Celebrating trailblazing Women: Bessie Williamson
Introducing Bessie Williamson, the first lady of Scotch Whisky.
Her story, like Laphroaig itself, is one of a distinct and unforgettable spirit. The 50s and 60s were a time when many women were expected to identify as wives and mothers as their primary role. Bessie worked against the tide and not only became a working woman; she joined a heavily male dominated industry and became the first lady to manage a distillery in the 20th Century.
Her journey was an unconventional one, arriving on Islay during the summer of 1934 and staying there for nearly 50 years. After securing a temporary job as a shorthand typist at the Laphroaig distillery, her hard-working nature led her to become office manager. When Ian Hunter, the Distillery Manager, became ill, she assumed control of the distillery. It was under Bessie’s direction that the Laphroaig distillery saw marked upgrading and development. It may have been one of Islay’s most in-demand whiskies, but Bessie quickly realised that it required substantial investment to modernise production facilities and increase the capacity of warehouses. She secured this much-needed investment; helping increase production to ensure demand for the liquid could be met then and long into the future.
Bessie was an early supporter of single malt Scotch and played a pivotal role in positioning Laphroaig, and by extension other Islay malts, for the American market. Her strong business acumen, allied no doubt to the curiosity value of being a woman in a very male business, impressed the officials of the Scotch Whisky Association and she was appointed ambassador to North America, where she toured in the 1960s promoting Islay whisky to buyers and distributors and educating them on Scotch Whisky production.
She was quoted in the Chicago Tribune in 1965, with the same level of sophistication as today’s master blenders and distillers: “Take it slowly, do not toss it down. Whisky should be sipped either neat or with water when the drinker is relaxed or wants to become relaxed. The fashionable time is before or after dinner, or after a hard day at the office”.
She never forgot about the people of Islay and was widely respected for her contribution to the island’s social as well as its business life. She played a prominent role in the Scottish Women’s Rural Institute, organising concerts, fêtes and tea parties to raise money for worthy local causes. She often joined in with the annual peat cutting, singing, and dancing to Gaelic songs at the Saturday night “ceilidhs.” She was also known for lending workers money, clothing children and generally helping the needy. Bessie was awarded the Order of St John for her charity work by Queen Elizabeth II in 1963.