PRESERVING HISTORY WHILE CREATING THEIR OWN
By Cheryl Gray
They own distilleries, take charge of day-to-day operations and hold court as master distillers around the globe. We’re talking about women in the spirits industry breaking barriers, making it possible for other women to do the same.
In a largely male-dominated industry, there is an increasing number of women who have earned major roles, from building distilleries to creating the blends that put those distilleries on the map. Those blends are either passed on from generation to generation or come in the form of new taste sensations. All are designed to appeal to an unquenchable consumer demand for innovation and tradition.
Victoria Eady Butler can speak with authority on both subjects. She is the great-great-granddaughter of Nathan “Nearest” Green, a former slave and first known African American master distiller who taught Jack Daniel—yes, that Jack Daniel—how to make the legendary Tennessee whiskey that bears the JACK DANIEL’S brandname. Daniel would later hire Green to be his master distiller, a historical link between the two men widely acknowledged by Jack Daniel’s parent company, BROWN-FORMAN.
Five generations later, it is Eady Butler’s turn at making history. She is the first African American Master Blender for a major spirits brand, UNCLE NEAREST PREMIUM WHISKEY, named after her great-great grandfather. Eady Butler’s legacy is the foundation for award-winning bourbons and whiskeys branded by NEAREST GREEN DISTILLERY in Shelbyville, Tennessee. Since its brand launch in 2017 by Founder and CEO Fawn Weaver, the company reports it has generated more than $100 million dollars in sales with products sold in all 50 states and 12 countries around the world.
Eady Butler explains how Weaver brought her on as part of the company’s leadership team, first as Vice President of Administration but soon thereafter, as its Master Blender.
“I had no idea that this was down the road for me. Fawn Weaver, our CEO and Founder, and I talked and she knew that I was considering retirement. Everything unfolded from that conversation. I retired from my previous career and started with Uncle Nearest within a few days. Now that I’m here, I fully get it. Whiskey truly is in my blood. To carry on a legacy that lay dormant for more than 160 years, it’s just unbelievable.”
Under the discerning palate of Eady Butler, the Uncle Nearest brand has won multiple industry awards while she has won consecutive top honors bestowed upon her by industry peers.
“When our 1884 Small Batch launched in July 2019, the whiskey family took to it immediately and we started winning awards right out of the gate. So, I blended the second batch. The awards and accolades kept coming. Soon thereafter I was elevated to Master Blender and have blended every batch since. Also, when I was named Master Blender of the Year by the American Icons of Whisky Awards, I was the first female to ever earn the title.”
Preserving the heritage surrounding one of Puerto Rico’s most famous exports, rum, is partly what drew Liza Cordero to the spirits industry. Cordero used her background as a chemical engineer to become Master Blender of the world-renowned DESTILERÍA SERRALLÉS and oversee the distillation process of its DON Q RUM, made in Puerto Rico for more than 150 years.
Born in San Juan, Cordero knew early on that she wanted to be engaged in chemical engineering and was involved in both the petrochemical and biotechnology industries. She says that she found her true passion, though, in working with rums. For more than two decades, Cordera has been directly involved in the fermentation and distillation processes and is responsible for quality control at the landmark distillery. She describes how taking a chance turned into a rewarding new career.
“The company was recruiting an Assistant Manager for the Distillation and Fermentation Process Area. As soon as I saw this, I did not hesitate to accept the challenge to work for the best distillery in Puerto Rico, which produces the best and most authentic Puerto Rican Rum. In the 21 years that I have been working here, I can truly say that my decision was the right one!”
Cordero describes her role at the distillery.
I am the Rum Distillery Master Blender and work hand-in hand-with the First Maestra Ronera (Master Teacher) Silvia Santiago, who has been with the company for 50 years. I am responsible for developing Don Q products that follow today’s market trends, which can be enjoyed in cocktails and sipping rums, all while honoring Don Q’s origins. These products need to be different from others in the market, which we achieve by carefully selecting blends that will be part of our premium and flavored rums, choosing natural ingredients that will guarantee an outstanding tasting experience. In order for me to achieve what we want for rum aficionados; it is important to understand the differences among the aged rums that we have available. Each one has its own characteristic taste and aroma.”
Cordero’s says her mentors include other women like Santiago who have helped to guide her through the industry. The advice she gives for other women who want to enter the business is to the point.
“Throughout my career, I have learned that in order to prove that women can equally execute and be involved in the same tasks and assignments that are performed by men, it’s important to employ your knowledge and experience, to prove your point and to take a position on matters. It is crucial that decisions are made based on something solid that can withstand any questions or critical analysis. They cannot be made based on opinions or personal points of views. It is in this way that women can earn respect, and that we get assigned to key decision teams and positions in organizations.”
Valerie Colella is an award-winning Single Barrel Specialist and National Ambassador for Castle & Key Distillery. Most recently, Colella was recognized by the Bourbon Women Association as a finalist for the 2023 Brand Ambassador of The Year.
“As Single Barrel Specialist, I help execute our single barrel program along with our very talented team in Frankfort, Kentucky and I also have the pleasure of hosting our VIP industry and trade groups. As National Brand Ambassador, I help support our sales team across 24 markets by creating fun educational and pairing experiences for our partners and consumers.”
Colella relocated to Kentucky after working in West Virginia at Smooth Ambler Distillery. Collela cites a key mentor who helped her to get her footing in the industry.
“Most of my foundational understanding about what makes a craft distillery tick, I learned in my eight years from Smooth Ambler under Head Distiller, John Little. He demanded a very high level of dedication and execution from all of us. He took great pride in the spirits we were producing in West Virginia and so did we.
Whether it was the retail or consumer facing side of the business, distribution, sensory, analysis, or branding strategy, he gave me so many opportunities to work really hard, learn and grow personally and professionally.”
Collela points to women mentors that include Lisa Wicker, President and Head Distiller for WIDOW JANE of Brooklyn, New York, Sherri Carter, Master Blender and Co-Founder of OLD CARTER WHISKEY COMPANY based in Louisville, Kentucky and Jackie Zykan, former Master Taster for BROWN FORMAN’S OLD FORESTER and creator of the newly launched whiskey, HIDDEN BARN. Collela says the work these women have accomplished in blending and maturation inspires her.
“When you’re navigating your own professional growth and you’re trying to find your footing or voice in a male-dominated industry, no one understands the challenges that come with being a woman in spirits except the ones that walked through the fire and helped pave that path. From Iron Root Republic, Milam & Greene, Uncle Nearest—so many ridiculously talented female master distillers, blenders and owner-operators are absolutely blazing all kinds of trails. It’s such an exciting time to draw inspiration from.”
The number of women in the spirits industry keeps growing, Collela says, and the industry’s expansion requires new talent.
“That being said, I think we’re going to see a diverse new generation of whiskey makers, and spirit blenders into the next decade. What we see across all aspects of the aged spirits industry, is that there still continues to be an incredible demand for whiskey. There doesn’t seem to be a saturation point. NDP’s & distilleries keep on expanding, and there’s a whiskey for every palate. There’s not just the collector and the enthusiast anymore. Whiskey is becoming a multi- dimensional demographic.”
Eady Butler of Nearest Green says that for women entering the business, tenacity is particularly important.
“The key is to be committed, dedicated, eager to learn, and put everything you hold dear into it. In addition, it’s imperative that you surround yourself with people who are knowledgeable, patient, and in my case, willing to share their experiences and wisdom. The biggest thing is setting aside your fear of failure and just go for it.”