen Cumming was a remarkable character and resourceful woman known for her courage and energy. She ran the Cardhu distillery in Archiestown and was well-known for her creative ways of evading alcohol taxation.

When the tax collectors came around, she would disguise the distillery as a bakery and raise a red flag above the farmhouse to signal to other distillers that they were in town. Despite eventually handing off the distillery to her daughter-in-law, Elizabeth, Helen continued to be an active part of the business into her 90s and lived until age 98.

With Helen’s guidance, Elizabeth expanded the facility by purchasing new equipment with a much larger capacity. Production tripled within 10 years, and Cardhu began selling their malts as a component of Johnnie Walker’s blends.

In 1893, Elizabeth made even more success for Cardhu when she sold the company outright to Johnnie Walker, securing her family’s future.

Ethel Greig ‘Miss Babs’ Robertson, Edrington

Women in whiskey

Ethel Greig Robertson, aka “Miss Babs”, 1903-1985

Ethel Greig Robertson, known affectionately as “Miss Babs,” was a formidable presence in the whisky industry during the 20th century.

Inheriting her father’s whisky business with her sisters, she founded The Edrington Group in 1961 to ensure its independence and ward off takeover attempts by larger companies. Miss Babs was known for her savvy business acumen and ethical standards, which were further reflected in the formation of The Robertson Trust — Scotland’s largest independent charitable trust — with her sisters.

In her personal life, Miss Babs was an adventurer who loved hunting stags and driving Aston Martins. Unfortunately, the latter led to her death from a fatal car accident at the age of 82.

She was truly an indomitable force who helped shape the whisky industry, leading by example with care for both the product and those who create it.

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Madison Kopta is an editor at Whiskey Raiders. As a Northern California native and mom of four, Madison spends much of her time enjoying the great outdoors with her family. From camping to keeping an eagle eye out for Bigfoot, you can find Madison in nature, enjoying a glass of whiskey with her husband.