New Book Shed's Light On Women's Role in Whiskey History


The best story is the one that’s never been told, and a new book on whiskey history tells just that kind of story. Whiskey Women: The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch & Irish Whiskey (Potomac Books), by Fred Minnick, goes back to the beginnings of distilling and reveals that not only did women have a large role in the emergence of distillation, they actually invented it.

“I had never heard that,” Minnick said. “I couldn’t believe it. I thought the Arabs invented it, but it was Mesopotamian women.”

He also learned through his extensive research –which took him as far away as Ireland – that a number of women in Scotland were actually killed for making something called aquavita, which was basically whiskey.

“They used it as medicine, but that was considered witchcraft,” he said. “If they were selling it for intoxication, they were just fine.”

The story takes the reader through hundreds of years of distilling and introduces countless characters and stories about which little was previously shared.

One example is the story of Maggie Bailey of Harlan County, Ky. She was a well known bootlegger who the book describes as “the Robin Hood of American female bootleggers” because of how she cared for people, donating money and food to the needy. But while she earned a living selling whiskey legally, she also sold illegal moonshine – she only managed to avoid arrest because she was so beloved.

Fred Minnick, courtesy Kentucky Derby Museum
Fred Minnick, courtesy Kentucky Derby Museum

“When she and her husband stole a cop car in Tennessee on their honeymoon,” Minnick wrote, “half of Harlan County showed up to bail her out. And when the law did come sniffing around, somebody always offered to take the fall for her.”

Whiskey Women is packed with these kinds of stories, from riverboat madams to Temperance-era and post-Prohibition activists, along with surprising facts. For instance, the red wax on the Maker’s Mark bottle was a branding idea by Marjorie "Margie" Samuels, wife of T. William Samuels, who purchased Maker’s Mark in 1954. Mrs. Samuels not only conceived of the wax-dipping tradition, but she also gave Maker’s Mark its name and designed the label.

Justin Thompson, co-founder of The Bourbon Review, calls the book “a thorough look at [whiskey] history, especially women’s part in it. It’s kind of cool for Fred to identify that and bring attention to it.”

Bourbon historian and author Mike Veach calls Whiskey Women “a fantastic addition to the knowledge of whiskey as a whole and bourbon as well. I can’t wait for his next book.”

New York Times best-selling author A.J. Jacobs said of the book, "Fred Minnick gives us an entertaining look at booze's little-known history.  ... This book goes down smooth.”

Minnick signing books at the Flatiron Room, NYC.
Minnick signing books at the Flatiron Room, NYC.

Minnick is currently doing book signings to promote the book. (Editor's note: He recently did a signing in New York City at the Flatiron Room, organized by whiskey sommelier and NY International Spirits Competition judge, Heather Greene.) Here is his November book tour schedule:

November 5,Wesport Whiskey & Wine, Louisville—Time TBA

November 7,Costco, Nashville, Tenn. – 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

November 8,Costco, Brentwood, Tenn. – 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

November 10,Thirst Boston, Boston—11:45 a.m. to 1:15 p.m.

November 14,Costco, Louisville — 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

November 16,Kentucky Book Fair, Frankfurt, Ky.—All day.

November 20,Women Leading Kentucky Meeting, Lexington.