Ten years ago when Lorien Schramm and her now husband, Tyler Schramm were starting Pemberton Distillery, there were few other craft distilleries in BC. Now they are popping up all over the province, not as quickly as craft breweries, but slowly and surely people are buying local spirits in addition to wine, produce, and other fare.
Lorien (who was preparing to give birth to their second child when we spoke) is my fellow distillery sister on the Sea to Sky. I’m working from home, so I’ll be around. Unless of course I go into labour she laughs. Having had my first child a year or so earlier, I know she is only kind of joking. Like most of the other women in the distillery movement, she sits more on the administrative side. Her background in business is a perfect match for Tyler’s distilling-focused expertise. Although Lorien and I both work long hours and have struggled with the nuances of working with our partners, balancing childcare, and all that comes with being a true family business, we agree that support from community is wonderful. There are few other jobs where we can bring our children to markets and have them at our sides while we work.
I ask Lorien about her experience doing sales and working behind the tasting room bar while being pregnant.
“With my first, I was out there doing events with my big belly and some people really struggled with putting the two together”
I couldn’t agree more. I hustled at farmers’ markets until two weeks before my son was born. One man said to me, “That’s different, you know selling alcohol and being pregnant”
To which I said:”Well, my friend, women have businesses and women have babies.
Still, it’s difficult for some people to accept. One has to consider what it’s like for female bartenders in their childbearing years, what that world is like to navigate, never mind the hard labour of any profession involving spirits. Whether you are shaking cocktails behind the bar or pitching a mash or up on a ladder adjusting a still, the booze business is labour intensive.
This is one reason why Miriam Karp and Mia Glanz of Odd Society Spirits muse on its appeal more to men than women. In the vein of traditional family businesses, Gordon Glanz is the distiller behind Odd Society, but his wife and daughter work closely with him, doing sales, HR, product development, and everything else it takes to run a successful business.
“Lots of distilleries are run by couples,” Miriam reminds me. “The men couldn’t do it without us!” So true.
In the cases of Sheringham, Maple Leaf, Wayward, and many more, it is the perfect blend of male-female counterparts that make up a successful team, often with men leaning more toward the technical aspects; the women, along the lines of communication. Lisa Simpson excels at exactly this kind of leadership role. As proprietor, co-owner, and self-described “master of everything” at Liberty Distillery on Granville Island, Lisa takes care of all aspects of running the business while a male distiller makes the products to her specifications. When I ask her why we seem to take on these roles at distilleries, she replies, “We are firing on all cylinders at all times, we collaborate. Women are carving out space in a new area and doing it well.” I find there is still negative stigma around hard alcohol and women’s consumption of it. Beer and wine are somehow acceptable for women to drink, but the perception is that hard alcohol is too potent. The flip side of this is the resurgence of the cocktail movement, which is quickly increasing in popularity. Odd Society is situated in the middle of heaps of breweries, and women often bring their partners in for a cocktail, a welcome break from the beer crawl. Mia Glanz gladly serves them from behind the bar and often serves them the product she developed, her Mia Amata Amaro. The stigma of women being the “little lady behind the man” in distilling hasn’t changed for nearly enough people.
I was working a market a while ago and a gentleman who popped by the booth was addressing questions to the man I was with (who just happened to be a friend visiting from out of town and not even involved in the distillery). When I started to respond to his questions, he said, “Nu-uh. I want to talk to the man.” I politely informed him (with steam emitting from my ears) that if he was hoping to taste or have the chance to make a purchase, he was going to have to talk to me. He has subsequently made a few purchases from us, mostly because I think he is afraid of me. While men and their fabulous brains and hearts are devoted to the task of making beautiful spirits, there are often women running every other aspect of the distillery: dealing with the tax man, promoting, popping up farmers’ market tents, doing social media and marketing, managing people.
It wasn’t always this way. The alembic still was invented by a woman, and women were charged with distilling while men laboured in the harvest. Due to many cultural factors since then, women have not been associated with spirits. Add to that the manual labour required in most start-up distilleries, and it means doors have not been all that wide open for women. But the future looks different. As the cocktail bartender movement shifts and women are becoming heralded as world class in these circles, we should expect more women to step up to the mash tun as well. As women gain more visibility in the booze industry overall, we’ll see more of our sisters taking positions as master blenders and head distillers. For now, we will be doing everything else it takes to keep those stills running.