March is Women’s History Month, and all month long, we’re celebrating the women in bev-alc who are driving the industry forward. From famous bootleggers to bartenders to distillers, the alcohol industry would be nowhere without their contributions. Whether for the good of the industry — or for the bad — these are just a select few of the women in history who have shaped and continue to shape the beverage alcohol industry.
Mary the Jewess (also known as Mary the Prophetess or Maria the Copt)
What more proof do we need that women have played an elemental role in the world of alcohol? According to some of the earliest alchemist writings, the invention of the tribikos (the distilling machine) is attributed to Mary the Jewess. The device — which is still used in chemistry labs today — had three arms and purified substances using distillation, a precursor to the same technology that distillers would produce spirits with.
While history hasn’t been all that kind to Queen Anne, who was the last of the Stuarts in England, she is famously credited with the development of gin distillation in England (aka the Gin Craze) in the early 18th century. A fan of gin herself, Queen Anne and her government ministers canceled a charter that gave sole rights to one distilling company in London. She then reduced taxes on the distillation of spirits and even allowed unlicensed “back street” distillers to produce gin. What resulted was a flood of cheap and potent gin in the market, once dominated by expensive French brandy — a slight side to a country they had been in conflict with at the time.
Helen & Elizabeth Cumming
Arguably two of the most influential women in Whiskey, the Cumming family of Cardow went from illegal distillers to figures of wealth and influence in just three generations. In 1811, John and Helen Cumming took out a 19-year lease on Cardow Farm at Knockando on Speyside. It was a remote spot with easy access to water and peat, a pristine place for illicit distillation. With Helen at the helm of the stills, demand for their illicit spirit grew. The 1823 Excise Act made distilling legal and the Cummings were first in line for a license.
Later in life, they transferred ownership of the distillery to their son, Lewis, who would leave it in the hands of his wife, Elizabeth after his death. Over the next two decades, Elizabeth would greatly expand the company, registering the Car-Dhu trademark and building a new state-of-the-art distillery, selling the old stills to William Grant, who founded a little company named Glenfiddich. In September 1893, Elizabeth agreed to sell Cardow to blender John Walker & Sons, securing the future of the family and distillery. Cardow went from humble, illicit beginnings to becoming a family of vast influence in whiskey and in society, even a future descendant becoming knighted.
When researching the history of cocktails, the very root of the word “cocktails” has an origin story of its own. Almost every account of the word’s creation stems back to Betsy Flanagan, an innkeeper during the American Revolutionary War who, legend has it, served up a drink stirred with a rooster tail in 1799 to American and French soldiers of the Revolutionary Army. The truth is lost somewhere in history, but her influence and disdain for her English loyalist neighbor and the chicken coop she raided, forever changed the history of cocktails for the better.
Valentine Goesaert & Anne Davidow
Equity in the workplace isn’t a new concept. Even back in pre- and post-prohibition America, women were restricted from working behind a bar. It was a 1947 law that banned women bartenders unless they were either the wife or daughter of the bar owner, which inspired her to hire noted attorney and women’s rights pioneer Anne Davidow. They sued, taking the case all the way to the Supreme Court arguing that the law violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court egregiously ruled against Goesaert and Davidow. However, their case set a precedent for gender discrimination. Eventually, Davidow finally convinced a Michigan court to repeal the law, forever raising the bar for women’s equality in the industry and beyond.
Described by the Daily Express as “the most famous barmaid,” Ada “Coley” Coleman is likely the most well-known female bartender in history. Her tenure as Head Bartender at The Savoy Hotel’s American Bar in London is one notable example of her influence on the cocktail world. When she retired from the bar in 1925, after it closed for renovations, her influence lives to this day. For 95 years, Coleman was the only female Head Bartender to head the helm at the storied barroom (Shannon Tebay was appointed to the position in 2021). She stirred cocktails for famous folks such as Mark Twain, the Prince of Wales and Charlie Chaplin. She contributed the Hanky Panky to the annals of cocktail history, her most famous concoction, that adorns cocktail menus to this day.
Which Is the True Margarita? Marjorie, Margaret, or Margarita Herself?
The Margarita is one of — if not the most — popular cocktails in the world. Tequila, triple sec (orange curacao) and lime. Simple combo with a trifecta of boozy, refreshing flavors. Its origin is less known to history and differs depending on who you ask. The three origin stories go like this.
Story one says Margaritas were invented by Tijuana restaurant owner Carlos “Danny” Herrera for the Ziegfeld showgirl and B-movie star Marjorie King. A regular at his Rancho la Gloria bar, King preferred to drink tequila. In lieu of serving it straight, Herrera combined tequila, salt and lime into a cocktail and named his creation the Margarita, the closest name in Spanish to Marjorie.
Story two involves Margaret Sames, a rich Dallas socialite skilled in the art of mixology. While on holiday in Acapulco over Christmas 1948, she turned to tequila to put together a citrusy, refreshing cocktail. Balancing tequila, Cointreau and lime, shaken into a salt-rimmed glass, she served the drinks to her guests, including a member of the Hilton family — of Hilton hotels fame — who loved it so much, they put it on the cocktail menu across their hotel empire, sparking its world-wide fame.
Last but not least, story three is about a wedding gift. Some say it’s bar manager Danny Negrete who invented the Margarita while attending his brother’s wedding at Garci Crespo Hotel in Tehuacan, Puebla. It was there that Negrete is said to have gifted the drink as a wedding present to his new sister-in-law, Margarita. Regardless of which story is the true origin story, if any at all, Marjorie King, Margaret Sames and Margarita herself have a special place in the cocktail canon today.
Francis Willard, Mary Hunt & Carrie (Carry) Nation
This list features women who’ve shaped the beverage alcohol in big, positive ways. But one can’t accurately talk about its history without mentioning those who sought (and for a moment, were successful) in extinguishing its very existence. The Temperance movement predates Prohibition in America by decades but largely gave rise to it. Led by a group consisting of both men and women, the movement’s mission was to promote moderation, or more often, the total abolition of intoxicating spirits. Its influence would go on to change the entire industry and history of America and the world. Prohibition ushered in the “Roaring 20s,” and gave rise to bootleggers, illicit distillers, and organized crime and consequently a new era in American history with its repeal in 1933 with the ratification of the 21st amendment. Its most influential effect on the industry is the creation of the three-tiered system which regulates the production and distribution of alcoholic beverages to this day.
Notable figures of the temperance movement that helped spawn Prohibition were Francis Willard, Mary Hunt and Carrie Nation, among many others. Francis Willard was the founder of the Women’s Temperance Union and its President until her death in 1898. Mary Hunt was also a notable activist in the movement, gaining the power to accept or reject children's textbooks based on their representation of her views of the danger of alcohol. Carrie Nation is most famous for her extreme opposition to alcohol, even taking action by destroying bars and saloons with a hatchet.