This IWD, meet the women changing the booze industry
The world of beer, wine and spirits has also been dominated during our lifetime by men, with phallocentric brands including Jack Daniels and Johnnie Walker aimed squarely at male drinkers. But it wasn’t always so – for thousands of years brewing was undertaken by women. And as we celebrate International Women’s Day (IWD), there are once again signs that women are taking the helm at the drinks companies of tomorrow.
Take Sophie McGill from New Zealand, Tove Franzen from Sweden, Eleanor Leger from the US, Harriet Nahrwold from Chile, Kate Watson from Ireland and Chava Richman from Wales. while they aren’t household names quite yet, they probably should be.
Richman is the British face of the Cider is Wine movement. She runs the Prospect Orchard and apple museum in Newchapel, near Llanidloes in Powys. At 1,115 feet high, the six-acre plot is Britain’s highest altitude ciderworks and fruit tree nursery.
As well as championing natural cider making, Richman and her partner Bill Bleasdale have been trialling over 450 types of apple and pea, and developing a model of small scale agriculture, independent of subsidies, on marginal land.
“We have some quite rare varieties such as Welsh Druid, very old varieties like Court Pendu Plat first recorded in 1613 and new varieties that we have discovered and collected locally such as Glyndŵr’s Greening and Moelfre Bank, “ says Chava, who comes from Sonoma Co, California. She moved to the UK in 2010 and planted her first small holding in 2012.
Her live, unpasteurized and naturally fermented ciders range from £7-12. Most should be drunk at room temperature.
“Each apple has its own place, whether eaten fresh from the tree like a Red Devil, cooked early in the season for the first pies like Lord Lambourne or stored for rich and delicious eating around Christmas like Ashmead’s Kernel.
“Likewise, there is a cider to go with every dish and every occasion. With rich dishes like lamb chops or stew I would suggest something like s Borders Bittersweet, or to offset a spicy curry I would use a chilled light crisp cider such as a single variety Cox. Cider goes well with food.
“Cider is its own drink and it is hard to fit into a particular category. It’s made more like a wine than a beer – made not brewed. I started making cider before I had even tried many ciders. The best ciders I’ve tried have been made on a very small scale by people experimenting with fruit from their backyards.
“I aim to make ciders that can capture the character, variability and seasonality of fruit that convey a sense of location, but while maintaining quality with every vintage. We are elevating cider as a drink on par with wine, something to be taken more seriously.”
Cider-makers like Richman believe cider and cider-making are still hard done by and under- appreciated. There are said to be 60,000 apple varieties compared to 10,000 grape varieties, with the UK the biggest cider market in the world.
“People think of cider-makers as either rustic types with sideburns, or large-scale food scientists, with not much in between. When I first started making cider I often felt overlooked as people would always defer to the one with facial hair for answers. As time has gone on, I feel like the preconceptions are fading away and people are learning that women – and Californians – can make cider as well.
“I aim to make ciders that can capture the character, variability and seasonality of fruit that convey a sense of location, but while maintaining quality with every vintage. Playing with the different varieties, single varieties and blends, learning about balancing levels of acidity, tannin and sugars will keep me busy for the rest of my life. An orchard is my happy place.”
Emily Darwell, co-founder of Sipful canned cocktails whose drinks include Blood Orange Mimosa and Peach Bellini, agrees that the alcohol industry isn’t as male dominated as you might assume. “Us girls have made a pretty big impact into cultivating an inclusive drinks industry,” she says. “Long may that continue.”
That doesn’t mean that life as a female drinks-brand owner doesn’t come with its difficulties, however. “I have sometimes struggled with the priority shift in becoming a mum,” she says. “But I’m making peace with that. If some days all I can do is write personalised notes to our customers and tape up boxes, while juggling the minefield that is motherhood, then that’s good enough for me.
“There’s no such thing as having it all. I’m sitting here writing this in my workout gear, having not worked out, surrounded by unfinished tasks, a house that needs a good clean, a pile of dirty nappies waiting to be washed… But all of the Sipful orders are boxed up or out for delivery and our happy and fed baby is currently waving at his only friend: the wheelbarrow in the garden, whilst my 207th ‘get me to the finish line!’ coffee is brewing. If that’s balance, then I think I’m smashing it. But ask me again when we come out of a global pandemic.”
Miranda Hayman, co-owner of both Hayman’s Gin and Merser Rum, has long championed women in distilling. Hayman took over the running of the fifth-generation family business alongside brother James, before the duo created Merser Golden Rum, spirit that captures the essence of the best rums from the Caribbean and blends them in London’s only rum blending house: Merser & Co.
“The industry has changed enormously in terms of the male to female ratio since I joined over 20 years ago and I certainly have far more confidence today than I did when I first joined. I am fortunate that working alongside my father and brother, I have always been treated as an equal. Of course this support and the experience I have gained over the years has given me more confidence.
“It is a constant juggling act balancing career and personal life. You just have to accept that, and that is definitely easier if you have a career you enjoy. You do need a support network whether that is your partner, family or friends and definitely some flexibility at times.
“I think Covid has added the greatest challenge to this juggling act and I hope that it becomes easier once some sort of normality resumes.”
Jeany Cronk is the co-founder of Mirabeau, the award-winning rosé wine and gin brand, which was established when her family moved from England to the south of France to live their dream of making Provence rosé wine.
“Like most traditional industries, the wine and spirits industry is rapidly evolving and we are incredibly fortunate to have a lot of talented women joining the field, she says. “I see women in cellars, amazing female oenologists, female owners of vineyards and writers making their mark and challenging decades of tradition.
“My message to any women out there interested in joining the industry is not to assume it’s not for you because you might have seen a lot of men in the past. The wine and spirits industry is actually a very natural place for women with their great creative minds, attention to detail and amazing organisational skills to shine in business.
“On a personal level, the main challenge has been trusting myself and being confident in my own decisions. Our generation has struggled with having the right female role models and not having that built-in confidence that often seems to come so easily to men. We are natural overthinkers and tend to worry more about doing the right thing and that leads us to question ourselves more. I am really glad to see so many incredible women now, reaching out and empowering others, to have confidence in themselves and where they are.”
She says her advice is to “act smart, persevere and be well prepared” and advises women not to be held back by striving for perfection. “At the end of the day, no-one can argue with facts of substance and this is where you earn respect and win your arguments when you need to. But without being unambitious we do need to stop and smell the roses sometimes. We are holding down busy jobs, often while looking after a family, or being an active part in other people’s lives and supporting those around us whilst navigating life’s challenging scenarios.”