Women hit their stride in Asheville’s brewing and distilling industries

LEADING THE WAY: Local business owners, from left, Leah Wong Ashburn, Cristina Hall Ackley and Debbie Word discuss overcoming the challenges of working in the male-dominated brewing and distilling industries. Photo by Cindy Kunst

When Debbie Word was taking the first steps to transform her stovetop moonshining hobby into a viable business making gin, she knew spirit distilling was a male-dominated field. But she was not expecting the resistance she encountered, much of which she attributes to her gender.

“I met with a couple of retired male business executives that work with an institution here that helps people start businesses,” she recalls. “I knew nothing about starting a business and thought it would be helpful to absorb information from people who had experience. I was blown away by their negativity. They basically told me it was a ridiculous idea and would never work.”

Surprised but undeterred, she sought loans from financial institutions only to encounter similar skepticism. Ultimately, Word self-funded her business.

“I can’t help but think if I had been a man, it would have been very different,” she says. “But it made me more determined than ever to make it work.”

Word established Chemist Spirits in 2015. Three years later, the distillery and tasting room opened on Coxe Avenue in the brewery-soaked South Slope neighborhood. Shortly thereafter, she launched Antidote Cocktail Lounge next door.

Even then, she encountered resistance.

“In the early days, we would invite our neighbors over to taste our product and talk about collaborations,” she recalls. “I vividly remember sitting in our unfinished tasting room in a circle of five or six men, who would totally ignore me and go to my son-in-law James [Donaldson]. I couldn’t even get eye contact.”

Later, before a meeting with a big brewery and a dozen men, Donaldson, who created all the branding for the company and serves as marketing director, suggested a way to skirt the overt sexism. “Every time they asked him a question, he would defer to me and say, ‘Debbie would know better than me.’ It was the first time any of them paid attention to me. I am happy to say that I am very good friends with most of them now, but back then, they did not think I belonged in the room.”

Breaking and entering

It’s not breaking news that women aspiring to be business owners face obstacles, barriers and challenges — including bias, stereotyping and harassment — pertinent to their gender. Getting a female foothold in male-dominated industries like distilleries and breweries can make an already difficult path that much more challenging to navigate.

“Our industry is traditionally very white and very male,” says Cristina Hall Ackley, co-owner of Ginger’s Revenge on Riverside Drive. “More women have entered the industry in the past several years, and there are national organizations like Pink Boots Society that work to promote, educate and support women in the industry. But it remains very, very male.”

Support from a silent, female investor, notes Ackley, was crucial for Ginger’s Revenge’s initial launch. “She is an awesome businesswoman who saw our vision and had a lot of faith and trust in us,” she says. “Not only was she key to getting us started and making sure things happened, she is also a mentor and role model for me.”

Like Ackley, Leah Wong Ashburn also had a role model — though hers was no farther away than the family dinner table. But the proximity to her father, Oscar Wong, founder of Highland Brewing Co., wasn’t exactly an E-ZPass on the turnpike to the executive office she now commands at the local brewery.

He wouldn’t give me a job,” she recalls. “I was a couple years out of college and thought it would be great to sell Highland Beer, easy and fun, and my beer would be paid for. He told me I didn’t know anything, and he didn’t need me. He wanted me to find my own way.”

She did, working as an independent contractor in the education field in Charlotte for 13 years, doing so well that when her father did offer her a job, she initially turned him down. “That felt really good,” she admits with a laugh.

Eventually, she yearned for a new challenge and found it at Highland — not just on the business side, but in honoring the legacy of the family business and making sure it continued.

“Talking to other people in brewing, I learned that Highland is so much more than a brewery: It is a fixture in Asheville and really means something to the community,” she says. “I was inspired to keep that going and move it forward.”

Wong joined Highland in 2011, became president in 2015 and is now CEO. Her husband, Brock Ashburn, who was instrumental in encouraging her to join the family business, is vice president. Dad Oscar titles himself as the “schmoozing and cleanup guy.”

Maker’s mark

Starting a new business or taking the reins of an existing one is a first step; growing that business and making it one’s own is an uphill, arduous but ultimately rewarding climb, all three women attest.

Ashburn says when she assumed the role of president, her father encouraged her to make it her own, a concept that initially terrified her. “He is such a beloved figure, and Highland so iconic that I thought, ‘What if I make it different and people hate me for it?’”

Nonetheless, she forged ahead with a big change that was already underway — a major overhaul of the beer portfolio — and then taking control of the subsequent step. “We had updated our beer — keeping the classics and adding new fresh styles — but our brand still said Scottish. It was outdated and confusing.”

