Meet the Mother-Daughter Duos Shaking Up the Spirits Industry
No matter how elevated a woman’s position is—senator, CEO, chief justice, etc.—to her children, she’s just “Mom.” She may be able to command rooms, run staffs of thousands and transform industries, but children often don’t get to witness that side of her in real life. The reverse can be true, too. The mothers of those with high-powered jobs may be inspired and impressed by their child’s demonstrable workplace prowess, but it’s frequently difficult for parents to see their children for the adults they’ve become.
So, what happens when mothers and their daughters decide to go into the spirits business together? In the world of spirits, where men often rule the roost—fewer than 8% of distilleries in the U.S. are owned by women, according to craft beverage marketing enterprise Women in Distilling—the results can be both surprising and delicious. These unique partnerships leverage the innate spark of love and fierce loyalty often inherent in mother-daughter relationships.
Here’s a look at how mother and daughter duos are shaking up the spirits industry.
Growing Apart and Together: Joyce and Autumn Nethery at Jeptha Creed Distillery
When mother-daughter duo Joyce and Autumn Nethery opened Jeptha Creed Distillery in Kentucky’s Shelby County in 2016, they knew there was a lot on the line. To start, Jeptha Creed was the first distillery to open in the county since before Prohibition. It was also the first distillery in the state owned and operated by women, and neither Joyce or Autumn had recent experience in the spirits industry.
“When we started, it was really my first job outside of waitressing,” says Autumn, explaining that she was finishing her marketing degree at University of Kentucky when her and her mother made the decision to open the distillery.
“I have a master’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Louisville’s Speed Scientific School,” adds Joyce. “I worked as a process engineer in distillation, taught chemistry and physics and high school and then became the CFO for my husband’s company. On paper, it looks like a bunch of crazy career moves, but it has all come together here.”
The Netherys always knew they wanted to launch a distillery together, with Joyce as distiller and Autumn running marketing and sales. It’s certainly a family affair, though. “My husband grows 1,500 acres of corn for us as a hobby, and he claims it’s a relaxing break from his full-time job as a dairy farmer,” says Joyce. “My son works with my husband, but has trained as a distiller and helped us build out the distillery itself. We’re all involved and part of it, to greater and lesser degrees.”
But it’s clear that together, Joyce and Autumn are calling the shots. Finding the balance between work and life remains a tricky business, though. “It’s difficult to keep things separate, with clear duties and lines between family and work, but Autumn is the one handling marketing, so I just force myself to not look over her shoulder,” says Joyce.
“We share an office, so we are staring at each other all day so it’s not always easy,” Autumn admits. The biggest shift, they both say, has been subtle, and a product of perception.
“Watching Autumn grow personally and professionally, seeing her develop incredible leadership and organizational skills has been an honor,” explains Joyce. For Autumn, watching the brand her mom created from the ground up win awards and expand into markets across the state, region and world has been inspiring.
“Being able to see your mom as a mom and a CEO at the same time is so cool,” she says. “I see a side of her most kids don’t get to see, and it has been incredibly empowering.”
Combatting Stereotypes: Christine and Lauren Riggleman at Silverback Distillery
Rockfish Valley Highway, Virginia & East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania
Silverback Distillery was founded in 2014 by Christine “Hooch Mama” Riggleman, master distiller, and her daughter, Lauren “Baby Hooch” Riggleman, co-master distiller.
The pair don’t have a traditional spirits background. Christine is a business school-major-turned homemaker, while Lauren was an undergrad at University of Virginia at the time they decided to launch, with a focus in psychology. (“Her degree has come in handy in unexpected ways in this line of work,” jokes Christine.) No one in the industry was holding their breath for a major success story, the founders admit.
But almost immediately, the pair proved they had what it takes. In 2015, Silverback’s gin became the first Virginia-made offering to win a Double Gold Medal Award for taste at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. The brand has gone on to win more than 20 other prestigious competitions. More recently, in April of 2023, Silverback took home six awards at the New Orleans Bourbon Festival, including Best in Festival.
“We knew we had a lot to prove,” says Christine. “We don’t enter every contest, but we enter major ones that taste your product blind. That’s what we want to be judged on.”
Not only do mother and daughter work side by side as co-distillers, Lauren, at 30, is the youngest master distiller in the U.S., according to the company website. But it wasn’t always smooth sailing. Before the two opened the Silverback, Christine trained at a distillery out west. The experience left a bad taste in her mouth.
“I don’t name them because I don’t want to give them any credit for my current success,” she says. “But what I encountered there taught me a lot about what I would be facing when I launched the business.” No one took her seriously or listened to her questions or thoughts, she says, “simply because I’m a woman.”
Even now, after she and her daughter have proven themselves—with awards, two production and tasting room facilities in Virginia and Pennsylvania and availability in 39 states—some people are still dismissive.
