Fred Minnick is an award-winning, ascot-wearing, journalist and photographer. His newest book, Whiskey Women, combines two of my favorite things–history and whiskey.* I’m thrilled that he’s agreed to answer a few questions about the book, and whiskey, here on History in the Margins.
Pour yourself a dram, pull up a seat, and enjoy!
You came to Whiskey Women as a journalist, not a historian. How did you make the leap to writing about the past?
I’m fascinated with history, and whiskey essentially equals history. Early Americans used it for medicinal purposes and currency. You can’t professionally write about whiskey without covering history at some point. Whiskey helped found this country. George Washington was a distiller; and the Whiskey Rebellion was the first time the federal army took arms against citizens.
You cover a lot of historical ground in Whiskey Women, from Mesopotamian beer brewers to Prohibition bootleggers to women distillery owners. Was there one story that initially caught your imagination?
There were so many. But I found six so-called Queen of the Bootleggers. Every time a woman was apprehended for bootlegging during Prohibition, the press gave her a moniker. If she had a large amount of booze, they seem to always call her Queen of the Bootleggers. But there was really only one—Gertrude Cleo Lythgoe. She ran a multimillion-dollar bootlegging operation and supplied the United States with premium Scotch and rye whiskey. She was so famous that men wrote to newspapers asking Cleo to marry them.
The phrase “whiskey women” calls to mind tough broads. Did you find that the stereotype held true?
I certainly discovered quite a few pistol-packing women, but most women making legitimate or illicit whiskey were just trying to provide for their families after a husband died.
The importance of women in the whiskey business seems to hold true across time and geographical boundaries. Are there traditional social factors that link women to whiskey?
Yes. Poor women were often forced into distilling. During the Irish famine, when arrested, one woman said illegal whiskey was the only way she could provide for her family. The same story was told to judges during America’s Prohibition. It was such an issue that President William McKinley and governors frequently pardoned single mothers from moonshining and bootlegging sentences. Judges were also more lenient to single mothers.
How will whiskey brands react to your book?
I’ve had several people tell me it will change the industry or at least how they market to women. After Prohibition, distillers made a pact not to market to women. They lifted this nearly 30 years ago, but are only now marketing to women and are doing so by creating lighter whiskies or flavoring them. In my book, I dispel the myth that women don’t like whiskey. In fact, they’ve been drinking and making whiskey since the beginning.
Finally, for those of us who like whiskey as well as history, is there a particular tipple you’d recommend that we sip while we read Whiskey Women?
I hope more people ask me this question, because I’m extremely excited about my findings in researching Bushmills, Laphroaig and Maker’s Mark. Women shaped these three brands and really changed their respective categories.
For more information on Fred and Whiskey Women,visit his website: www.fredminnick.com
* Or whisky, depending on where your bottle hails from. Personally, I’m picky but not parochial.