When Women Were Burned as Witches for Making Whiskey

Drinking in History

The stories and history surrounding what we sip.


[Image: Wikimedia Commons]

At one point in booze history, it turns out that Ladies' Night meant burning witches at the stake rather than not having to pay a cover charge. Between 1500 and 1660, European governments executed between 50,000 and 80,000 alleged witches, most of whom were simply distilling spirits rather than practicing sorcery. Many of these victims were caught with vials of liquor that, if not prescribed by a doctor, constituted enough evidence to prove they were practicing the dark arts.

The charges were often just a setup. Eleanor Cobham, wife of the Duke of Gloucester, was accused of trying to kill Henry VI in 1441 after consulting with two astrologers who told her that Henry would die early. The rumor troubled the King when he heard it and was traced back to Cobham, who confessed to witchcraft after authorities caught her with distilled spirits she'd received from another woman. Cobham was imprisoned and the other woman was burned alive.

In Cobham's case, the real motive for her punishment likely wasn't witchcraft or even booze, but was probably a move to curb the political ambitions of Cobham's husband. In other cases where the possession of spirits led to executions, the liquor in question was often part of common folk medicine practices women simply used to care for loved ones. No matter how you slice it, women were getting a bum deal.

Fred Minnick's new book, Whiskey Women: The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch, and Irish Whiskey, and illustrates an unfortunate bias woven into the history of what is typically considered a male-centric drink. The truth is that many women enjoy whiskey as connoisseurs and have played important roles in the distilleries that produce it, but you wouldn't know that by looking at most advertising campaigns or the way whiskey is portrayed in pop culture.

Instead, whiskey often has a tense relationship with femininity. Five hundred years ago it manifested itself in stake burnings. Today you can see it in the ridiculous ribbing given to Hillary Clinton during the 2008 Democratic Primary after she, a (gasp) woman, decided to drain a shot of Crown Royal to prove her down-home bona fides. People questioned Clinton's leadership abilities based solely on one electioneering stunt, implying that women drinking whiskey are somehow threatening, dangerous, or are only doing it to communicate with men on their own aggressive terms. Nobody questioned why she was drinking a mediocre whiskey like Crown Royal, they questioned why she was drinking whiskey at all.

It's the biggest double standard in the booze world: when Don Draper drinks whiskey, he's the coolest badass on the planet. When Sugar Kane, Marilyn Monroe's character from Some Like it Hot, drinks bourbon, it's because she's an unstable runaway constantly falling for womanizing musicians.

It's not a flattering or particularly accurate picture.

Minnick does away with all that piffle, but not through a tedious discussion of gender politics or a dreary sermon about the way mass media echoes and helps establish stereotypes. Rather, he simply tells stories about women who have held important roles in the many different parts of whiskey history, letting their actions speak for themselves. Much of the contextual framework used in Minnick's book is familiar to students of whiskey history (bootlegging, Prohibition, the histories of Scotch, Irish, and American whiskies), but the female characters Minnick uses to tell these histories are obscure yet fascinating.

The result is a fresh perspective that will adjust how you think of whiskey's cultural history, giving credit to the various women whose stories are largely untold. Minnick's chapter on moonshining (in both Europe and America) offers a cascade of surprises revealing the advantages and disadvantages females had as bootleggers. His exploration of Repeal uses the story of a group of female socialites whose political gifts were crucial to the effort of dismantling the failed policies of Prohibition. Finally, his profiles of women involved in modern whiskey distilleries offer a glimpse of the future of the industry and hopefully foreshadow a shift in how consumers perceive the spirit.

One of the book's strengths is Minnick's tone. When describing the Temperance advocate Carrie Nation, who used an axe to destroy saloons, he avoids the approach most writers take of casually dismissing Nation as a wild-eyed lunatic. Nation was deeply troubled and her actions were appalling, but her story deserves a more even-keeled approach than it usually gets. Nation was fighting the domestic abuse that often accompanied male drinking habits during the nineteenth century, an important subtext often ignored by writers eager to make easy jokes about her zealotry.

In researching these stories, Minnick digs deep, and what he finds is impressive. As someone who spends his own days researching and writing a book on the history of bourbon, I'm constantly surprised to find so many great, untold stories and wonder why they've remained obscure. Reading the stories in Minnick's book, I imagined him getting the same jolt of excitement from the material he found, and am glad this is how he decided to correct parts of the record. In a world of Twitter and blogs where everyone's talking all the time, it's easy to think that everything's being said. More often than not, the opposite is true. In Whiskey Women, Minnick gets the research part right, then puts it in a book that's well worth buying.