Though the spirits industry is often characterized as one dominated by men, that isn’t to say that there aren’t plenty of women who are currently at the helm of some of the world’s most notable liquor brands. From master distillers, brand ambassadors and owners to those at the forefront of marketing, innovation and every role in between, these women haven’t let stereotypical industry “norms” hold them back. Today they are leaders in their respective fields, shaking up the world of liquor, all while proving gender is irrelevant when it comes to crafting the perfect libation.
As a part of an ongoing series, we chatted with the badass women running the liquor world to talk humble beginnings, career paths, “made it” moments, favorite cocktails and more. This is part four of four of Women Running The Liquor World. For part three, click here.
Kathleen Murphy, Vice President of Spirits & Innovation, The Family Coppola
How did you get started in the spirits world?
A bit of kismet really. A career in wine and spirits wasn’t originally on my radar. When I was in my twenties a friend of mine, Amy Hoopes who is now President at Wente Wines, was working at Gallo and told me about an opening that they had for Latin American Marketing. Having a degree in International Business and being fluent in Spanish, I applied for the role and got it. The funny thing is that I was living in Paris at the time and moved back to the States (to Modesto!!) for the job. And from there a love for wine blossomed.
After Gallo, I worked for Campari International in Monaco managing a portfolio of spirits. But it wasn’t until my days at Diageo, working on Ketel One and Johnnie Walker, that my adoration for spirits was really triggered. Flash forward and I’m taking my years of experience to work in a non-corporate environment to spearhead Francis Ford Coppola’s vision to create and establish a new craft spirit company.
What has it been like working with Francis Ford Coppola on Great Women Spirits and what was the initial inspiration for this collection of spirits?
Francis is someone that gets a vision and he empowers his team to help him actualize his inspirations. There isn’t wavering. And the vision is long term. It’s refreshing to work with consistent direction after working at so many organizations that were driven by short term goals. Francis is incredibly involved in all aspects of the business. I think people would be surprised to know that. The most impressive thing is that no matter what time of the day you email him… you get an email back in under three minutes. If the answer takes longer than three minutes, you might have a problem. Ha!
The inspiration for Great Women Spirits is entirely Francis’ and one that he has been envisioning for years. As a youngster, he read a book called Twelve Against the Gods by William Bolitho. The author tells the story of twelve notable men throughout history. Francis questioned himself, “What about the women? Who would the twelve women be?” Being a master-storyteller Francis has been identifying and researching who the twelve women would be for a long time. Once the California Craft Distillers License was put into effect in Jan. 2017, Francis saw an opportunity to tell the remarkable stories of these women via a line of spirits. Each spirit telling a different story—inside and outside the bottle.
You’ve worked with major brands around the world for nearly 20 years. Have you seen the spirits industry become more inclusive since you started out?
Most of my career has been outside of the USA market working globally, so my perception of how the industry has evolved becomes quickly segmented into different countries with unique business cultures. Some countries are naturally embracing inclusivity faster than others, some are culturally stunted. I think the USA is making significant strides. Francis has always been inclusive, so this has naturally extended to a winery with females playing key roles at all levels of the business. I personally feel that there is a prevalent “Boy’s Club” mentality in the industry, particularly at an executive level. My sense is that will stay until something else comes in to disrupt the model and the status quo.
Talk about your “made it” moment, has there been one?
Gosh, that’s a hard one. “Made it” moments are so relative to a moment in time. Allow me to be adequately cheesy when I say that I feel like I’ve “made it” most days. I’ve landed in a role doing things that I love in an environment that nurtures creativity, collaboration and growth. But life isn’t all work, right? Mastering work/life balance is a constant struggle, but worth the struggle. “Made-it” moments happen when I actually get my daughter out the door on time, with her hair brushed and socks matching.
Favorite cocktail and why?
Hand’s down the Boulevardier. It’s as if two cocktails that I dig had a baby—the Negroni and the Manhattan. What’s not to love?
Kelly Bruce, Northeast Marketing Manager, Deep Eddy Vodka
How did you get started in the world of spirits?
I began my career working in various marketing and advertising roles for niche lifestyle magazines like NYLON and BlackBook. A lot of our advertisers were beer and liquor brands, so as time went on, I started helping produce all of the sponsored events. Propelled forward entirely by the encouragement of the beer & spirit partners I’ve cultivated strong personal relationships with, I eventually went independent to sell sponsorships for some smaller music festivals and oversee marketing, even help curate the bar programs, for several nightlife venues in NYC.
