The Enigma Behind Boston's Whiskey Scene

Distillers, buyers, entrepreneurs, experts—these (female) Bostonians are taking whiskey to the next level

Ilana Weiss sits in a window seat at The Last Hurrah, the cozy, wood-paneled barroom at the Omni Parker House hotel, which boasts a selection of 150 whiskeys. She nurses a glass of amber-colored, Glenmorangie Nectar D’Or single malt scotch.

“This is the best whiskey bar north of New York City,” she said. “It’s Boston’s best-kept secret.”

Weiss would know. The women’s fashion executive is president of the Boston chapter of Women Who Whiskey, a self-described “experimental whiskey club for women.” With two dozen chapters internationally, Women Who Whiskey offers regularly programmed opportunities to learn about strong spirits and cocktail culture with like-minded individuals. The interest is out there. Since Women Who Whiskey launched in Boston in 2015, Weiss has amassed over 800 names on her email list.

 Maggie Campbell, Maura Connolly, Rhonda Kallman, Kayla Quigley, Ilana Weiss and Carrie Wroblewski

Whiskey. By Women, For Women

Whiskey—by definition: a distilled alcoholic beverage made from fermented barley, corn, rye or wheat, typically aged in wooden barrels—is not a libation usually associated with women. It’s a drink that conjures up tartan-wearing Scotsmen, Wild West saloons, warring Kentucky moonshiners and Winston Churchill. If women had written the history of whiskey, you might think differently.

“Don’t even get me started,” said Rhonda Kallman. “Women were the first distillers. Women were the brewers way back in Mesopotamia.”

Kallman—founding partner and longtime executive vice president of Boston Beer Company (Samuel Adams)—is founder and CEO of Boston Harbor Distillery, which makes rye, single malt and other spirits in a beautifully renovated, Civil War-era, brick warehouse, footsteps away from Dorchester Bay.

“More women are drinking whiskey and making whiskey,” she said. “What we’re fighting for all over America is just equality. We want to be distillers, we want to be entrepreneurs, we want to be chefs. We don’t necessarily want to be a female entrepreneur or a female chef. The reality is women are just as good as men in this business: Our skills are very compatible.”

“Being a woman has very little to do with my day-today work,” said Maggie Campbell, head distiller and vice president at Privateer Rum in Ipswich, which plans to release American single malt whiskey—currently aging—and rye.

Campbell received her diploma in craft distilling technologies from the Siebel Institute in Chicago and her Level IV diploma from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust. She sits on the board of directors of the American Craft Spirit Association and worked as assistant distiller at California brandy maker Germain-Robin.

Bottles up at Privateer in Ipswich

“In rum, there are many women—including women of color—in tip-top positions in the big companies,” said Campbell, “but when I was really involved in whiskey, it was definitely much more centered on one group of people. There are a lot of women involved in distilling and there always have been, but visibility is always the issue … we don’t see them.”

In 2011, Bostonians Maura Connolly and her husband John Egan opened a distillery on the grounds of their Burlington, Vermont, farm to make use of the extra apples. Six years later, their Mad River Distillers produces award-winning “grain to glass” bourbon, rye and other spirits made from locally sourced ingredients. As national sales manager, Connolly keeps a close eye on the consumer side of the business.

“There are so many fabulous women in the industry who are behind the bar and working for distributors that really have embraced whiskey and the cocktail scene, “ she said “I see more and more women drinking brown spirits, and it’s really very exciting.”

Becoming A Popular Pour

For over a dozen years, Carri Wroblewski and Klaudia Mally—aka “the BRIX chix”—have been selling wine and spirits at their BRIX stores in Boston’s South End and Financial District in addition to on Nantucket. Wroblewski said recently there’s been a marked increase in the number of women buying whiskeys.

“You’re seeing more women becoming aware,” she said, pointing to the growing trend for sophisticated cocktail programs at restaurants. “Women are seeing whiskey on the menu. They’ll have a chance to try a whiskey out and they come into us because they want to have it at home.”

In an effort to expand patrons’ palates, Citizen Public House & Oyster Bar in the Fenway sponsors a whiskey club. If you sample all 120 club designated whiskeys, you’ll receive a bottle of single barrel (premium) whiskey and an engraved, silver-banded glass.

“A lot of women have joined the whiskey club,” said bar manager Kayla Quigley, a graduate student at Simmons College in gender/cultural studies whose thesis explores masculinity in the saloon era and the resurgence of the contemporary saloon in Boston. “We’re seeing more women drinking whiskey for sure—because of the gender revolution and also because there’s a lot more women behind the bar. The bar itself and whoever is staffed behind the bar sort of indicates what people are going to be drinking.”

Brown spirits, she said, have always had a masculine identity and energy because they were marketed as a masculine drink. “But if I say to a woman who’s never had whiskey before, ‘This is an extremely approachable spirit,’ it’s a very open dialogue.”

This Is How You Do It

Back at The Last Hurrah, Weiss lowers her nose into her glass of scotch and closes her eyes in concentration and enjoyment.

“The first thing you want to do is smell it with your mouth slightly open,” she instructed. “Then take a sip. Hold it in your mouth; aerate it, and then swallow. It’s not meant to be gulped. Sip! The first sip, the alcohol hits you; the second sip is so much better.”

Weiss dribbles a few drops of water into her glass from a straw. “Water has an actual chemical reaction with whiskey, and it changes the drink completely,” she said. “The Scots call it ‘releasing the serpent.’ See? It opens up. It’s smoother. Do you taste it?

Whiskey is like a woman; it’s complex.”