While you were toasting to better times (or drowning in your sorrows), there’s been a quiet shake-up in distilling. Traditionally male-dominated, the spirits world is putting more women in charge of making the liquors you drink.
The spirits industries and individual houses vary on how they grant titles, but typically "master distiller" and "master blender" are awarded to those who've had years of hands-on experience in distilleries and at least some college education (usually in chemistry). Each industry has its own certification and tasting boards, too. Thus how one moves up within the ranks to become a master distiller or a master blender is specific not only to each spirits sector but also to each spirits house. Many of the world’s best-known spirits houses were founded by men, who often anointed other male colleagues as master distillers and blenders when they stepped down, setting up generations of male leadership.
But things are finally changing. Last fall, Bombay Sapphire hired Dr. Ann Brock, who has a PhD in organic chemistry, as its master distiller. She joins a rarefied but growing demographic of female master distillers and blenders.
Lesley Gracie, who joined William Grant & Sons in 1988, is credited with creating the Hendrick’s Gin recipe in 1999. Gracie is still master distiller for Hendrick’s, where she is one of just five people in the world who know how Hendrick’s is made. At Dewar's, master blender Stephanie MacLeod crafts all that Scotch, while in Jamaica, you’ll find Joy Spence, the celebrated master blender for Appleton Estate rum. (Spence, incidentally, is the first woman in the spirits industry to hold a master-blender title, according to Campari Group, which owns Appleton Estate.) Jassil Villanueva Quintana is the first female head distiller for Brugal Rum; in 2015, she became the youngest master of rum, at age 28.
And then there’s Ana Maria Romero Mena.
In 2007, Romero Mena published The Aromas of Tequila: The Art of Tasting, which identifies the various sensory notes found in tequila and explains how each scent develops. Following the publication of her book, she established a tequila-focused consultancy through which she would teach people about the various aromas in tequila and how they develop through distilling.
It takes several steps to turn raw agave into sipping tequila. Each tequila house makes choices — what part of the country the agave is sourced from, how it is cooked, how distillers finish the liquid — that impact the final spirit in the glass. As part of her research into aromas and tasting notes, Romero Mena visited every tequila house, large and small, to document all the subtle variations between styles.
She identified over 600 individual scents (such as peach, cherry, and banana) that she mapped onto an aroma wheel, which was adopted by the industry. Romero Mena is also a maestra tequilera, someone who oversees the entire tequila process from start to finish. (Think of it as a combination of master distiller plus master blender.)
So when Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy decided it was time to create its very first tequila, Volcan de Mi Tierra, it makes sense that it came to her. “She's seen all styles of approaches and projects,” Volcan de Mi Tierra CEO Trent Fraser says. “From a consultancy basis, working with these big brands, she’s been steered in a very specific direction. But for the first time, like a great artist, we’ve given her a blank canvas.”
So what does a celebrated maestra tequilera do when given resources to create a tequila from scratch? Honor all the rules, then completely break them.