Well into the 21st century, more than a decade into the craft spirits movement, you’d hope that women and whiskey wouldn’t qualify as a radical combination. Alas, a stubborn stigma persists in certain circles—a barrier that prevents qualified women in the field from infiltrating the guarded boys club. It hardly matters to Bridget Maloney. She started a club of her own, Women Who Love Whiskey. As it celebrates its fourth anniversary this month, its co-founder shares the secrets of translating her passion into a career and finding kindred spirits along the way.
Maloney’s story begins with a classic breakup tale: She moved to Alaska, fell for a bartender and followed him to grad school before breaking up with him and returning to Seattle. She was at a tumultuous crossroads in her life and opted to delve deeper into the craft bar scene that was coming to define the Pacific Northwest.
“I fell back into the bar world as a means to an end while I figured things out,” she says. “I was completely unaware that that industry would become my future.”
But steadfast dedication behind the stick quickly opened up an array of professional adventures, including invites to Speed Rack and the cocktail apprentice program at Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans. It wasn’t long before she was offered a brand ambassador position with St-Germain. What started off as a way to cope with being on her own had quietly transitioned into a full-blown career. “A means to an end was now my life,” she says.
It was after her first year at Camp Runamok, however, that Maloney stumbled upon a deeper calling within the craft community. “There were more women than men, eager to learn about whiskey,” she says of the annual retreat in the heart of Bourbon Country. “We were in the middle of Kentucky, at an adult bartenders summer camp, assigned cabins with counselors and cabin mates and learning about whiskey from iconic individuals like Fred Noe and Chris Morris. This was real life!”
It wasn’t just what she learned about the whiskey that struck a chord but who she was learning with—namely, other women. “When I returned to Seattle, I felt inspired,” says Maloney. “I was riding off this high from being surrounded by so many strong woman in the industry who cared about whiskey and cocktails and education. I wanted to help bring that to Seattle.”
Far too many moments of inspiration are sat upon and squandered. But Maloney struck the hammer while the iron was hot. “Over a series of lunches and dinners that usually involved whiskey, my business partners Melissa Cross, Jamie Buckman and I got to developing what is now Women Who Love Whiskey.” The inaugural event, in December of 2014, was held at Rob Roy, an esteemed cocktail bar in the Belltown neighborhood. It attracted a healthy crowd of local whiskey lovers eager to pay dues and become active members. “It was happening, and it was magical,” says Maloney.
Within a year, more than 100 women had joined, helping fund more than 30 events, from tastings to cocktail competitions, fundraisers to distillery tours. “Our mission was, and is to this day, to provide education and support to women inside and outside our industry,” says Maloney. “We are by women for women. Support is one of our greatest instruments.”
When it comes to addressing sexism in the industry and beyond, Maloney and her band of sisters lean on each other to combat the stigma they face when bellying up to the bar. She says it’s a slow and steady battle, chipping away at a pervasively dogged mindset. “I would love if we lived in a society where a group like Women Who Love Whiskey didn’t need to exist,” she says. “Where we could all enjoy ordering a glass without intimidation, where we could savor a glass of whiskey without shock, scoffing, assumptions or judgment. But until then, we’re going to continue raising our drams and enjoying the fine spirit with a group of like-minded women.”
While helping foster a more hospitable environment for her female colleagues, Maloney’s own career has thrived. Recently promoted from behind the bar at Frolik Kitchen + Cocktails inside Seattle’s Motif Hotel, she now consults on opening new properties for its parent company.
“When I speak with friends from high school and college, they always mention how I was able to turn what I love into a career,” says Maloney. “ I am very proud of that. I can’t tell you how many Thanksgivings there were where my family would ask when I was getting a real job. Now when I show up, they are asking me what cocktails I’ll be making.”