Meet the first woman to head a Scotch whisky distillery solo

Matthew Vickery
Carla Gottgens | Bloomberg | Getty Images

FEARN, Scotland – Heather Nelson, a modest farmer's daughter, is becoming a cultural revolutionary as the first woman to head a whisky distillery by herself.

Nelson joined the ranks of a revered, male-dominated arena in Scotland — the world-renowned home of whisky and varieties of single-malt Scotch — by starting her distillery called Toulvaddie.

"Some people were taken aback when I said I would start Toulvaddie," Nelson, 38, told USA TODAY from the Fearn and Tarbat Peninsula in far north Scotland, where her family has lived for generations. "There are women in the whisky business — but I'm the first woman that has taken the lead solo."

The previous woman who opened a Scotch distillery was Helen Cumming, who founded the Cardhu Distillery with her husband John — in 1824.

More from USA Today:
Adenovirus: It feels just like the flu, but the vaccine is for military only
Plastic straws illegal unless requested under California bill — with up to a $1,000 fine attached
See Suzanne Somers' stunning Palm Springs hillside compound that's going to auction

Toulvaddie single malt is a light whisky whose first barrels will be ready for sale in a decade. The whisky, as it's spelled in Scotland and some other countries, is made entirely by hand, produced in two copper stills and powered off-grid by solar energy. To finance the distillery through its initial years, 100 first-year casks containing 70 liters of the new spirit are being sold, with only 13 remaining, each costing about $2,700.

Nelson welcomed the chance to make history in an industry worth $5.7 billion a year to Scotland's economy and create a product unique to the market.

"It's a whisky being created from an entirely different perspective, as it's a female palate from start to finish," Nelson said on a cold January day in the Highlands. "This has never been done before. From not only choosing the type of barley that goes into it, but also what sort of wood barrel it is stored in. That doesn't mean it will be any better or worse, it's just something completely different."

She said the whisky is being made the "traditional Scottish Highland way, hands on, with no mechanics involved."

"My inspiration for Toulvaddie comes from the people that used to make whisky at home with whatever tools they had," Nelson added.

The region where the Scotswoman grew up — as well as other areas of rural Scotland — were rife in the 18th and 19th centuries with illicit whisky stills, often run by farmers' wives who distilled the traditional drink in secret rooms and buildings, hiding bottles in sea caves ready to be smuggled to other parts of the United Kingdom.

Growing up in the whisky-mad area, the soft-spoken Nelson said entering the industry seemed a natural choice. So the budding chemistry student as a teenager became a whisky connoisseur in the following years.

"It's the same ingredients in every whisky, yet the taste is so different," she said. "That you can take the same ingredients and create so many different flavors — that's the bit that's so exciting."

When Nelson started Toulvaddie a year ago — named after her grandfather and great grandfather's small farm — she wasn't aware she was making history. It became apparent only after a Scotch whisky expert explained to her that Toulvaddie wasn't just another micro-distillery, but was a groundbreaking project.

"I didn't do it to be the first woman to do it — that's just a happy coincidence," Nelson said with a smile. "I'm just someone with a passion."

Growing up on a farm, Nelson said she was treated no differently than her male relatives. When a job had to be done, all hands available were set to the task. Her mother would enjoy a whisky at the end of a hard day's work, just like her father — the drink had no gender boundaries.

"Nothing surprises me about her anymore," said her husband, Bobby Nelson, 46. "She's her own person, breaking out of the rural Highland mold and creating her own path."

She is quick to note another advantage to making strides in the whisky business — challenging the age-old image that whisky is a man's drink.

It's a stereotype that female whisky drinkers want to shed, including local schoolteacher Katy Orwin.

"People often wrongly assume woman don't drink whisky, or that they have to drink it in a cocktail, because drinking it straight is what men do," said Orwin, 29. "I think what (Nelson) is doing with Toulvaddie is great and is needed."

And the mini whisky revolution already has an heir. Nelson plans to eventually pass Toulvaddie down to her 19-year-old daughter, Alice.

"You're in this industry for life. Whisky isn't a quick turnaround," Nelson said. "It takes 10, 15 years before you even have your product. It's not a money-making scheme, it's a passion."

Like this story? Like CNBC Make It on Facebook!

Don't miss: This woman quit her job and broke through the glass ceiling — then she changed industries again

This article originally appeared on USA Today.

Evernote co-founder: The secret to decision making …