There are four types of people when it comes to the discussion of gender equality: the boomers who think it’s a postmodern first world problem, the ones who couldn’t care less, the woke bunch who shames the previous two, and the pragmatic ones who, you know, are actively advocating and actually doing something about it.
Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but c’mon, can we agree that gender misrepresentation, prejudice, and biases continue to be universal issues still largely present in various aspects of our lives today?
Take perfume ads for example. Women’s perfumes are always advertised and depicted as sensual, sweet, or seductive. You’ll usually see a slim woman dressed either scantily or extravagantly doing a host of actions that don’t really make sense in real life. She’ll be emerging from a pool of water in slow-mo or prancing around like it’s the best day of her life. The perfume names and scents are also aptly termed–flirty floral, summer crush, lusty lavender, exotic vanilla–you get the gist.
Meanwhile, marketing for men’s cologne is created as though they’re preparing for world domination. “Cool chaos! Spicy casanova! Musky masculine!” they gruff.
Though these notions are incredibly archaic and unwarranted, they are also imposed on children’s toys, fashion, familial expectations, and of course, alcohol.
Women are warmly accepted and desired as alcoholic drinkers, but only if they’re coy and elegant with their girly rosé, moscatos, mimosas, cosmos, and wine. Whisky’s preferably off limits though, cause whisky is for the men, darling.
As New York Times writer Clay Risen puts it in his article In The Male World Of Whiskey, More Women Are Calling The Shots, the whisky industry is infamously known for its domineering masculinity that borders on aggression at times.
The men are particularly protective over their whisky bubble and this transcends beyond the bar scene. From the corporate workforce, writers, distillers, entrepreneurs, and whisky makers, women have been subjected to the backseat for far too long in this male-dominated profession.
But did you know that it was actually the women who played a pivotal role in pioneering, shaping, and contributing to the whisky industry?
The women who defined whisky history
As Wall Street Journal-bestselling author Fred Minnick writes in his award-winning book Whiskey Women, whisky may not exist at all without women–yes you read that right.
He revealed the many untold stories of women who had distilled, marketed, and owned whisky establishments since the dawn of time. In fact, renowned names like Bushmills, Laphroaig, and Maker's Mark were all courtesy of the ladies.
To go further back, distilling was actually considered women’s work, as they were the ones who were proficient with home and hearth duties. Trust men to steal the credit when it’s due, pfft.
In medieval Europe, women used their distilling expertise to concoct medicine, which then paved the way for Catherine Spears Frye Carpenter, an American distiller who first documented the sour-mash whiskey recipe in early 19th-century Kentucky. Safe to say that medieval Europe women crawled so that our whisky women today can run!
Photo by Southern Distilling Company
No seriously, the distilling techniques and technologies that we get to enjoy today wouldn’t be a reality without women is not an understatement.
After all, it was Maria the Jewess who invented the bain-marie–the instrument that enables liquid to be heated at a steady temperature.
There is also Hypatia, who discovered the specific gravity of liquids back in the CE years, and hence, gave us the means to measure the strength of alcohol; and Cleopatra the alchemist (not the ruler, even though she’s awesome, too) and inventor of the alembic–the tool that permits complete distillation.
In fact, women are great distillers because their sense of smell is more sensitive and nuanced than men. Very smart scientists said it, not us!
They also estimated that 35% of women possess the criteria of being a supertaster, while only 15% of men do–an undoubtedly valuable asset when it comes to blending and profiling whiskies.
And now that we’ve explored the past, let’s check back in with the present.
The female whisky drinkers making a name in the whisky scene today
In last year’s virtual Women of Whisky summit, whisky expert Becky Paskin expressed that women account for around 35% of whisky drinkers worldwide today. The men may still dominate numerically (we’ll give them that), but we do have an arsenal of brilliant women founders, blenders, buyers, bottlers, and distillers achieving great milestones in the industry.
Photo by @3iling
She bottles high quality and exclusive whiskies, selected with meticulous and immensely strict standards. Lim and her husband go through a tedious process of selecting whiskies, often tasting 20 to 30 different casks each round.
