Spirited Women Who’ve Run the World of Spirits

An International Women's Day Celebration

For International Women’s Day, we wanted to take a few moments to recognize some of the women who have helped shape the spirits landscape over the last century, ranging from Prohibition to modern-day.

Ninety-nine years ago, a bespectacled Ohio attorney who’d once been pitchforked by a drunk farmhand and a glacial Minnesotan with a mountain for a mustache guided the U.S. into one of its darkest ages. President Herbert Hoover called this era “a great social...experiment”. That was, of course, before the era abruptly ended thirteen years later. As you might have guessed, this Great Social Experiment was Prohibition. Or “Prohibition”, as anyone with a thirst for the bottle might have called it with a wink and a nod during the era. For speakeasies and locker clubs abounded in cities all across the country, catering to parched politicians and performance artists alike.

Meanwhile, “rum-running” entered the American lexicon as a euphemism for the tactics that spirited entrepreneurs used to evade authorities and get hooch into the hands of the people. Two of the most successful rum-runners during the era? A convoy-boat operator with the unassuming name of Marie Waite, and a pistol-wielding bosslady nicknamed “Cleo”, who hailed from the same state as the bespectacled attorney who ushered in the rum-running age: Ohio. Turns out, “women were far better bootleggers than men because many states had laws that made it illegal for male police officers to search women.” (Georgia Hopley, the first female Revenue agent, had this to say on the matter: “Their [women’s] detection and arrest is far more difficult than that of male lawbreakers.”)

The Bahama Queen of Whiskey

Gertrude Lythgoe was the tenth child of an English father and Scottish mother, a fitting lineage for a woman who would become one of the most successful Scotch whiskey runners during Prohibition. Spending some of her childhood as an orphan, she left her birth-state of Ohio, first for New York, then California, to work as a stenographer. Not long thereafter, she came within the orbit of a liquor exporter based in London.

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After the passage of Prohibition in 1919, the exporter sent Lythgoe on special assignment to Nassau, Bahamas, to set up a wholesale liquor business. She wasted no time in opening their operations on Market Street. Sporting a pistol on her hip and poetry on her tongue, she earned the respect and admiration of her mostly male bootlegging peers, including the famed “Bill” McCoy. Earlier in life, her supposed similarity to Cleopatra earned her the nickname “Cleo”, and rum-running colleagues soon took the nickname to its logical conclusion by dubbing her “The Bahama Queen”.

Over the course of the next six years, she imported thousands of bottles of spirits into the United States. Though she was arrested on numerous occasions, the authorities could never get anything to stick, and she walked each time without ever receiving a conviction. Finally, in 1925, believing a “jinx” to be waiting in the wings for her, she retired from running whiskey across the Caribbean. “I just beat my jinx before it got me,” “Cleo” Lythgoe remarked the following year to the Milwaukee Journal. Taking an almost obituesque tone, the Journal wrote of her retirement:

A jinx has tracked her down, from her whisk(e)y throne in Nassau, through the most luxurious hotels of European capitals...to the loneliness of a New York hotel suite, where she came to hide from the world and recover her lost nerve and her health, attended only by her deaf mute sister.

Yet give up the ghost she had not, even if she’d given up the whiskey chase. She moved to Los Angeles and passed away in 1964 at the age of 86. Perhaps a multi-millionaire; or perhaps not. Nassau flags were raised to half-mast for days after her passing. It’s even rumored that “the British flag itself dipped in salute when, for the last time, she sailed from the Bahamas” during the height of Prohibition, to escape that jinx.

Whiskey in a Teacup, Rum in a Speedboat

Tom Waits may have considered his “Black Market Baby” to be whiskey in a teacup, but Marie Waite was anything but. Far from staying cool, she is rumored to have been both handy and unabashed in her use of firearms. After her husband Charles washed ashore near Miami in 1926, Marie assumed the mantle of leading the rum-running business he’d established, just months after Cleo Lythgoe had hung up her hooch boots. (Whether Charles died at the hands of a rum-running competitor, or in a shootout with the Coast Guard, is still a matter of debate.)

ASW Distillery - Atlanta's hometown craft bourbon rye malt whiskey distillery - Marie Waite.jpg

Based in Havana, “Spanish Marie” initially found success by transporting her cargo in a flotilla of four convoy boats -- three loaded with rum, one loaded with guns to fend off the Coast Guard. From these convoy boats, her employees offloaded the rum into 15 smaller contact boats, “the fastest in the business”, to run her rum anywhere from Palm Springs to Key West. At her peak, reports put her net worth at nearly $1 million. Her speed advantage, however, proved short-lived, as the Coast Guard upgraded their fleet and enabled them with radios.

But soon, Marie outfitted her boats with radios as well, and established an unlicensed radio-transmission station on Key West. Uttering seemingly random words in Spanish, her outfit evaded detection throughout the next hurricane season. Yet on March 12, 1928, authorities stumbled upon her and six accomplices in Coconut Grove, Florida, unloading whiskey, rum, champagne, and beer from her boat Kid Boots into a truck. They arrested her for the transportation of 5,526 bottles of alcohol. After posting a $500 bond, Marie skipped town. She was never heard from again.

The Women Making this Whole Thing Go

Back at the ranch (ASW) nearly a century later, we’ve been most fortunate to have two spirited women making this whole journey of ours go: Kelly Chasteen and Hallie Stieber. Both Georgia natives, their paths to whiskey were wide-ranging.

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A Snellville native, Kelly -- whose teetotaler grandmother coincidentally shared the name Gertrude with the whiskey-running Bahama Queen mentioned earlier -- found a friend in Scotch-and-soda while at UGA and has been known to don a mean costume. If you’ve ever marveled at our tasting room’s design, reveled at a private event here, or traveled to ASW just for the fine assortment of locally crafted wares on our shelves, you can thank our Partner, Kelly Chasteen. Like a bootlegger of old, she has kept our whole enterprise going for months untold, sticking with it from the very beginning. Oh, and if you’re ever in a footrace with her, we highly recommend you stop immediately. She’s lightning quick and may or may not be regionally famous for outrunning the occasional gazelle.

A Marietta native, Hallie spent some of her childhood in that great bastion of cabbage patch-grown children, Cleveland, Georgia. Like Kelly, she stayed here in Georgia, the Empire State South, for her college days, before joining Empire State South in Midtown. Her palate led her to Kimball House, then on to Boccaluppo, where she managed the beverage program. Inspired by Negronis, Boulevardiers, and some of her other favorite classic cocktails, she crafts some mighty fine drinks and the events you get to enjoy them at.

Whiskey brings them together day in and day out. Not only because they work at a whiskey distillery. But also because they find it delicious -- Kelly predominantly bourbon, Hallie leaning more towards ryes and malts. We celebrate them (along with those spirited pioneers, Gertrude “The Bahama Queen” Lythgoe and “Spanish” Marie Waite) by raising a dram of whiskey. Thank y’all for all that you have done and continue to do.