Bessie Williamson was born in 1910, the daughter of a French gunner who died eight years later. In 1932, she graduated from the University of Glasgow with a degree in education, and took a job at the Laphroaig distillery. It was intended to be a stepping-stone position for her, before she could fulfill her dream of becoming a teacher. Her drive and tenacity had an immediate impact on the company, and within five years, she was the full time manager of the entire distilleries operations.
By the time of the Second World War, distilleries all over Scotland were faced with the threat of theft and looting, as Scottish military leaders sought to use distilling facilities for storage and training purposes. Williamson was credited with holding off those pressures, and keeping the Laphroaig distillery profitable in the midst of chaos. She inherited the controlling shares of the distillery in 1954, and became one of the most powerful women in the whisky industry.
Many also credit Williamson with her marketing of Single Malt Scottish Whiskeys to American markets. Where a market barely existed, Williamson saw the potential and forged a trail for the modern day multi-million dollar market of Scotch in America. As she described it in the 1960s, "The secret of Islay whiskies is the peaty water and the peat ... there's an increasing demand for the [single] Islay whiskies. We can't supply the demand that we have for our whiskies."
For more on Bessie Williamson, and many other inspiring women in the whisky world, check out Fred Minnick's 2013 book Whiskey Women: The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch, and Irish Whiskey
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