Lim’s bottling career is more than just a business to her. She identifies it as her passion too, which is why she pours her heart out into every bottle she releases and upholds her quality consistently.
And of course, how can we forget the renowned Dr Rachel Barrie, Benriach Distillery’s master blender. Dr Barrie needs no further introduction. Her illustrious career in the whisky industry has propelled her as one of the first and few female master blenders.
Photo by @rbwhiskymaker
Having been in the profession for nearly 30 years, Dr Barrie’s depth of whisky knowledge and contribution to the industry are unparalleled. She started off as a research scientist at the Scotch Whisky Research Institute, before moving up the ranks at various distinguished whisky establishments including the likes of Bowmore, Laphroaig, Ardmore, and more.
It doesn’t come off as a surprise then, that Dr Barrie’s award-winning whiskies would make her the receiver of multiple industry accolades. Her credentials don’t stop there though, as she has also been invited to be a judge at numerous international spirits competitions and served on several industry committees. Talk about a powerful and celebrated woman.
There is also our MVP, Becky Paskin. She is a well-known whisky writer and co-founder of OurWhisky, a platform that champions diversity and inclusion in the whisky industry.
Photo by @beckypaskin
Paskin and her team have plans to bridge the gender disparity gap among whisky aficionados, and they’re certainly walking the talk with the inauguration of their very first Virtual Whisky Festival, a charitable initiative that provides a digital space for whisky makers and drinkers to exchange ideas and discuss innovations.
Earlier this year, OurWhisky conducted a study on female representation in whisky’s social media marketing and the results leave much to be desired, which brings us to our next point …
The sexism that looms around women who drink whisky
The report revealed concerning data–the number of women vs men being represented in social media marketing is highly imbalanced. When they analysed Instagram posts from 150 of the most popular liquor brand accounts, they found that the number of times men were featured trumped women by a ginormous 228%.
And in the past, if women were given the opportunity to appear in whisky advertising, they’re either playing the role of a subservient, demure arm candy or an ostentatiously objectified femme fatale. Different generation, same issues?
This blatant sexism goes beyond whisky marketing and advertising. From dramatic pay inequity to misogynistic corporate culture, women are constantly navigating their way through pointless hurdles. And perhaps, the most annoying part of the problem lies in the consumers.
Felipe Schrieberg of Forbes interviewed several influential women in the whisky society back in October last year and they all shared a common grievance–the abuses, be it verbal or sexual, can often be traced to the consumer.
These ladies are not your average Plain Janes, ok. They comprise founders of distillers, editors of whisky publications, head buyers, and brand ambassadors. Yet, they are ambushed by internet trolls who hurl vulgarities during live video sessions, men who question their expertise at tastings, whisky snobs who dismiss their opinions, and more.
Annabel Thomas, CEO and Founder of Nc’nean Distillery
Photo by @the_dram_team
Though the situation may sound grim, all is not lost for women in the whisky world.
The rise of women in the whisky society is happening slowly, but hopefully, surely
Women involved in the profession may share a common sentiment–that men constantly try to mansplain their way in, but a promising outlook holds true too: most agree that the fight for female representation has seen noteworthy progress in the past decade.
The industry is definitely more open, modern, and progressive now, with more women taking on leadership roles as opposed to the past where they were mostly subjected to being behind the scenes only.
The debate though, puts many women in a tight spot. On one hand, they feel like they shouldn’t even have to emphasise their gender as it’s an inconsequential factor, but on the other hand, they believe that their personal experiences carry an important weight in reshaping the industry.
As Paskin puts it, “Whisky companies don’t need to feminise their brands, but by simply being more inclusive, they can change the narrative and appeal to a wider demographic of potential customers.”
And for the consumers, the power and responsibility in championing inclusivity lie in the smallest details. For one, perhaps it’s time we start getting rid of terms like “girly” or “manly” drink, and just identify them as they are. Wine is a wine, vodka is a vodka, and whisky is a whisky, no other gender connotations needed, thank you very much.