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From New York to Portland to Scotland, female gin distillers are carving out room for themselves in an industry that has always been a bit of a boys’ club. With genetics on our side (think more in-tune taste buds and 16.2 million cells in the olfactory bulb versus just 9.2 million total for men), it’s no wonder women are creating some of the most complex gins on the market. We introduce a new generation of gin makers and the spirits into which they pour their passion.
Twenty years ago, Lesley Gracie (along with fellow master distiller John Ross) crafted the recipe for Hendrick’s gin as we know it. Today, she’s still one of only four people privy to the recipe that includes 13 different botanicals. Yes, cucumbers and rose essences are part of the mix, but we might be kept in the dark about the other 11 forever.
A Yorkshire-born chemist by trade, Gracie moved to Scotland to join Hendrick’s in 1988 and has since handcrafted her award-winning gin in super small batches in order to fine-tune the distillation process and ensure a high-quality product. Working in a male-dominated field hasn’t presented Gracie with challenges thus far. Her nose is one of the highest-rated in the industry. She sits on the International Spirits Challenge judging panel, alongside other qualified men and women, and she also leads the New Liquid Development team at Hendrick’s.
This past year, Hendrick’s revealed the Hendrick’s Gin Palace, where Gracie plays with signature flavors and created Orbium, a new and delightfully complex gin released in December that has hints of lotus blossom essences and wormwood.
“If you’re passionate about something, then just go for it,” says Gracie. She’s certain that every step in her career, from studying chemistry to an early job in pharmaceuticals, has led her to work with plants and botanicals in a unique way.
One of her favorite cocktails, aptly named the Lesley Gracie, combines Hendrick’s with elderflower cordial and soda water. Plenty of ice and a cucumber garnish make for a tasty, refreshing and delightfully understated beverage.
With a degree in chemical engineering, Marianne Eaves hadn’t really considered making booze for a living when she was selected for a coveted internship at a global spirits company in Kentucky. Now she distills gin (as well as bourbon) with locally sourced ingredients at a century-old historic site. Castle & Key officially opened to the public last year and is home to Restoration Release gin, which clocks in at 106 proof. According to Eaves, everything at Castle & Key is “garden to glass.”
As far as Eaves’ favorite cocktail recipe goes, it seems that less is more. “I love a well-made, creative Old Fashioned. This is a very simple cocktail that can be jazzed up in a million ways. I particularly enjoy a Castle & Key Gin Old Fashioned using honey syrup and savory, nutty bitters.”
A word of advice for women interested in getting into distilling or a similar field: “Don’t be afraid to do the scary thing,” says Eaves. “It’s OK if you don’t know it all; there’s time to learn, and there are people to learn from. Don’t be shy about joining your male colleagues for a drink—this is an opportunity to build relationships, gain confidence in yourself and also build your network of support. Be gracious and brave, and always trust that your passion will lead you.”
In the works at Castle & Key now is a navy-proof barrel-aged gin, as well as a gin-hybrid liqueur.
When three women get together with an idea, the end result is usually pretty incredible. This was absolutely the case with Claire Fletcher, Georgina Kitching and Alicia MacInnes, who were neighbors on Scotland’s Isle of Jura, a place with few work opportunities and a population of just over 200 people. A chance conversation about their shared love of the island and gin in 2015 led to a bit of experimentation with a 10-liter still. The women ended up making 4,000 bottles in the kitchen while renovating an old stable, where they would eventually house a 200-liter copper still.
Though gin production in Scotland is no different than anywhere else, as far as Fletcher is aware, the country does have a long history of distilling. What makes Lussa gin different is that the brand uses 15 botanicals all grown on or foraged from the island, everything from juniper, rose petals and bog myrtle to Scots pine needles, sea lettuce and lemon thyme. The women also distill themselves using local spring water, then bottle and label the gin.
“The alcohol industry is definitely a man's world, but there are more and more women joining the ranks,” says Fletcher. “None of us had any experience distilling, so we made a lot of mistakes in the beginning. But nearly four years later, we've honed our skills and are delighted with our award-winning gin.”
For Laura Johnson, the path to becoming a distiller was interesting, as it seems to be for most women trying to break into the field. After immersing herself in workshops and master classes, she started reaching out to distilleries for an apprenticeship. No one gave her the chance, so she decided to trust in herself, raise the capital, write a business plan and continue learning along the way. Almost three years later, You & Yours, an urban destination distillery in San Diego, was born.
What exactly is “urban destination distilling”? According to Johnson, it’s just a fancy way of saying her distillery is located in downtown and open to the public. There aren’t many distilleries like this in California, or even in the country, and Johnson loves that she can offer quality hospitality along with quality spirits to locals and visitors alike.
“To other women in the industry, I would say, learn as much as you can,” says Johnson. “Find your local guild and show up to their gatherings. Introduce yourself and keep introducing yourself, and do everything you can to make those relationships. If you're able, I'd highly recommend Moonshine University's courses for education.”
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In business for just about a year, Jill Kuehler transitioned from the nonprofit world and began making gin and whiskey after a night of drinks and conversation with one of her rancher friends. Kuehler had always loved spirits and didn’t see many brands telling the story of local farmers. She wanted to change that, so she tracked down Molly Troupe in Bend, Ore., an amazing distiller and “total pro” who earned a master’s in brewing and distilling in Scotland. “There are so few women in ranching and distilling,” says Kuehler. “Their stories deserve to be told.”
She convinced Troupe to move out to Portland to work with her at Freeland, the distillery named after Kuehler’s grandmother, who never touched booze in her life but spent a lot of time in the garden and believed that good things came from scratch. Freeland uses a rotovap for vacuum distillation. “We're the only distillery that we know of doing a combination of vacuum and traditional heat distillation,” says Kuehler.
“It’s an incredible time to be a woman in the alcohol space,” says Kuehler. She shares that even though there are more women in brewing, and the wine community is way ahead of gin, women have more taste buds and 50 percent more olfactory cells than men. The sensory experience hasn’t fully been acknowledged, but highlighting the work of women is one of her goals.
The Freeland team even created a cocktail that honors the spirit of female bartenders and distillers. The Ode to Ada (made for Ada Coleman, who was the head bartender at the Savoy hotel in London for 23 years) includes 2 ounces of Freeland gin, one ounce of sweet vermouth and one-quarter ounce of Fernet-Branca. It’s an easy one to recreate. Just stir in a mixing glass, strain and serve up with a dehydrated blood orange.
Just 32 years old, Leslie Merinoff Kwasnieski is looking to disrupt the spirits world by making small-batch spirits accessible to bars, restaurants, startups and private collectors. All you need is an idea and the cash, of course, and she'll help bring it to life in a town where there are a few wineries and breweries.
Merinoff Kwasnieski is passionate and steers the wheel when it comes to creating innovative and pioneering recipes for Matchbook’s clients. She, along with the rest of the experts on her team, brings the grain-to-glass experience to life.
Matchbook’s bespoke gin program has been the foundation of operations since the company launched. Its focus is on botanical spirits and custom gin projects for its clients, which are taken under consideration on a case-by-case basis.