How has your previous work in running events and music festivals prepared you for your current role?
When I finally made the jump over to the brand side, at Red Bull briefly before Deep Eddy Vodka, it was entirely due to mutual connections reaching out to me directly and selling me on why I’d be perfect for the position. I never considered making that switch before, but the supportive managers who hunted me down to hire me for these roles understood how my skill set would transfer over. Having worked on the production side for so many years, I’ve learned what really brings a liquor brand to life in the most impactful way for a consumer, and also know what to look for in an event partner that will genuinely look out for our brand’s best interest.
What’s one thing that would surprise most people about your job?
When I first started in events, I would get so annoyed at friends asking me “Will you be there?” when I invited them to something, since I was usually the first one there and last one to leave. But now, with so many events happening often simultaneously in different cities or states, I cherish my quiet nights at home. During the day I spend a significant amount of time behind a computer screen planning. There are a lot of long hours and thought that go into every initiative Deep Eddy Vodka attaches our name to—long before and after those few fleeting hours the general consumer sees.
Favorite cocktail and why?
I lean toward light, refreshing cocktails, especially anything with fresh herbs I can pick from my own garden. The ‘Balancing Act’ made with Deep Eddy Lemon Vodka, muddled jalapeño, rosemary, and sparkling water is a simple yet surprising combination. It highlights the real, all-natural fruit of one of our top flavors while rounding out the flavor profile with a surprising kick. I love having one after the weekly Yoga & Cocktail events we host with Sputnik Yoga in New York.
Have you encountered any challenges being female in the liquor industry?
In my day-to-day, I work with a lot of men, something I only just started noticing as I spent more time in the bar industry. I see that as an opportunity more than anything. It empowers me even more strongly to ask questions, challenge internal directives, and seek out event initiatives which support and speak to female consumers.
Pia Carusone, Co-Founder, Republic Restoratives
Amidst a successful career in politics, in which at one point you were working with the Obama Administration among other high profile politicians, how did you get started in the spirits industry?
The idea of starting Republic Restoratives came up over the course of many years, but I wasn’t in the place to be able to focus on anything but my work. When you’re working on the Hill or in the administration, there are zero extra hours in the day for anything like creative business planning. There are barely enough hours for sleep. But my life took an unexpected turn when my boss, former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, was nearly assassinated in a grocery store parking lot in Tucson, Ariz. A member of my team, Gabe Zimmerman, died that day, and two other staff were critically injured.
In some ways, I feel like my life never got back to normal, and after a rewarding but brief stint in the Obama administration, my co-founder and I got more serious about the distillery. What happened next was a long odyssey of planning, raising capital, construction, product development, brand development and more. We opened our doors on Mother’s Day 2016 and haven’t looked back.
Did you have your doubts before starting Republic Restoratives? How were you able to overcome those and what’s your advice for someone who may find themselves in a similar situation?
We had doubts for days! There is only so much planning you can do for a startup. The truth is that a business like this evolves quickly and it’s impossible to know exactly what the future will hold. I think that’s what distinguishes successful companies from the rest. Can you change course quickly to accommodate a new environment or opportunity?
Your company is both women and LGBT-owned. Talk about diversity or the lack thereof in the world of distilling. Are you a pioneer in terms of co-owning a distillery as someone who is LGBT?
The distilling world is definitely not diverse—especially if you look at who makes up the ownership of companies, controls the capital and makes the decisions. We need more women, people of color, LGBT people, and young people in the industry. For us, we know we’re a little different from other companies in more ways than one. But, it’s not been a barrier; our diversity has been a point of strength for us.
When did you know you had “made it” in the liquor industry?
(Laughs) Well, that’s nice of you to say, but I feel like we have a long way to go! One of the reasons that people know us is because of our crowdfunding campaign. One of the best decisions we ever made was to turn to “the crowd” as a source of capital. It allowed our friends, family, colleagues and supporters to play a hugely valuable role in the foundation of our company. We literally wouldn’t be where we are today without them.
What is your favorite cocktail and why?
Lately, it’s the “Applewood” at our distillery bar, Ivy Room. Created by our Head Bartender Britt Ingalls, an “Applewood” is made with our Rodham Rye, apple butter, an apple mezcal, honey and a lot of love. It’s seriously one of the best cocktails I’ve ever had.
