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9 Women In Spirits Share Their Biggest Challenges, Future Goals And Role Models Ahead Of International Women’s Day

FORBES | Jillian Dara

Catan founder Catalina tasting pisco from a Glencairn glass in front of wooden spirit barrels.

Though International Women’s Day is celebrated on March 8—with the entire month of March dedicated to females across the globe—these women celebrate their position in the spirits industry 365 days a year, as they continue to make a splash in the historically male-dominated sphere.

“I firmly believe that as women-owned businesses become successful, you will have more women able to invest back into other female-founded businesses, and that is how we will begin to equalize the access to capital,” Mara Smith, founder of Inspiro Tequila, told me about the compounding effect that female presence in the industry offers newcomers, like herself. And Smith isn’t alone—from the founder of Skrewball Whiskey to the master blender at The GlenDronach, below, nine women in spirits share how their industry role models had a lasting impact on their careers, alongside the biggest challenges they’ve overcome, but more importantly, their biggest goals for the future.

Mara Smith, founder of Inspiro Tequila Biggest Challenge: “Working with a foreign manufacturer and not being there during Covid was really hard to manage everything for the first production run of Inspiro Tequila. During this run, one of my master distiller’s specifications was not followed exactly, and the agave did not cool for the appropriate amount of time, which affected the flavor profile. Rather than compromise and create something that I did not personally love, I got rid of about 4,000 bottles-worth of tequila! This postponed my launch date by approximately six months, but I truly believe that quality is everything.”

Biggest Goal: “My vision for Inspiro Tequila was not just to create a unique tequila, but also to support and inspire other female founders. I established the Inspiro Purple Bicycle Project to do just that; an initiative to provide financial support and mentoring for other female founders to help them get started, manage the bumps along the way and move forward to realize their dreams. I am particularly passionate about encouraging women that it is never too late to reenter the workforce or to pivot in their careers.”

Biggest role model: “The master distiller for Inspiro Tequila, Ana Maria Romero Mena, is really a role model for me. She is one of very few female master distillers of tequila, and she is legendary. I appreciate that she is an artist and a scientist in her approach to creating taste and aroma profiles. She developed the aroma wheel for tequila, and it has become an industry standard. I find it very inspirational the way she honors traditional methods for making tequila while also innovating; it showed me that there are ways to innovate while also respecting tradition.”

Sonya Auvray Vega, founder of Doña Vega Mezcal Biggest Challenge: “Getting the attention of a known distributor! I understand they need to be selective, and not waste time with startups that may or may not make it, but it does provide a major setback, especially when you are not established and new to the industry.”

Biggest Goal: “Mezcal is still very new to the US market, so it has always been my passion to create a version of the spirit that allows people to become familiar and educated, not turned off by something too strong or smokey.”

Biggest role model: Jenna Fagnan [co-founder at Siete Bucks Spirits], she found a recipe to succeed for brands and has positioned herself as being very dynamic and well recognized as a female in this industry.

Brittany Merrill-Yeng, founder of Skrewball Whiskey Biggest Challenge: “The biggest challenge as an outsider entering the spirits industry is knowing where to start. I was a chemist turned lawyer. This was a whole new world to me. Even something as seemingly simple as submitting an order came with all sorts of complications. It’s easy to get bogged down in all of this, but I approached it with curiosity and learned as much as I could from each person I interacted with.”

Biggest Goal: “My husband is a Cambodian refugee, and my parents were teen parents. Neither one of us grew up with any money to spare. As we have grown Skrewball, we always look for opportunities to give back. When the Covid-19 shutdowns began, we practically emptied our bank account to donate to the bar and restaurant workers. I also reached out to Women of the Vine and Spirits to create a first-of-its-kind community for female bartenders to navigate the challenging time. We continue to look for opportunities to not just give back financially, but also offer our time and resources.”

Biggest role model: “My first spirits convention was Women of the Vine and Spirits, which introduced me to many of the women leading the industry. At my second convention, I met Sue McCollum who used to own Major Brands distribution. I felt so welcomed to the industry by each of them. I am inspired to pay it forward and offer the same support when I see a newcomer to the industry.”

Louise McGuane, founder of JJ Corry Irish Whiskey Biggest Challenge: “Finding my voice; the alcohol industry, in general, is a tough place. Being a founder, you are in an odd position, in that you embody the brand, and you have to be representative of it at all times, but at the same time you have to demand what you need for the business and have tough conversations around that sometimes. Striking that balance is not easy; I’ve learned that you have to be both a good and bad cop.”

Biggest Goal: “Inclusivity. More people drinking whiskey in whatever way they want.”

Biggest role model: “Nicole Austin [distiller and general manager, George Dickel], Rebecca Jago at Last Drop who has what I think is the most luxurious spirits brand in the world. Then there are the wonderful younger than me women who work with me at J.J. Corry— we call ourselves the “Bond Squad.” They are experienced drinks industry professionals who excel at what they do and mean that the future is bright for women in the industry.

Dafna Mizrahi, founder of Curamia Tequila Biggest Challenge: “Changing how people view tequila as a ‘Hollywood spirit.’ For the past couple of years, we have seen many celebrities come out with their own signature tequila brand, so it became the norm and expectation. We did not want to establish Curamia as a celebrity-driven brand from the get-go. It is a premium and quality tequila that came to life due to the hard work and dedication of a group of women; because we are launching our brand in a non-traditional manner, at least in the current market, it’s been challenging at times.”

Biggest Goal: “Sustainability is a key focus with our liquid extraction model for distilling; utilizing steam and volcanic water is recognized by the tequila regulatory council as an environmentally friendly practice. Additionally, our signature drink is served in a clay cup called Cantarito as opposed to the standard glass or plastic commonly used. We believe that through Curamia we can make a significant impact felt far beyond just the spirits industry.”

