Women of Brummell: passion for spirits

Elizabeth McCall became master distiller at Woodford Reserve in 2023, continuing the increasing presence of female leaders in traditionally male-dominated industries

People 2 Apr 2024

Elizabeth McCall became master distiller at Woodford Reserve in 2023, continuing the increasing presence of female leaders in traditionally male-dominated industries

Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you got into the premium spirits business?

I started in the bourbon industry completely by chance. I was attending my younger brother’s graduation party and discussing my upcoming graduation from graduate school, where I was getting my master’s in counselling psychology. Coincidentally, there was a man there who worked for Brown-Forman and overheard me discussing my future career plans. He informed me that the sensory department had a technician that was leaving and would have a spot open. I sent in my resume and a few months later I got the job.

How did your role begin at Woodford Reserve?

My career at Brown-Forman began as a sensory technician, washing dishes and setting up tasting panels. A few years later I took an internal class on spirits, where I made a positive impression on our master distiller Chris Morris who, unbeknownst to me, was looking for someone to train to be Woodford Reserve’s master taster. A few months later, he asked if I wanted to train for the role. I said yes, of course! After working as master taster and senior quality control specialist for the past three or so years I was promoted to assistant master distiller in 2018. In 2023, I was promoted to master distiller.

Have you always had a passion for spirits?  

Not always – I discovered my passion after learning about spirits, particularly bourbon. I was fascinated by how the flavours are naturally created through the process of making the product. I also find the history of bourbon an interesting perspective on people’s movement westward and their motivation to put down roots in what became Kentucky.

Woodford Reserve Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Woodford Reserve Straight Bourbon Whiskey

In February 2023, Woodford Reserve announced you as its new master distiller. What changes or milestones have been achieved during this time?

In the time since being announced as Woodford Reserve’s master distiller, I have become a mother for a second time, released the first Master’s Collection with my name on it, and released the first Distillery Series with my name on it; establishing myself as the new leader of innovation for Woodford Reserve.

What is a typical day like for you? Are you involved in the production process much?

There is no “typical” day, which is part of what makes this job so enjoyable for me. Each week is different depending on what is going on with the brand. I like to have time in the office to meet with our marketing team on future projects and get administrative work done. Then I like to spend time at our production facility, connecting with the team there, checking on any quality concerns they may have or just pulling samples. Part of my time is also spent travelling on behalf of Woodford Reserve, engaging in consumer and PR events. My involvement with the production process is one of oversight. I am always called when there is a critical quality issue and I lead all future innovations, from new grain recipes to putting together batches. It’s a lot of fun.

You are the third master distiller in Woodford Reserve’s 26-year history. Although things have changed substantially in the past 25 years, the dearth of women progressing into key executive roles is still palpable. Do you see a near future without the gender gap at the top of companies?

I cannot speak on behalf of all companies in our industry, but I can speak for Brown-Forman/Woodford Reserve. We have a lot of women in leadership positions. The Woodford Reserve brand team is led by women – of the nine people on our global leadership team, six are women. The tide is turning and I think we will see more and more women in executive roles shortly across the industry.

Working in a male-dominated industry, what challenges have you faced in your career and how have you overcome them?

I have spent my entire career working in a male-dominated industry and have been fortunate not to have faced many challenges. The thing that is always top of mind for me is the need to prove myself. There is always an underlying feeling of imposter syndrome, which is starting to fade away, thankfully. I also experience microaggressions, where I think to myself, ‘Would this individual be speaking this way to me if I were a man?’

Elizabeth spends her days at the production facility, checking on any quality concerns and pulling samples.
Elizabeth spends her days at the production facility, checking on any quality concerns and pulling samples.

What advice would you give specifically to women in leadership roles?

The advice I would give women in leadership roles is to go for it. Say yes, even if you aren’t 100 per cent sure what you are saying yes to or may not have the experience you think you need. Surround yourself with smart people and be collaborative, don’t be afraid to own your mistakes, it isn’t a mistake if you grow from the experience, and people want to work with people who are humble and can admit to being imperfect. 

What advice would you give to women looking to get into the premium spirits industry? 

The advice I would give is the same advice I would give any individual: take chances and follow your passion. I feel very strongly that a lot of people who work in the spirits industry are here because they have a passion for it, not because they went to school for it.

What is your next focus or goal?

My next focus is to continue to deliver on releasing delicious whiskey that consumers enjoy drinking and maintain the integrity and high standards we have set for Woodford Reserve.