Every Christmas growing up, after our bellies filled with my grandmother’s turkey and the bottles of Chardonnay emptied, my grandfather would lurch over to the spirits cupboard and whip out a Glenlivet 12—The green bottle with a red top is just as iconic in my holiday memories as Christmas cookies or Santa.
It was time for the men to have Scotch.
I, the eldest of the grandchildren, was never allowed some. But as soon as my younger cousin turned 16, he joined the boy’s club and an ounce of Glenlivet was ceremoniously splashed into his glass.
That’s when I first started realizing the gender baggage of the spirits world. It’s a rift that has become glaringly apparent this week, when journalist Becky Paskin took to twitter to call out Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible, often dubbed one of the most influential whisky books in the world. (After Murray announces his top picks, bottles sell out in seconds.)
She pointed out some of Murray’s most cringe-worthy excerpts.
“If this was a woman, I’d want to make love to it every night. And in the morning. And afternoon, if I could find the time… and energy…” The dram in question, Penderyn Celt, was made by an all-female team of distillers and blenders.
For Canadian Club Chronicles Water of Windsor: “Have I had this much fun with a sexy 41-year-old Canadian before? Well, yes I have. But it was a few years back now and it wasn’t a whisky. Was the fun we had better? Probably not.”
That last one, as a female Canadian whisky writer, made me physically nauseous.
But Murray’s view isn’t quite an isolated incident of sexism, the vernacular of alcohol is set up for the failure of this kind.
As a sommelier, I’ve heard colleagues, wine buyers and winemakers use terms like “feminine”, “ladylike” and “sexy” for delicate Dolcettos and juicy Sangiovese, just as I’ve heard terms like “masculine” to describe bold Cote Rotie. Feminine wines are delicate rosés and Sauvignon Blancs, while masculine wines are bold Barolos and heavy-bodied Cabernets. (There’s the historically bawdy, macho side of wine culture to acknowledge here. In 2020, the chauvinism feels, well, boring.)
Why does it matter? By ignoring or acquiescing to these stereotypes, we are normalizing these gender stereotypes.
In whisky, the category as a whole is declared for men, while vodka is for women. Liquid binary—low-calorie, low-sugar, rosé wine, or vodka drinks laden with fruity flavor are dubbed the dictionary definition of a woman’s drink. Skinnygirl margaritas, Babe rosé, Girl’s Night Out, Mommy Juice.
On the flip side, women who drink whiskey are straight-shooting, hard-drinking women who belong on a bar in Coyote Ugly. Cliches of Hypersexualized, “bro-girls”, and as Courtney Balestier called out in her essay Let Us Now Retire the Whiskey Women, “She is a feminine ideal squeezed through a jigger, emerging buxom but tight, able to execute a smoky eye and a shot of Wild Turkey, endowed with a husky rasp or a breathy whisper, a bro-in-a-bra with sensuality to spare.”
Continuously over my career I have had people make assumptions about who I am and what I drink.
On a press trip to Kentucky, a brand ambassador assumed I was a girlfriend of a male whiskey writer for a whole three days—he just didn’t fathom that the girl with the ponytail and a sundress could be a spirits writer.
I could go on for days – the customer who chose not to drink an incredible bottle of barbera by Elena Pantaleoni, one of the revolutionaries of artisanal wine in Italy, because it was made by a female winemaker.
I’m not alone. A girlfriend of mine who started a fantastic whisky distillery out of Ontario cut all her hair off to make herself more masculine—she was exhausted of people looking down on the brand based on her feminine appearance. During grand tastings, people would assume she was a hired employee or a bottle girl. Never the creative mind behind the whisky.
The worst is editors, marketers, writers, and sommeliers, myself included, continue to let this language slide. It’s only recently that dialogues are happening. Women are finally featured in whiskey ads (Christina Hendricks and Mila Kunis most notably). Women like Paskin are being recognized as a leading voice in the industry. Distillers and blenders like Eboni Major, Victoria Butler, Joy Spence, and Maria Teresa Lara are hailed as industry icons, not just notable female distillers. Women on both sides of the bar and stills are finally starting to drink to their own volition.