Jassil Villanueva, Master Distiller, Papá Andrés
You’re a descendant of the Papá Andrés founder. Talk about how your family’s history with the brand and how you got started with Brugal yourself.
I grew up hearing stories of Brugal rum from my parents, my uncles and my extended family. In my house, there was always talk of family and time-honored tradition, ever since I can remember. I too developed a deeply ingrained sense of those values, and it was they who inspired me to join the business.
My first memory of visiting the Aging Warehouse was when my father started working for the company. I was around five years old, and I was both excited and impressed to see how the entire cask was bigger than me. A couple of years later, when I turned 11, I started visiting my dad’s office almost every Saturday, just so I could be there at the company.
I can’t place the exact moment I decided to become a Maestra Ronera. I spent so much time and effort into becoming a part of the rum business, it just happened naturally. While initially, I planned to work in logistics and operations, the only real thing I was sure of at the time was that I wanted to be a part of my family’s legacy.
When I finally got involved, the Rum Masters of the fourth generation advised that I work to develop and perfect my sense of smell, palate and sight. This was how I officially began my career in the fascinating world of spirits and how I came to produce the most respected international brand in the Dominican Republic.
What is your role as Maestra Ronera? Favorite part of your job?
The Rum Masters at Brugal are responsible for preserving a strong family legacy that has been deeply impactful and continuously growing since its establishment in 1888. Brugal Rums use artisanal production methods, and Rum Masters are responsible for maintaining the high quality that has always distinguished our brand, which is the reason that the nose and palate are so important. Thanks to working closely with our senses, Rum Masters can detect the intricacies and uniqueness of each individual bottle we produce.
Working in the world of rum fosters an environment of happiness and celebration. It is the perfect drink to share joyful moments and create memories with loved ones. Being Rum Master has filled my life with travel, friends and unforgettable experiences. At Brugal we strive to create the most sophisticated products, resulting in high-quality distillates that are admired worldwide. So, when I see someone that admires the Dominican Republic or knows about it being the country of Brugal Rum, I feel an indescribable pride. This is what I love about making a spirit that collects and signifies special moments.
You’re the world’s youngest rum master responsible for perfecting the blends at Brugal, one of the largest rum brands in the world. Do you feel pressure to constantly prove yourself because of your age? Or is it something you’re used to?
It is both difficult and intimidating to combine tradition and innovation because you have a huge responsibility—it requires original thinking and a willingness to take risks while respecting the history and institution of doing things the way they’ve always been done—all eyes are on you and everyone expects big things. But at the same time, it’s a welcome challenge because I’m doing something I love. When you love what you do you want to do the best, be the best and try your best, not only to live up to external expectations but to honor the legacy of and pave the future for the Brugal brand.
While initially, I felt a lot of pressure, over time it has become the best motivation to improve myself every day.
In addition to being a millennial, you’re also a woman. Have you experienced gender prejudice in the rum world? How do you overcome that?
The spirits industry has opened its doors for more women to excel in recent years, and currently, there are a number of female leaders carrying out influential responsibilities for major brands worldwide. It was definitely overwhelming at the beginning. There is a big sense of responsibility and historically people have had a tendency to judge based on your age and gender. However, much of this prejudice has disappeared within the past decade. Brugal Rums are now being sold and enjoyed by women in major world capitals, so being a part of that legacy makes you feel both special and grateful. It is always challenging to enter a world where you have to break down barriers and establish new goals, but I believe that if you love your job and are always working to constantly improve and grow, you will find success—both within and independent of your working environment.
When did you know you had “made it” in the spirits industry?
I knew that I had “made it” the first time it was decided that I had the knowledge to represent Brugal by myself. Becoming the youngest Maestra Ronera was and still is a great honor. I love representing my family and my country around the world with pride, as an ambassador of not only Brugal Rums but also of the power that women can have in the spirits business. It is still a great responsibility, but I feel that this role has allowed me to change a small part of history, and I wouldn’t change the experience I’ve gained thus far for anything in the world.
What is your favorite cocktail and why?
My favorite way to enjoy spirits is to drink them neat. For me, that spirit is rum. Drinking rum neat allows the natural characteristics of the product to come through in both flavor and aroma, enhancing the overall drinking experience.
Allison Evanow, Founder and Owner, Square One Organic Spirits
How did you get started in the spirits world?
