Spirit Works Distillery never intended for an all-female production crew. But that’s how it worked out for the Sonoma-based craft distillery. And that makes the business a microcosm of sorts for women in the industry.
“We’re proud of that fact,” explains co-founder Ashby Marshall (pictured atop, left) regarding the gender of her team, “but it hasn’t been our philosophy. When hiring we’re just trying to find the right people, and it’s happened to work out this way.”
“It does shock people,” she adds. “And I do sometimes get, ‘Where’s your boss?’ But once people get passed that they get excited when they find out it’s an all-female production team.”
Spirit Works opened in 2013. It’s a grain-to-glass facility that mashes and ferments in-house, and currently produces vodka, gin, barrel-aged gin, sloe gin, and straight rye and wheat whiskies. Marshall founded the distillery with her husband Timo after the two met on an environmental research vessel and discovered a mutual love of craft spirits. She had no formal experience in distilling, but the two eventually created a distillery from the ground up while exploring ways to produce Timo’s family’s sloe-gin recipe.
There was a lot of trial and error, success and failure. The couple benefitted from shadowing members of the craft-distilling community to learn the trade and set expectations. All that studying and hard work has paid off: Fortune Magazine named Marshall among the most innovative women in food and drink in 2016.
“That was an incredible compliment, and I’m delighted to be a part of the women in that category,” Marshall says. “The women in that list were exceptional.”
Marshall changed roles in 2017 to become Spirit Works’ brand director. Her protégé Lauren Patz (pictured atop, right) became the new head distiller. Rounding out the Spirit Works staff are Tasting Room Manager Amanda Graziano, Brand Ambassador Krisztina Lazar, and Production Associate/Apprentice Distiller Nikki Lucas.
So does the all-female team make a difference at Spirit Works?
“There may be a higher attention to detail and higher cleanliness standards,” laughs Marshall. “People who visit are often surprised by how tidy everything is. Especially because we’re in the heart of the wine industry, which tends to be on the messy side.”
“We’ve had people tell us we’re the cleanest production space in all of Sonoma County,” she adds.
Beyond those qualities, Marshall does not think Spirit Works is any different for its staff. Especially when craft distilleries across the country are naming female head distillers and hiring more women.
“I think because this industry is still so new, women are more accepted as professionals,” Marshall says. “Most craft distilleries start from scratch with whatever staff they can get, and that alone makes the industry more welcoming.”
And that gives Marshall and other trendsetters the opportunity to train the next generation of female distillers — including her successor, Lauren Patz.
The daughter of Napa winery owners, Patz’s background also includes chocolate. She paired candies with whiskey while working at the San Francisco-based TCHO Chocolate, before joining Spirit Works in 2014 as tasting room manager and apprentice distiller.
“When working with chocolate pairings I was really getting in touch with my palate,” Patz recalls. “Now I’m playing around with different botanicals and gins and other things and seeing what combinations present themselves in interesting ways. I’m following the path that my senses lead me down.”
As for the all-female aspect of Spirit Works, Patz believes the “mechanics of it don’t really make an impact. It’s the same thing but different.”
However, she adds, it does generate publicity for the distillery.
“I think there’s a lot more room for women now in spirits,” Patz says. “And not just in production. But also in sales and marketing. There are a good amount of women in high-up positions.”
Still, when Patz recently attended a distilling industry conference, she noted that “about 90 percent” of attendees were male.
“Across the board there’s still a lot of room for women to grow,” Patz says. “The industry is pretty welcoming towards women. I haven’t personally encountered any resistance.”
“I think it’s more about the individual in our industry,” she adds, “and your integrity and passion towards what you do. And people respond to that.”
Kyle Swartz is managing editor of Cheers magazine. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his recent article on 7 Whiskey Trends To Watch In 2017.