Meet some of B.C.’s women distillers, a group so small it begs the question: Why are there still so few?
March 8, 2020, likely passed in a blur for Shelly Heppner. Around International Women’s Day, she was firing up her brand-new stills to produce Virtue Vodka and Jezebel Gin at Bespoke Spirit House in Parksville, which received its distilling green light in February. “Gin is such a vixen! I do want to have a couple of different gins that will have female-oriented names,” says Heppner, who also plans to make small-batch eaux-de-vie from Vancouver Island fruit.
Though women play essential roles in running, promoting and developing products at dozens of B.C. distilleries, Heppner is only the second woman distiller currently working in the province. (When Kirsten Jensen opens Jensen Spirits with George Kondor, she will likely become the third.)
Bespoke Spirit House has been more than two years in development—even given Heppner’s elite compliance and red-tape-cutting skills, honed as a mortgage broker and insurance agent. But her right-brain skills are equally proficient, and artistic studies and pursuits have always been part of her career and life. “I have an inherent need to express my creativity. Distilling is just a different canvas,” says Heppner, who claims tenacity has been her most valuable skill set in this endeavour.
The hindrance for women starting up a distillery doesn’t have to do with gender. It is financial.
During her research, Heppner came across references to women as the original alchemists and distillers in medieval times, and she rejoiced at meeting modern mentors like the Freeland Spirits team from Portland at the first Women’s Summit at the American Distilling Institute Craft Spirits Convention in 2018. She’s received “nothing but support” from fellow distillers and her local community—plus crucial funding assistance from Community Futures. “The hindrance for women starting up a distillery doesn’t have to do with gender. It is financial,” says Heppner. That’s because women don’t have universal pay and economic equity.
“Take distilling out of it and think about entrepreneurship,” agrees Jillian Rutherford, the distiller and co-founder at Fernie Distillers, winner of the 2019 Entrepreneur of the Year Award from the Fernie Chamber of Commerce. “You are literally putting your livelihood on the line and running a business.”
When Rutherford and her husband moved their family from Calgary to Fernie to start the distillery, which opened in 2018, the division of labour happened naturally. “I come from a technical, engineering kind of background, and Andrew had worked in sales. We were both equally involved in setting up a business plan,” says Rutherford. “I come from an oil-and-gas background and that’s a field that’s also male dominated. But I didn’t go into it thinking that, and it’s the same with opening the distillery.” She describes herself as process-oriented, good at problem-solving and not afraid to ask questions.
A recent gold medal winner in the Canadian Artisan Spirit Awards for her Prospector Gin, Rutherford plans to become the face of the brand, travelling around the Kootenays to distribute Fernie Distillers products. In addition, she’s hired a woman front-of-house manager for the tasting room and bar, and a Fernie-transplanted Australian woman winemaker to assist in the distillery. “It just happens that three women are now the main people in this business,” Rutherford says proudly.
Women in the production side of the process are usually less common, but blending, sales and marketing have a strong female presence
It’s well recognized in the global spirits industry that women can have genetically superior nosing and tasting skills, and though some hold top master blender or distiller positions, women are still in the minority. “Women in the production side of the process are usually less common, but blending, sales and marketing have a strong female presence,” says Charisse Woods, the B.C.-born distiller who’s now making small-batch spirits at Mine Hill Distillery in Roxbury, Connecticut. With six years of experience already at age 27, starting at Endless Summer in Kelowna when she was still a Bachelor of Science student, Woods is likely the OG of B.C. women distillers.
To that hands-on experience she earned an online Diploma in Distillation through the UK-based Institute of Brewing and Distilling, while she worked for Diageo at the Crown Royal distillery in Manitoba (and later for one of its distilleries in Kentucky). “I have met some other young women at my level, and as the years have gone, I have noticed an increase of women as the industry has grown,” says Woods, adding that people are more often thrown off by her age than her gender.
Though there’s very little these women can’t do, “Heaving a 25-kilogram bag of wheat in to the still won’t be at the top of my list,” says Heppner, with a laugh. “I can hire help. And I am fine with that.”
The Feminine Mystique
These international spirits brands all have women at the helm.
Appleton Rum: Joy Spence, Master Blender
Bloom, Greenall’s, Opihr Gins: Joanne Moore, Master Distiller
Brugal Rum: Jassil Villaneuva Quintana, Master Blender
Cutty Sark and Famous Grouse: Kirsteen Campbell, Master Blender
Glendronach, Glenglassash and BenRiach: Rachel Barrie, Master Blender
Hendrick’s Gin: Leslie Gracie, Master Distiller
Michter’s Bourbon: Pam Heilmann, Master Distiller Emerita
Mount Gay Rum: Trudiann Branker, Master Blender
Rémy Cointreau: Carole Quinton, Master Distiller
St-Rémy: Cecile Roudout, Master Blender
Zacapa Rum: Lorena Vasquez, Master Blender
—by Charlene Rooke