Dervilla McGowan

Aussie women distillers getting in the spirit

November 12, 2020
By Melissa Parker

In an otherwise male-dominant industry, there is a burgeoning wave of enthusiastic and passionate women distillers in Australia.  Drinks Trade Online asked some of the new sassy spirit makers shaking up the scene what it’s like to be a woman distiller.

Ally Ayres at Karu Distillery started distilling spirits at the base of the Blue Mountains in New South Wales with her partner Nick. She is the distiller, and he is the business guy behind the scenes. Ally says it’s funny when people assume that it is the other way around.

“I like that is it surprising for some people,” she laughs. “People expect me to be the admin. It is kind of cool when you prove them wrong.”

Ally is an example of the growing number of young, energetic and talented Australian women turning their creativity to distilling and loving it.

Growing up, Ally didn’t know what a distiller was but says women have a natural talent to make spirit because they have honed palates able to pick up subtle nuances and delicate characters sometimes lost on their male counterparts. 

“We have different palates and pick up things, I can pick up notes Nick can’t and vice versa,” she says.

Ally Ayres

For Kathleen Davies, owner of craft spirits distribution, sales and marketing outfit, Nip of Courage it is about promoting these women as much as possible because, “women are less likely to promote themselves in a male- dominated industry.”

Kathleen started the Women of Australian Distilling Facebook group and has passionately supported women in distilling for the past six years. 

“I have been working in liquor for 30 years, and my whole career has been in a male-dominated industry,” says Kathleen.  “Back when I started as a rep there were 11 women and 500 men. I’ve always been of the belief women should lift other women up and give guidance.”

Other female distilling enablers are Kristy Booth Lark of the Killara Distillery and Genise Hollingsworth of Black Gate who both established the Australian Women in Distilling Association Inc (AWDA) to promote the industry to women, to support and importantly celebrate those already involved.

Caroline Childerley, aka The Gin Queen, and owner of the newly launched online local gin concierge service Ginporium is a wealth of knowledge on local craft distillers and says she can name 30 women gin distillers in Australia off the top of her head.

“The narrative that this is a male-dominated industry is just not valid anymore,” says Caroline, “There are just so many women distillers now.”

Caroline says in the past there were many couple-run distilleries, but now more women are starting distilling businesses on their own.

The Gin Queen says the obstacle with distilling opening up for women in this country is there is the lack of accredited training courses in distilling.

“There is not an obvious route and therefore it is difficult to find opportunities,” she said.

It seems the current route to the distilling trade is to either start a distillery and teach yourself or find a position in a craft distiller and learn that way. The roadblock with both these scenarios is money is needed either to start a distillery or to invest in apprenticeships.

One path is to grow up learning from a distiller mother and father.

That was the case with second generation craft distiller, Kristy Booth-Lark, daughter of Bill Lark, founder of one of Australia’s first craft distilleries, Lark Distillery in Tasmania.

Two years ago Kristy started the Killara Distillery where she makes whisky and gin and is now developing a brandy. Kristy champions the ‘paddock to bottle’ philosophy and is looking to distil seasonal sprits from her orchards and herb gardens.  

“Mum, Lyn Lark, was the first woman distiller in Australia,” says Kristy proudly.

Kristy is a champion of women in distilling and says apart from keeping recipe secrets; there is not much that she wouldn’t share to help a fellow female distiller.

“There is a general openness in the industry, and many are willing to help.”

Her brainchild, the AWDA was established to promote women distillers, highlight their achievements and provide a platform for support and advice.

“I have had a lot of women say to me it’s great there is this safe space where they can talk to other women without feeling discriminated against.”

“The industry is only enhanced by having more women joining, and it is scientifically noted that women’s palates are generally better, plus you are cutting out a large proportion of the consumer public if you are not coming from the female perspective,” Kristy says.

At Anther Distilling in Geelong the distilling team is all women. Head distiller and co-founder Dervilla McGowan’s team is ex-Craft and Co distiller Gabby McKeon and now recent recruit, distiller cellarhand, ex-hospo dynamo, Joey Tai.

“My team is all women, amazing accomplished intelligent women,” boasts McGowan, “We are blessed with phenomenal women in this industry.”

Dervilla McGowan and her partner Sebastian Reaburn started the distillery in 2016. Dervilla holds a PhD in microbiology so comes from a background of science but fell in love with the idea of distilling from a stint in the hospitality business. She says the trickiest part is getting the taste right, so an all-female team works well for that.

“You have to be able to taste flavours at a high ABV, and that takes focus. You need to sit and centre yourself and then taste,” Dervilla explains.

Head distiller at Fleurieu Distillery, Angela Andrews agrees.

“It’s heartening to see so many women getting into it. There are not so many in whisky and rum yet, but there are a lot of women in gin because there is a real art to getting the botanicals right with gin, it’s very instant, and this appeals to women because we have a good sense of smell,” says Angela.

Angela says the growth in women’s interest in spirits is really picking up, and the opportunities are definitely there for women looking for an exciting alternative to working with wine. 

There is an overwhelming sense of collaboration among female craft distillers in Australia. It is a collegiate environment that appears on track to increase in strength as the industry grows and that is a great development for the local craft spirit industry.

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