Kristy Booth-Lark is one of Australia’s most experienced distillers. She first learnt the trade from her parents, Lyn and Bill Lark, two of the pioneering figures in Tasmania’s whisky boom. She’s distilled some of Australia’s most significant and award-winning whiskies and is now the owner-operator of Killara Distillery where she produces quality single malt whisky and gin.
And yet, Kristy says her expertise is consistently called into question, almost on a weekly basis.
‘I still get questioned all the time. I’ve been running my business for four years and I’ve worked in the industry for over 20 years and I still get questioned on a fortnightly, if not a weekly basis – ‘So, does your dad do it all for you?’
‘But my brother Jack, who has been working in the industry for four years, has never had that question asked of him… There still is that gender and unconscious bias that we have towards whisky, and that needs to change,’ Kristy says.
Kristy Booth-Lark. Photo – Killara Distillery
Kristy related this experience during a recent webinar hosted by Becky Paskin, the UK whisky writer and journalist at the forefront of promoting women in whisky through initiatives like the Our Whisky campaign.
Last year, Paskin and journalist Felipe Schrieberg spawned an outpouring of commentary after criticising the sexist language used by Jim Murray in his influential ‘Whisky Bible’.
Following the posts and articles, several of the industry’s biggest companies denounced the Whisky Bible and Jim Murray’s reviews. Women from across the whisky world then started speaking out about the sexism and harassment they regularly faced when simply trying to do their job.
Miranda Lidgerwood, events manager and bartender at Melbourne’s Whisky & Alement, can speak to that reality.
‘My first shift at Whisky & Alement, a man didn’t want to be served by me,’ says Lidgerwood. ‘I had a (male) patron speak up on my behalf and say ‘there’s a reason she’s working here, give her a chance’ and it was only then that he’d be served by me.’
‘I’d love to see that me being behind the bar or driving a tasting at one of the world’s leading whisky institutions was enough to show that I know my shit. It’s disheartening having to constantly prove yourself.’
Miranda Lidgerwood. Photo – Whisky & Alement
Many women in whisky have similar stories. Angela Andrews, co-owner and distiller at Fleurieu Distillery in South Australia, says that she initially found the move from education into the whisky industry ‘intimidating’. She was also disappointed by marketing and attitudes that objectified women in promoting the consumption of whisky.
‘Even in 2021 when you think we should be so much further than what we are when it comes to gender equality and celebrating diversity, sexism continues to be prevalent within our society in varying degrees,’ says Andrews.
‘Australian Whisky is an emerging industry and there are definitely elements of this as well. It doesn’t necessarily present as blatant, often it can be subtle. While I’ve had to deal with out and out heckling when driving the forklift around to help load grain into the distillery, it is the subtle comments and actions that can catch you off guard.’
Until recently, women were poorly represented across the Australian whisky landscape, a situation Andrews has written about in her From Words to Whisky site.
Angela Andrews. Photo – From Words to Whisky
To help correct the imbalance, Kristy Booth-Lark formed the Australian Women in Distilling Association after attending an Australian whisky awards where women hardly featured.
‘There were 12 categories, over 110 finalists, but only five of the finalists were women,’ says Kristy. ‘I just thought, that’s ridiculous given the scope of women within the Australian industry and how amazing some of them are. Top down, the culture needs to change, and it is, slowly, which is great.’
Bree Attwood, distiller and co-owner of Backwoods Distilling Co., says she’s benefited from the gradual progress. But when she attended her first Australian Distillers Association (ADA) conference the room was dominated by men.
‘I remember walking into my first ADA conference and there were so many men in the room. You definitely seek out the other women, and just the support that you get from people like Angela Andrews and Genise Hollingworth and Kristy, to have women like that that are leading the way and making more people feel included, it’s incredible to help build each other up.’
Photo – Australian Women in Distilling Association
On the distribution and wholesale side of the equation, Kathleen Davies, founder of Nip of Courage and the Women of Australian Distilling Facebook group, has long been a prominent advocate for women in whisky.
In recognition of this work, Nip of Courage was selected as a recipient of the ‘Boosting Female Founders Grant’, a government-backed initiative helping female founders to launch and scale their businesses.
‘Women need to step out into the light,’ says Davies. ‘There’s still a lot of up-and-coming and emerging female Australian whisky producers who are hesitant to step into the limelight, and that’s where I hope I can help.’
Front of mind for many in the industry is altering the perception that whisky is a ‘man’s drink’ and that women don’t drink it. In fact, since 2010, there’s been a 15% increase in whisky consumption by women, and women now account for 35% of whisky drinkers.
Top left: Jane Sawford, owner of Overeem Distillery; Bottom Left: Carlie Dyer, distiller and blender at Starward Whisky; Top Right: Heather Tillott, Head Distiller Sullivans Cove; Bottom Left: Brooke Hayman, co-owner Whisky & Alement
‘Women are out in force drinking, making and talking about whisky,’ says Miranda Lidgerwood. ‘Some of the best whisky brains in the industry are women – Heather Tillott, Becky Paskin, Rachel Barrie, just to name a few, and it has been this way for a very long time. Perception is hard to change but I think we are already halfway there. We have the presence if you look for us, and we are being loud, if you listen.’
For women looking to establish themselves in whisky, Kristy Booth-Lark offers this advice. ‘Keep trying, keep asking, keep knocking on doors. Start somewhere within that business and work your way to your goal job. You might not be able to do what you want straight away, but take steps towards it, and don’t be dissuaded. Don’t underestimate your worth or your value to the company or to the business.’
Adds Angela Andrews: ‘Be resilient. Follow your dream, surround yourself with people who understand your passion. Be the best that you can be, continue to learn and improve your knowledge and skills wherever you can. Reach out – join some great Facebook groups and associations to help you network and grow professionally, and continue to help other women.’