Brown-Forman is putting more women at the helm of major whiskey and bourbon brands

September 15, 2022, 6:00 PM UTC
Beyond whiskey, women make up 48% of the global senior leadership positions across the entire company.
Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg

When Rachel Barrie first became a master blender for a Scotch whisky brand in 2003—the first female to hold such a title—she was invited by the team at Brown-Forman to be a part of their “The Women of High Spirits” event. It was a gathering of women who worked in the male-dominated world of liquor production. For Barrie, to be alongside other female leaders in the beverage industry at the time, like Lynn Tolley at Jack Daniel’s and Joyce Spence of Appleton Rum, was innovative.

“I had never heard of anything like this before,” Barrie says. “Even back then Brown-Forman was leading the charge.”

Today, Barrie holds the illustrious title of master blender for three Scotch producers—Benriach, GlenDronach, and Glenglassaugh—and brings nearly 30 years of whisky experience to these three brands in the Brown-Forman portfolio.

She credits that initial experience with Brown-Forman two decades ago as one of the reasons she now works for the Fortune 1000 company: There is simply no other beverage company elevating the profile of women in whiskey like it, she says. In fact, her entire production senior leadership team in Scotland is 60% women.

“They are proof of the increasingly diverse, interconnected, and inclusive world this industry is—role models—literally showing that it can be done and encouraging the next generation to be better,” Barrie says of her employer.

Barrie believes that developing and supporting women as they rise is key to attracting and retaining talent. And it’s something she has witnessed Brown-Forman do over and over. It’s not just about the numbers of women in certain positions to pitch as marketing fodder; it’s all the offerings and attitudes that Brown-Forman shows on a daily basis to empower its employees.

In the process, they just so happen to have some of the best female distillers running flagship whiskey brands: Elizabeth McCall at Woodford Reserve, Jackie Zykan at Old Forester, Lexie Amacher-Phillips at Jack Daniel’s, and Barrie at Benriach, GlenDronach, and Glenglassaugh. Beyond whiskey, women make up 48% of the global senior leadership positions across the entire company, which also includes such standout voices in the wine industry as Zidanelia Arcidiacono and Cara Morrison, the winemakers at Sonoma-Cutrer, a major California wine producer.

“We recognize that talented, capable, and passionate people always have choices about where they work and how they want to reach their desired potential,” says Kirsten Hawley, the company’s chief people, places, and communications officer. “When their individual values align with corporate values, and the place where they work is a place they can do work that matters, well, that’s when the magic happens.”

Hawley is part of the team that, in 2019, began to codify everything Brown-Forman is doing to support female employees, with goals set for 2030. That encompasses various development programs for women, such as the Black Female Experience Initiative focused on career progression; a women’s resource group for employees dubbed GROW (growing remarkable and outstanding women); GM Readiness Program to groom women for the general management pipeline; internal mentorship programs; leadership goals that reflect monetary investment in female employees; advancements in employee perks, especially around personal time off and parental leave; wellness options that benefit the health of employee families; and goals to reach at least 50% women in the company’s professional and leadership positions.

“They have supported me throughout my career by listening to my desires and taking action,” says Elizabeth McCall, who has worked with the company since 2009. She is now the assistant master distiller at Woodford Reserve and works heavily on research and development of new products. “I’ve been able to carve out a path when there has not been a set path for my role.”

McCall is perhaps the most visible woman in bourbon whiskey from Brown-Forman. She gives the annual toast with a Woodford Reserve Mint Julep each year on NBC for the Kentucky Derby and has generally become the spokesperson for the brand for both trade and consumer events. In fact, you less often see her mentor, Chris Morris, who is the brand’s official master distiller and a spokesperson too.

While McCall takes her role very seriously, she is also cognizant of her other responsibilities: as a partner, a parent to a young daughter, and caretaker to a pup. For her, Brown-Forman has gone above and beyond to make her feel less guilty about managing both important positions at once. “If my daughter gets sick and I have to take the day off to take care of her, my team just sends wishes for her to feel better,” McCall says. “[There are no] negative repercussions or push back.”

McCall and Barrie are both members of the GROW resource group, where women in the company can come together to talk about everything from career trajectory to issues outside of work. It’s created a camaraderie amongst the women at the company, including those in other departments like marketing, finance, sales, and operations. Barrie credits this group as a major confidence-booster for her.

In their time at the company, there has also been a shift in the larger industry. Katy Fennema, whisky ambassador at Bertie’s in the Fife Arms Hotel in Ballater, Scotland, explains that she has seen a massive increase in the number of women in high-profile roles at distilleries in the U.K. as well as more female consumers; in the U.K., nearly one-third of whiskey drinkers are women, she adds. However, marketing is continuing to lead with a male-dominated image, which she believes, is further detracting from the moves women have made in the industry.

“It feels like the boundaries of whiskey production are in a period of flux,” Fennema says, noting the “extraordinary breadth of flavors” available and the the inclusion of whiskey in cocktails and highballs has helped reach new audiences. “Whiskey is coming out of the gentlemen’s club, as old stereotypes are pushed to the sidelines.”

She says that when her team mentions that a whiskey has been made by a woman, their guests are delighted. She feels this exemplifies the progression the industry has made so far: The more we normalize women in the industry, the less remarkable it is to consumers, she adds.

That echoes the ethos of Brown-Forman. While the company is putting an emphasis on harboring female talent, Hawley says that it’s less about gender and more about them simply being the best for the job, whether that’s leading a manufacturing facility, executing a communications campaign, developing a public relations strategy, forecasting finances, advancing technology efforts, or running analytics teams.

And, making the best bourbon. McCall says that she loves learning from the innovation and growth in the bourbon industry today, and putting out incredible products—but she still gets a kick out of of the double take when she tells someone her job title. “One day that will change as women in my role become the norm,” McCalls says. “For now, it just makes me smile. It’s always fun to surprise people.”

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