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Breaking News: Women drink whisky

by Cat Spencer     16. May 2012 09:17

I know what you’re thinking: The shock! The horror!

Scratch that. You’re thinking: I know. Boring. Old news. Who gives a doodle?

Full disclosure: until 3 March, 2010, I was a whisky hater. Full on. In my youth, I partook of the occasional whisky sour, but that was in an attempt to sound sophisticated to a bartender who could not care less about my ingénue posturing. Mostly, I just couldn’t stand the stuff. 

Flash forward to a few weeks ago when I was approached by Alwynne Gwilt (aka Miss Whisky) and asked if I might join a panel discussion of women only held during The Whisky Lounge’s London Whisky Fest 2012. I agreed, having only worked in the industry for 2 years, and feeling like a bit of an impostor (call it Socratic wisdom). The panellists included the indomitable Céline Têtu, sales and marketing manager at Compass Box Whisky, myself, and Kirstie McCallum, Global Brands’ Ambassador and blender extraordinaire at Burn Stewart (and consequently responsible for Bunnahabhain, Tobermory, and Ledaig, amongst others). The panel was captained by Alwynne who asked a few key questions and allowed each of us to present our drams (Hedonism, The Old Fashioned Cocktail, and Tobermory 15, respectively). 

 


Women in whisky!Women in whisky!

There were only 3 women in an audience of about 14 (a fairly accurate representation of the market: women make up 20% of UK whisky consumers). Jamie Milne (of Glenfiddich fame) would later comment that he’d hoped to see more women in the audience—but maybe they were put off by the gendered-ness of it all? I have co-hosted a women-only whisky tasting and found it very difficult to fill the room: guests of the event mentioned they’d thought it would be a terrible event because it was women-only. So much for sisterhood.

It does bear mentioning that the whisky industry is male-dominated, and that 75-80% of all whisky drinkers are men (women buy whisky, but usually as gifts for fathers, or male partners or friends). Despite this, Kirstie reported that there are now noticeably more women working in the industry and attending tastings than 5 or so years ago (she’s quite used to being the only woman in the room, having worked in the industry for 13+ years). I don’t believe that this is a function of whisky being more available to women (or women suddenly becoming sophisticated after decades of ignorance), but rather whisky becoming more accessible in general.

Céline spoke of the resurgence of cocktail culture throughout London and beyond, and as a result, more people are turning to whisky as a must-have back bar tool. Manhattans, Old Fashioneds, and super-duper fancy whisk(e)y-based cocktails are totally au courant these days (and, incidentally, a boffo entry point into the World of Whisky). This trend could transform this highfalutin product into an everyday drop.

Women in whisky!
Marilyn and Jack drink Manhattans, shaken in a hot water bottle

 

The panel agreed that whisky tends to be perceived as either a high-end, inaccessible luxury product, or a low-end paint-stripper-cum-mind-eraser. This leaves out the average Joe or Josephine from beginning that exciting journey into nosing, tasting, discovering, and loving. In fact, many people hate whisky because of a bad experience they had with the low-end stuff when they were young (see para 1). From that, they refuse to even try whisky (prejudice!) let alone spend £50+ on a bottle. But Glenfiddich Brand Ambassador Heather Greene found that economy was what led her into her dram-loving: ‘[Heather] figured out that a tumbler of Scotch at home only cost $4— and she could just cork it for the next time. In the course of being frugal, she started to love Scotch.’ There are some beautiful single malts and blends out there that do not break the bank (The Balvenie Double Wood is one of my faves and under £30). Folks just need the opportunity to sample whiskies to find out which they like.

 

Women in whisky!Women in whisky!
Cheap and cheerful v. snooty and pricey

Of women who drink whisky, much has been said about inherent masculinity, proclivity for hardcore feminism, prevalent alcoholism, or a desire to ‘keep up with the lads.’ I heard through the grapevine (barleyvine?) about a female distiller who would literally hang up the phone if asked by a journalist, ‘What’s it like being a woman in the whisky industry?’ Slam. Dial tone.

