Liquid Thinking

Female drinks founders: Where are we now?

International Women’s Day (8 March) is upon us again. And without wanting to be a downer, it can sometimes feel at best like an occasion for brands to embark upon hollow virtue signalling. Or else it’s a depressing yardstick for how far behind women still are in society at large. But when it comes to drinks, it appears some progress is being made with more and more female founders and female-owned businesses coming to the fore. As International Women’s Day (IWD) 2023 approaches, we ask, where are we now? 

1st March 2023

It’s fair to say in recent years, several drinks companies have made clumsy attempts to ‘celebrate’ IWD. Without substantial action to tackle the inequalities the day annually reveals, highlighting the day with glib marketing campaigns seems depressingly disheartening. For example, any bar that simply names a cocktail, oh I don’t know, the Emmeline Pankhurst, should have to immediately erect a billboard with some sobering statistics on, right above their bars. 

In recent years, the annual ‘celebrations’ have got a little better and a little more useful, for example with cocktails that highlight female talent within the industry. Which is much better. Past initiatives such as ‘Choose to Challenge’ carry a little more weight. The event from the ‘Celebrate Her’ initiative aimed to “elevate women in hospitality”, with financial support and career development opportunities, challenging people to call out gender bias and inequality within hospitality. 

Progress across the industry?

But how is the drinks industry doing as a whole? According to a survey from Deloitte, a lack of diversity, equity and inclusion is the number-one issue identified by women that prevents them from considering a career in the beverage alcohol industry. Women surveyed believe visibility of key leaders who serve as role models and mentorship/sponsorship programs help develop a diverse workforce. And at the moment, those are lacking. 

And according to GlobalData, around 73% of UK-based drinks companies currently pay male employees more than female ones; men’s median hourly pay in 2021-22 was 4% higher than women’s. Which in fairness is better than the UK’s pay gap average, which sees men paid 11.6% more. It’s the small things, you know. Even so, that pay gap reflects the fact that only 27.4% of the top-paying jobs in the drinks industry are currently occupied by women. Let that sink in. 

Empowerment through innovation

However, over the past few years there have been a flurry of female-led, female-founded and female-owned brands emerge. Founded in 2017 Scotch brand Nc’Nean markets itself on being “uninhibited by tradition” and beyond the liquid, that means being led by women. Founded by Annabel Thomas, it was inspired and named for Neachneohain, an ancient Gaelic goddess. Known as the Queen of Spirits, the goddess embodies the brand’s values; she was said to be a fierce protector of nature and strong and independent, “she was never afraid to walk her own path” according to the brand, “we try to follow her ethos in everything we do”.

From its non-traditional pack, with a nature-inspired design that reflects the brand’s eco stance and quiet female-focus, it’s a bold disruptor. Its female roots are not put front and centre of the brand as a marketing gimmick. Instead, its female point of view has informed everything that makes the brand fresh and unique. Crucially, as well as inviting female drinkers into a male-centric category, it also alienates no-one.

Disruptive launches 

Avallen is another visually and category disrupting brand. Until former Diageo exec Stephanie Jordan chose to launch it, there had been very little innovation in the calvados category for quite some time. In the same way as Nc’Nean, the product again puts eco-credentials at the heart of the brand; every bottle is said to naturally remove 2.73kg of CO2e from the atmosphere, due to apple trees being carbon sinks. While not being overtly female-centric, the pack design again is hugely disruptive to a staid and traditional category dominated by hues of burgundy and magnolia. Its apple blossom design is soft and approachable, while the bold pack graphics and font also helps draw a new audience into the category; not just female. Mixed simply with tonic, it’s an easy route into a spirit that hitherto seemed to have no place in the lifestyle of younger LDA consumers. 

Skipping across to the tequila category, Neurita Tequila again is a product that visually stands out. Founded by Lucy Smith, it’s intended as a fresh take on the category, with a range flavoured by natural fruit extracts and intended as a base for cocktails. Particularly, without the need to add triple sec, it’s a convenient base for easy margaritas. Both the packaging and approach to the liquid are intended to break through a category that’s long been very masculine and stoic, while female focused products have been overly sweet or patronising.

A much-needed seat at the table

What these products highlight is that the raft of new female founders are seeing things with new eyes. Long without a presence at the top table, now that they’ve made it, they’re bringing new ideas and fresh perspectives with them. It’s clear that the trickle down effect of these new approaches is to welcome new consumers into categories they’ve previously felt excluded from, as well as updating those that have seen little to no NPD for some time. From a consumer and industry perspective, that seems like a win win. 

And yet, with another IWD upon us, it’s unclear if the pathways to the top are becoming any less challenging for women to reach. The data suggests there’s still an incredibly long way to go. However, with their ability to offer new approaches to old categories, its evident that their input isn’t just desirable and the right thing to do, it’s vital. 


Interested in finding out more about what this might mean for you and your business?

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