I started my career in the spirits world at Jose Cuervo International, where I worked directly for the Beckmann family, the current generation of family owners of Jose Cuervo. I was fortunate to work on the international side of the business, helping to spread the word internationally about tequila in general, but with specific emphasis on some of their higher-end tequilas where I fell in love with the more esoteric styles of tequila and spirits in general. I later moved on to become the Vice President of Marketing at Domaine Chandon (an LVMH company) before jumping into the entrepreneurial arena.
As a wine, spirits and cocktail lover and frequent explorer of restaurants and bars, in 2004 I saw an opportunity for a line of spirits that had yet to be developed. I noticed that bartenders in San Francisco were using a lot of organic ingredients in their cocktails, some going so far as to shop at the Ferry Building Farmer’s Market to source some of their organic ingredients for their cocktail specials. As a loyal farmers market shopper, I loved seeing these bartenders bring a culinary perspective to their bar programs but especially an organic one. It was then that I realized that the spirits were not delivering on the organic promise of the cocktail. Why go to all the effort to source organic cocktail ingredients, when the main ingredient often contained GMOs, pesticide grown raw ingredients, industrial additives, and especially in the flavored vodka world, artificial flavorings, sugar and masking agents?
I decided to change that by starting one of the first (maybe the first?) all organic spirits company in the U.S. I decided early on to focus on vodka, but not because I was a lover of vodka; in fact I usually avoided vodka because many of the straight vodkas tasted like industrial alcohol and the vast majority of the flavored vodkas were certainly not meant to be consumed in a sophisticated cocktail like I enjoyed. I already knew from my industry experience that many high-end brand names in the vodka category used glycerin, citric acid and other masking agents to hide the poor quality of their spirits. I wanted to bring the cleanest possible product to the market and bring transparency to how it is made, and thought that by “starting at square one,” I should start with the most basic of all spirits—vodka.
When it came to our “flavors,” I also saw an opportunity to borrow from the gin category and use REAL botanicals, not synthetic flavors and sugar as most of the flavored vodka category used. That meant using real botanicals and ensuring they were organically processed, not resorting to tricks to mimic flavors. Three of our spirits—Square One Botanical, Basil and Bergamot—contain seven to eight botanicals each for example. I consider my company to be a botanical spirits company, with the emphasis on organic and botanicals, more so than a vodka company. I am incredibly proud of the fact that many of the products I have created, have been a “first” in many categories and that we have brought true innovation to a category that was in dire need of being grounded in quality and authenticity and not marketing hype.
As a female founder running the show at Square One Organic Spirits, what advice would you give to someone looking to follow in your footsteps?
As one of the first truly women-founded spirits companies (my sister is a silent investor and together we own 97 percent of the business,) my main advice would simply be to be fearless and to stick to your vision and what you want to do; and how your company and products can change the spirits world in an industry inundated with copycat products. It is daunting to start, especially in such a highly regulated and market-access restricted industry. And it is hard to watch other brands, quite frankly mostly male founded, get millions and millions of investment dollars, blow up the brand and then sell it for 4x multiples or more, while you are trying to create a product of quality for a curated audience, not just seek a quick exit to line your pocket. Try to block out the noise and stay on your path. And know that the roller coaster never stops hitting the peaks and valleys, but perseverance and grit will usually get you through. On the business side, the old adage for all businesses holds true here too. Cash is king! Don’t run out of money!
What are you most passionate about when it comes to the world of spirits?
I love almost all types of spirits, whether I drink them in a cocktail or neat. And I love exploring the “how its made” story behind each spirit. But as a lover of layered flavors and unusual combinations, I especially love creating spirits that bring great versatility to cocktails. When developing all of our spirits, my goal for each was to bring something unique to the category. Even the straight vodka, being that it is 100 percent certified organic American rye brings a different flavor profile to the category since most vodkas are made from corn or wheat. And we use that same vodka as our base for all of our spirits, despite the expense of producing a 100 percent organic rye spirit.
When entering into the botanical spirits creation, the fun really began! When we have done cocktail recipe development on each spirit, we have always ended up with a “who woulda thunk” moment when we combine something unexpected with our spirits and it just works! Our Botanical in a White Negroni is sublime, our Basil with mezcal is an earthy match made in heaven, and our Bergamot and Italian amaros together just sing. Cocktail development is by far the most fun part of my business and we love to showcase the versatility of our spirits, especially since the perception of “flavored vodkas” is that they aren’t meant for serious cocktails.