“People walk up to my husband all the time and give him credit,” says Christine. “And he tells them, ‘No, she’s the CEO, owner, creator and distiller. She deserves the credit.’” Christine is also quick to give her daughters credit. “I watched Lauren work her butt off to earn the title, training in Scotland and mastering every aspect of the process,” she says. “We always say, ‘She’s the craft and I’m the science.’ We’re better and stronger together.”
Christine’s middle daughter, Abby, is their digital media director, and her youngest is still in school, but helps when she can. And no, Christine can’t leave her mom hat at home.
“I still bring them lunch, snacks and coffee,” she admits. “Things get ugly if they’re hangry or un-caffeinated. But sometimes I do tell them that quite literally I’m taking my mom hat off and putting my boss hat on so we can discuss something that needs discussing. And they understand that.”
Overcoming Fears: Karen and Sydney Block at Catedral De Mi Padre
San Francisco & Oaxaca, Mexico
Launching and running mezcal brand Catedral De Mi Padre has been both humbling and uplifting for husband-and-wife-duo Karen and Jeff Block and their daughter Sydney Block. In 2022, the family launched the brand as a culmination of their personal skills and passions. It’s already earned impressive industry kudos, including two gold medals and one double gold at the 2023 San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
Jeff serves as CEO and Karen as Director of Marketing and Public Relations. Sydney, meanwhile, does a bit of everything, from branding to creative operations. Both Jeff and Sydney are the company’s public faces, while Karen works more behind the scenes.
“Our motto is ‘Sip Spiritually,’ and our goal is to elevate the men and women behind the bottle, and to pay homage to mezcal’s essential role in Mexican culture through a collection of six mezcals made by six master mescaleros,” says Karen. She admits, however, a hesitancy to get involved in the business at first.
“I was a little concerned that working together would negatively impact our mother-daughter bond, especially if we disagreed on something, because I was used to always doing things my way since I was the mom,” says Karen. “But I soon realized that when we did disagree, it was often about things she had better insight into, like branding.”
But instead of harming their relationship, working together has improved it.
“She has really good intuition,” Karen explains. “I was surprised to see how quickly and effectively she stepped into the role of leader. She isn’t afraid to take responsibility if things go awry, and she uses her skills as a consensus builder to motivate her teams.”
Sydney, meanwhile, has also relished the opportunity to see her mother in a new light.
“I always saw my mom at home as the head of the household,” she says. “Her word was the last word. It’s been fun working with my mom because I have gotten to see her as a team player. She doesn’t always get her way on business decisions, but she is always supportive of me.”
For such a young brand, Catedral De Mi Padre has already earned impressive industry kudos: most recently, the brand took home two gold medals and one double gold at the 2023 San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
The Student Becomes the Teacher: Brown-Forman’s Elizabeth McCall and Rosemarie O’Neill
Hauppauge, New York
When Elizabeth McCall emerged from graduate school with loans to pay off and a horse to support, landing a gig in the world of spirits just made sense. Growing up, she’d heard about her mother’s work for Seagram’s as a finishing goods warehouse supervisor and materials standards manager, but by the time she’d arrived on the scene, her mother, Rosemarie O’Neill, had quit to become a full-time homemaker.
“My horse was the main motivation for me to enter spirits initially, but once I was in my role as a sensory technician, I discovered a deep interest in how we make only not our bourbon, but all spirits,” says McCall.
After joining Brown-Forman’s research and development team in 2009, McCall was elevated to Master Taster at Woodford Reserve in 2015, then Assistant Master Distiller in 2018 and Master Distiller in February of 2023. And while she may never have seen her mother in action at Seagram’s, she admits she still “calls her almost daily to ask for advice on all things in life. She is my sounding board, and I don’t make many decisions without at least consulting her and my father first.”
O’Neill, meanwhile, says she is “thrilled” to watch her daughter’s rise in the world of spirits. “She is exceeding way beyond anything I accomplished,” she says.
McCall, who has one daughter Winnie, 2, and another on the way, is keeping the door open for her kids, but is focused on having them—and all women and young people—follow their dreams, whatever they may be, at all stages of their lives.
“I am very proud to share this common work path with my mother and feel fortunate to work for a company that supports women with families and in the family planning phase of life,” McCall says. “I have the resources to raise my family and work full time. I hope that businesses continue to embrace this mentality and support women as they plan their families.”
Having Women in Spirits Is Smart Business
Giving women and their daughters the opportunity to run the show at distilleries isn’t just about progress: it’s also smart business. Women have massive purchasing power when it comes to spirits, and who better to know what they want than women themselves?
It’s almost Mother’s Day. Go buy your mom something made by another mom who’s as complex, fascinating and multi-dimensional as the drink she makes.