In 2018, she undertook a complete rebranding of the company, changing all the visuals to signal the pioneering spirit of Asheville’s first brewery. Additionally, she and her husband, a contractor and engineer, added a rooftop bar, packaging hall, barrel room and three volleyball courts. “The outdoors and fitness have always been part of the Highland brand,” she says. “But the brewery is now more of a reflection of Brock and me.”

Like Highland, Ginger’s Revenge has also evolved over its initial four years. Since starting with its original ginger beer and a handful of other flavors on tap, the brewery has made and kegged over 50 varieties, along with four flavors bottled for distribution. When COVID temporarily shut down keg sales to bars and restaurants, the company made it through thanks to the healthy grocery store presence, as well as a loyal local customer base that kept the staff busy with curbside pickups and a grant from the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority.

“Every business anniversary, I feel proud of what we have accomplished,” Ackley says. “But the third-year mark felt like a huge milestone. When you start something from nothing, you set goals, but when it comes to fruition, it feels amazing.”

Meanwhile, Chemist Spirits now distills five types of gin, including the award-winning Barrel Rested Gin and American Gin. The company has also branched out, collaborating with Biltmore Estate’s winery in 2020 to create the Conservatory Rose Gin. More recently, American Gin was chosen by Britain’s 100,000-member Craft Gin Club as the Gin of the Month for July and distributed to all members.

“It was quite an honor,” Word says. And quite the clap back to those two male executives who said her concept would never work.

Leading forward

Women who have succeeded in the field in Asheville have played to their strengths, taken well-earned pride in their achievements and identified mentors, role models and inspiring women in and out of their chosen industry. In response, they are committed to doing the same for others.

In 2007, fresh out of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Ackley went to work for two successful, veteran women executives who had just started their own company. “I was 22 years old and got a crash course on women entrepreneurship,” she says. “I think of them all the time, the lessons they taught me and the example they set.  You absorb lessons you don’t even realize at the time. I learned that as a businesswoman, you are also setting examples for other women observing you, and there is a big responsibility and reward in that.”

Ashburn is proud that in a traditionally male-dominated field, Highland is an example of having an obvious presence of women, with over 40% of its staff and over 40% of its management team female. She says that aside from being “verbally patted on the head” and touched by someone in the wrong way, she has generally not met with harassment. But she recognizes that is not the case for everyone in the industry, and Highland has been proactive in addressing it, including anti-harassment training for all staff, joining the WeVow third-party reporting system and affirming repeatedly in company meetings the importance of speaking up about issues.

She cites women business leaders in Asheville such as Laura Webb of Webb Investments Services and Elizabeth Brazas of the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina as inspiration. “They have been so welcoming to me,” she says. “It raises my awareness of how availability can be helpful to someone else, how approachability can totally open a door to someone.”

Word agrees on the importance of availability, pointing to Karen Hoskin, owner of Montanya Distillers in Crested Butte, Colo. “I sought her out there in 2015 when we were just thinking about Chemist. She met with me for over an hour, and I still have the notes I took sitting with her.”

Word is now doing the same for a woman in Brevard who wants to open a distillery, and she has shared some hard-earned advice. “Do your homework. If you come to the table — especially a table full of men in the business — sounding like you don’t know what you’re talking about, it will not be a pretty picture. You already have a bigger hill to climb than men to prove yourself. Be brave, be bold and don’t be intimidated, but don’t go into it unprepared. Before you leave that table, show them you’re ready.”


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About Kay West
Kay West was a freelance journalist in Nashville for more than 30 years, contributing writer for the Nashville Scene, StyleBlueprint Nashville, Nashville correspondent for People magazine, author of five books and mother of two happily launched grown-up kids. To kick off 2019 she put Tennessee in her rear view mirror, drove into the mountains of WNC, settled in West Asheville and appreciates that writing offers the opportunity to explore and learn her new home. She looks forward to hiking trails, biking greenways, canoeing rivers, sampling local beer and cheering the Asheville Tourists.

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2 thoughts on “Women hit their stride in Asheville’s brewing and distilling industries

  1. John Gudites

    During my 12 years in and around Asheville, Highland Brewing was always in my top five “watering holes” (just so many good ones though). I had the pleasure of sitting with Oscar Wong on their rooftop on more than one occasion, and he explained jokingly that he had been “kicked to the curb” by his amazing daughter giving him more time to “schmooze”. On the other hand, every time I saw and/or said hello to Leah, she would be working away on her laptop. Kind of like being a grandparent if you substitute kids for beers. Anyway, stay thirsty all my southern friends. And Leah ship some frosties up to Delaware.

  2. Mike R.

    I’m really tired of articles touting woman doing this and that. Woman have achieved parity with males in almost every field you can name. We have women CEO’s, we have women at the pinnacle of political power, we have women athletes of great prowess. Across the street form me, a woman handy-man…….WHOOPS, a woman handy-woman did great work for my neighbor. Come on. When does this end?

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