I’ve just read The Atlantic’s article about a history book called Whiskey Women (2013). Author Fred Minnick uncovered the economic and social control of women in relation to alcohol making and how women who stood up to that might be accused of witchcraft.
I’ve just written a psychological thriller about witchcraft accusations in England in 1635. Lindsey Gilpin’s article in the Atlantic about Minnick’s book has definitely added to my historical knowledge and is enticingly written. Read the full article in the link in the title below or read my extract below which presents the aspects I found the most interesting.
Women are credited with the invention of beer around 4,000 B.C., when they fermented barley to make the beverage. Egyptian women, Peruvian women, Dutch women—they were all brewmasters with their own particular, popular recipes. Maria Hebraea, an alchemist who was first written about in the fourth century, has been credited with building an early distilling apparatus. That device, the alembic still, is still used in some parts of Europe for making brandy or whiskey, and is a model for stills used today in the foothills of Appalachia, where people continue to make moonshine.
By the medieval era, women were distilling spirits in Western Europe, but soon they were stripped of basic rights, barred from reading and studying math or science. In some cultures, they weren’t allowed to be near alcohol. Women do not appear in most texts from this era, and there was little to no mention of these operations for many years, until they started popping back up again in the 1200s, Minnick says. Women were running apothecaries as the demand for distilled medicines increased. They made “aqua vitae”—distilled beer, wine, or spirits—for medicinal use. Until the 1500s, women distilled and sold aqua vitae relatively peacefully.
That changed during the time of witch hunts. One of the pieces of evidence that could be used to prosecute women for witchcraft, Minnick says, was to have a vial of aqua vitae in hand. If a woman was selling it to the community to get drunk, she’d receive a slap on the wrist. But if something went wrong—if a neighbor’s child died or livestock perished—that same charge could lead to a conviction of witchcraft and a sentence of death.
By the late 1700s, American women were distilling at home. Minnick is convinced he found the earliest form of dating sites in old newspapers, men put ads out for wives, sometimes specifying a preference for women who could brew beer or distill spirits (in addition to being able to make clothes and churn butter, of course).
…Though it wasn’t entirely socially acceptable for women to drink liquor until the late 20th century, they continued to work in the distilleries as bottling plant managers, owners, and distillers—though they rarely, if ever, received prominent titles. Owning a business was risky; if they lost their husband and all that he owned, they could lose their children too, so women often hid behind initials on paper.