When did you know you had “made it” in the liquor industry?
I think most entrepreneurs never really feel like they have “made it”. There is always more you can do, something you can do better or opportunities that you can’t get to. So I’m not sure I can say that I feel like I’ve “made it” yet. But the first time I finally felt like we were going to make it and be taken seriously was in 2008. Back in 2006, I told one of my distributors that we were developing a cucumber organic vodka, a flavor profile that had yet to be created anywhere in the vodka category. They weren’t so sure it was a good idea. Every person in that room was a man and while by no means were they dismissive or disrespectful, they were skeptical of the opportunity. I told them to go talk to the women in their lives—their colleagues, their girlfriends, friends, wives, etc.—and to ask them what they drink when they go to the spa. And to ask them how they feel when they drink that at the spa, and to come back to me and tell me what the women all said.
To the last one of them, they told me that every woman they spoke to said “cucumber water” is what they drink at the spa. And they love it because it is so light, clean and refreshing. I then told them that Square One Cucumber was simply “spa water with a kick.” Needless to say, after that exercise, they were “all in” and when we launched in early 2008 we sold out our first production run in two days and they were begging for more! Today, there at least a dozen cucumber vodkas on the market, yet we started the category. It’s not easy to fight off all of the competitors, but I knew we had “made it” when the big brands with deep pockets copied us.
Favorite cocktail and why?
There is one base cocktail that is my go to and to which I always add a twist, depending on which one of my spirits I’m using. I love to start with a fresh gimlet as my base cocktail. If I’m using our straight or cucumber vodka, I’ll throw in some fresh basil to make a Basil Gimlet. If I’m using our Basil vodka, I’ll amp it up with some fresh Thai basil and muddled lemongrass. With our Botanical, I’ll muddle some pink peppercorns to bring both a floral and spice note to complement our multi-floral spirit profile. And for the Bergamot, I’ll throw in a sprig of thyme and use a honey syrup instead of simple syrup. When I have lots of people over for cocktails at home and I jump behind the bar, I need to keep it simple while offering variety, and keeping a basic gimlet as my base for all of the cocktails that night makes it easy on me while still wowing my guests.
Jessie Sheeran, Associate Brand Manager and In-House Mixologist, SakéOne
What initially got you interested in saké?
A little bout of insomnia. It was 2am, while watching Netflix’s Birth of Saké, and I was awestruck (5 stars – highly recommend). The brewing process was captivating and beautiful. I picked up a random bottle the next day. Not long after, a marketing position opened up at a hidden gem craft saké brewery in Forest Grove, OR and I went for it. I had no idea nationally awarded and distributed saké was being brewed in my own backyard for 20 years.
What ignited your passion to help bring saké to the forefront of the spirits scene in America?
I worked in craft beer previously, and the beer and wine market is just so saturated that it’s hard to get excited for every new brewery popping up in town or oldy-but-goody seasonal offerings that blend into the sea of bottles on a shelf. Saké is still relatively unknown and an exciting challenge. In the U.S., it’s growing by leaps and bounds as drinkers are looking outside the box for something new. Super local, craft, vegan-friendly, gluten free, no sulfites or histamines, and kosher—saké checks so many boxes.
What surprises non-saké drinkers about saké the most? What’s the best way to introduce someone to saké?
I think the misconceptions I get most are that you drink it hot and only with Japanese food. 1. We recommend most saké be served chilled and enjoyed like a white wine. 2. Though sushi is wonderful with saké, it compliments incredibly well with all foods. There’s a Japanese saying that “saké does not fight with food,” and that’s 100 percent right. Mac n’ cheese and g fifty is a favorite pairing of mine. Then German chocolate cake and Sayuri Nigori if I saved room for dessert. The possibilities are endless.
What’s your favorite part about your job and why?
Every face after I reel them into our booth for a tasting at festivals. I can see the trepidation. Venturing outside your beer and wine comfort zone can take some courage. Many people’s first experience with saké was a saké bomb or low-quality hot saké at a Japanese restaurant. That pleasant surprise never gets old.
Favorite cocktail and why?
Something simple that I can mix in a flash. A nice Saké Mule using Momokawa Silver is my go-to recipe. Silver replaces vodka perfectly, as it isn’t competing with added flavors. Given saké’s lower calorie count and alcohol content compared to other spirits, I can enjoy more cocktails with less guilt!