I get that. The ‘women and whisky’ story has been in the press for 10+ years (Search it. I dare you.)—why are we still asking the same questions over and over again? Perhaps it’s just a larger indication of the marginalization of women across all markets that have been traditionally run by men. Maybe we just can’t get over the fact that women like the same things men do.  Maybe we’re just as backward and sexist as Don Draper in 1963.

If you think women don’t like whisky, please find a mirror, look into it, and say, ‘I am a knucklehead.’ Women make up 50% or more of the whisky market in France and Russia and in emerging markets in Latin America and East Asia. Sounds to me like maybe the UK has fallen behind a bit…

So how do we get this issue to go away? And how do we get the UK to catch up?

Sharing.

You heard me! What I love about whisky is that is a drink that MUST be shared. Why can’t the industry reflect just that: a product that brings people together (cue Peter, Paul, and Mary).  Men love to sit around, shooting the shit and drinking. But women love that, too. And with a few whiskies to chat about, what’s not to love? Whisky is not a man’s drink, nor is it a woman’s drink. It is a drink that brings people together, regardless of gender.

 

Women in whisky!

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Read the full story (8 Comments )

Comments (8) -

5/16/2012 3:33:14 PM #

Thank you! Thank you! I can't tell you the number of times we've been pitched stories about "Whisky and Women." I have the same reaction as female distiller who slams down the phone!

Amy Westlake United States

5/16/2012 3:44:54 PM #

Boom! That last paragraph sums up what I love about whisky. It is definitely something that MUST be shared. Food and drink is always better when it is shared with friends and family. The only downside is that we tend to eat and drink more than we should under those circumstances. Guess that's why phrases such as "Fat and Happy" exist. Smile

And as far as women and whisky, I am all for this hopefully upward trend!

Cheers!
G-LO

G-LO United States

5/17/2012 4:28:37 PM #

Great post!

At the Aberdeen University Malt Whisky Society we now have close to 50% female members and we also now have just elected our FIRST EVER Female President which we are very excited about!

Since setting up the society 4 years ago I have definitely seen a change. When we first started it was very difficult to get any females to attend our whisky tastings. Now, I often see girlfriends dragging their boyfriends to the tastings rather than the other way around! Which is pretty cool!

We will have lots of new and exciting events starting in October 2012!

Slainte

Blair Bowman
Vice-President of AUMWS

Blair United Kingdom

5/17/2012 7:56:25 PM #

Well put madam!  I recently hosted a ladies only event.  Not only did we sell out but we had to turn away 10 people.  I was flabbergasted!  I chose the whiskies based on what I thought women would enjoy and I wasn't wrong.  We had the Balvenie Double Wood in our line up (2nd favorite for the night), the first being Auchentoshan Three Wood.  IT WAS TRULY a magical evening to have a roomful of bright, boisterous and interested women.  We will be doing it again in October.

Cheers to a great article.


Canadian Whisky Lassie Canada

5/17/2012 8:07:23 PM #

Well said Cat! It's great seeing the number of women in prominent positions in the industry - now we just need more drams into the hands of Jane public.

Cheers,
  Mark.

Whisky Tasting Fellowship South Africa

5/18/2012 11:33:45 AM #

Great Article Cat, Whisky is for everyone !

Colin Dunn United Kingdom

10/9/2012 7:28:33 AM #

I enjoyed the article & very glad it wasn't a prelude to the insane premise that there needs to be a a specific blend "for the ladies" which i gave seen recently with a French lager.  Your theme of sharing is exactly right & puts his & hers whisky back in its condescending box , although I fear it may be too late ....

stephen0141 United Kingdom

10/9/2012 7:31:38 AM #

I enjoyed the article & very glad it wasn't a prelude to the insane premise that there needs to be a a specific blend "for the ladies" which i gave seen recently with a French lager.  Your theme of sharing is exactly right & puts his & hers whisky back in its condescending box , although I fear it may be too late ....

stephen0141 United Kingdom

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