Biggest role model: “It’s hard to name just one person to highlight as an example because we recognize that each woman who has a prominent, powerful role paved the way for our brand to exist. I believe each woman who’s made their voices heard deserves recognition and has paved the way for people like me to have a voice in this industry.”

Catalina Bentz, founder of Catan Pisco Biggest Challenge: “Being accepted as a female owner of a spirits brand. It was shocking to discover at my initial meetings (with my manufacturers during product development), how most of them assumed I was the representative or some sort of assistant in the company. Once they realized I was the owner and decision maker, a different level of respect became heavily apparent. Because of this experience, I am no longer shy at immediately introducing myself as the founder and owner of Catan Pisco.”

Biggest Goal: “I am very passionate about being a female voice in this industry, who is diversifying and aiming to equalize the industry. To be honest, I don’t remember ever feeling truly passionate about being a Latina female until I launched my brand and started my business. I had no idea going into this, of the deep cultural and controversial layers that would unfold before me, nor what I would personally be representing, but I do know how important it is for other Latinas, and females as a whole, to feel inspired and unafraid to truly pursue their passions and dreams as an equal human in this world.”

Biggest role model: “Bethenny Frankel, founder of Skinnygirl, was naturally the first role model in the industry that I had ever even heard of. She was the brand that gave me hope, and gave me the feeling that I could do this. Since then, I have come across a handful of women in the industry who I look up to and have had the honor of meeting: Dr. Sonat Birnecker Hart, of KOVAL Distillery, who I admire for her experience. Mary Pellettieri, of Top Note Sparkling Mixers, who has shown me what true collaboration in this industry looks like. And, Sheetal Bhagat, Founder of Spice Note Tequila.”

Elizabeth McCall, Assistant Master Distiller Woodford Reserve Biggest Challenge: “I knew nothing about spirits other than I enjoyed consuming them. I learned everything I know about spirits, from how they’re made to how they’re marketed in-house, at Brown-Forman. I feel this was, and still is, a tremendous advantage because I have been able to work with some of the most knowledgeable people in the industry. I have the opportunity to work directly with scientists and whiskey experts who have been working in the industry before working in the industry was cool.”

Biggest Goal: “Sustainability. Woodford Reserve has adopted many sustainability practices over the past 10 years that I am very proud of. We are restoring natural prairie land around our distillery grounds, we recycle our barrel char, give our spent grains to local farmers, and were the first distillery to start making whiskey with the Kentucky grown rye to name a few. I want our consumers to know that when they are consuming Woodford Reserve, they are supporting an environmentally conscious and sustainable product.”

Biggest role model: “All the women that I get the pleasure to work with are role models to me. I have had the great pleasure to be surrounded by women in my career since day one. These women have always had strong voices and have always demonstrated confidence in presenting their opinions on projects and decisions that will have major impacts on our brand.”

Camila Soriano, Co-founder, Volley Tequila Seltzers Biggest Challenge: “The nuances of the three-tier system are not in favor of small businesses and pose challenges for any new brand to emerge. For example, in our home state of South Carolina, any on-premise (bar/restaurant) account needs to purchase all of their alcohol from a store—they cannot purchase directly from a distributor. This ends up being detrimental to smaller brands that may not have the ability to lower their prices, and of course the price affects the end consumer.”

Biggest Goal: “Pioneering the clean drinking movement—from the inside out. This is why we only use three simple ingredients, each having a deliberate story behind them. The cans also have a beautiful foil topper to keep the lid clean and ready to consume when cracked open. Lastly, it is shocking that you are not required to list ingredients nor have a nutrition panel on alcoholic ingredients. Everyone has a right to know exactly what they are consuming and to make a choice whether to consume that product or not. Volley wants to gain that trust back in the consumer, because we are on their side.”

Biggest role model: “Women in sales roles—more specifically, the women on our sales team. They are resilient, hard-working and goal-oriented. It is not easy to deal with some store owners who constantly say ‘no,’ who don’t have the greatest attitude nor respect towards you, or to be at a bar with people you don’t know (many inebriated) to talk about your product. I am not saying that this is an easy task for men, but no one can argue against the fact that you need to have much thicker skin as a woman. For that, they are my role models and teach me something every day.”

Rachel Barrie, Master Blender The GlenDronach Biggest Challenge: “I started in the spirits industry 30 years ago, in the spring of 1992. At 23 years old, I was just learning the ropes as a research scientist. On moving into production, unlike today, there were very few women involved directly in whisky making, whether distilling, maturation or blending, and I had to quickly learn to be bold, courageous and persistent to push forward new ideas, and never give up until they came to fruition.”

Biggest Goal: “Sustainability, critical to protecting the long-term quality and growth of Scotch single malts; from sustainability of malted barley supply to quality oak for maturation, and protection of water source. I am passionate about the influences of nature and climate, especially on the distilleries, whether The GlenDronach in the Highland valley of Forgue, Benriach in the expansive plains of north Speyside, or the coastal Glenglassaugh situated on the crescent beach of Sandend Bay.”

Biggest role model: “The most notable is Sheila Burtles (who is now 92 years old!), a chemist like myself, who was the first woman I met at The Scotch Whisky Research Institute working on whisky flavor. She had an incredible curiosity combined with a passion to unlock the secrets of Scotch, to understand and influence the nature of flavor creation, both in terms of analytics and sensory perception. Her approach was contagious, as her exuberant personality and dedication to discovery gave me the courage and determination to succeed.”

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