Even though the topic of Wednesday night’s Bourbon Salon was “Women in Distilling,” and the panel featured three extraordinary examples of women in lead roles at distilleries, the subject of gender only came up once — and even then, it disappeared faster than the bourbon in everyone’s glass.
Led by the bourbon author and expert Michael Veach, Bourbon Salons are held every other month at Oxmoor Farm and serve as a fundraiser for the historic site. Veach selects the topic each session and serves as the moderator.
So it was no surprise on Wednesday, with the topic in mind, that he led with question: “What’s the hardest thing about being a woman in the distilling industry?”
His panelists included Marianne Eaves (formerly Barnes) of Castle & Key Distillery, Joyce Nethery of Jeptha Creed Distillery, and Lisa Wicker of Samson & Surrey (makers of Widow Jane bourbon and others).
Nethery took the first swing.
“I don’t really think of myself as being a woman in the bourbon industry,” she said. “Before I was in distilling, I was in chemical engineering, and there I was also one of the few, few women in the plant. At the time, I never thought of myself as the woman in the room — I thought of myself as the engineer in the room. So I’ve carried that philosophy into the bourbon industry. I just don’t really think about being a woman.”
And Eaves stepped up to the plate next.
“I would echo that completely,” she said. “I got my start in chemical engineering school, which was very male-dominated. Like Joyce, I never really thought of myself as the only woman in the room, although I’ve been in that circumstance many times.”
After Wicker shared her experience starting out in the male-dominated wine industry and also agreed that gender hasn’t been much of factor for her, Veach summed up the sentiments best when he said: “It shouldn’t matter whether you’re a man or a woman. As long as you make a damn good whiskey, who cares?”
The rest of the 90-minute conversation touched on many topics important to the distillers — from using locally produced heirloom grains to innovation to what drives them in the bourbon business. And the session — like all Bourbon Salons — included samples of bourbon each panelist brought for the more than two-dozen guests and a sample of a vintage bottle from Oxmoor’s estate.
Eaves brought Russell’s Reserve, Nethery brought Woodford Reserve, Wicker brought her Widow Jane bourbon, and the vintage bottle was an Old Taylor from the late 1960s, fitting since Eaves’ new distillery is at the site of the former E.H. Taylor Distillery (although that brand currently is put out by Buffalo Trace).
Eaves chose a Wild Turkey product because of a conversation she had a few years ago with Master Distiller Eddie Russell. It was during the Bourbon Classic, and she had just left Brown-Forman as master taster to head up the new Castle & Key Distillery.
Russell told Eaves his father (Jimmy Russell) was at first very surprised she left Brown-Forman to do her own thing. And then he realized she was just doing what every master distiller wants to do — build a brand, start a distillery, shape their own legacy from the ground up.
“That really touched me,” said Eaves.
Nethery chose to share Woodford Reserve with the attendees because it was her family’s “gateway bourbon,” she joked.
When Nethery and her husband decided to build a distillery in Shelbyville, they wanted to make sure at least one of their two children was on board as well. So they took their oldest, Autumn, to the Woodford Reserve Distillery in Versailles for a tour and tasting.
“The people were so nice and so accommodating, and they talked directly to her,” said Nethery. “Woodford convinced Autumn this was the industry she needed to be in, so I give a toast to them.”
Autumn Nethery works as the marketing manager of Jeptha Creed, right alongside her mother.
Finally, Wicker brought a bottle of Widow Jane 10 Year Straight Bourbon, which is one of the products she’ll be distilling for Samson & Surrey. Wicker is based in Bardstown but travels often to the Brooklyn distillery where the product is made.
Her background includes distilling at Huber’s, Limestone Branch and Mount Vernon, among others.
Both Eaves and Nethery started distilling around the same time, so both have bourbons and whiskeys currently aging. In the meantime, their distilleries are producing gins, vodkas and moonshines to let the aging process work its magic on their brown spirits.
Nethery said she’ll have a straight Kentucky bourbon release (two years old) next year, while Eaves is waiting until the four-year mark to honor Col. Taylor’s legacy for Bottled-in-Bond products. Meanwhile, Wicker is traveling all over the country to distill several brands in various styles.
As the conversation came to tasting and enjoying their young distillate and watching how it ages over the years — an important and exciting part of a distiller’s job — Veach gave some sound advice to the panel.
“Julian Van Winkle once told me that he believes whiskey aging is not a straight line, it’s a wave. It’ll go up, come back down, and go up again,” he said. “With your new products, you should expect some downward waves.”
The three women laughed, and Nethery even covered her ears.
“Absolutely,” added Eaves. “It’s just like raising a kid — sometimes they get weird before they get better.”
The next Bourbon Salon will be held on Wednesday, Oct. 3, at Oxmoor Farm, 720 Oxmoor Ave. The sessions run from 6:30-8:30 p.m., and admission is $75. The topic is bourbon cocktails, and panelists include the author Susan Reigler and the mixologist Susie Hoyt (Silver Dollar, The Pearl).