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Fib of the Week #9: "Whisky is a man's drink"

For this week’s #FibFriday, it’s been a very busy and productive week for us, so we’re going to go with something so simple it should be patently obvious that the notion is absolute stupidity without us saying it. Fib of the Week #9: “whisky is a man’s drink”. Now, we’re sorry we missed #internationalwomensday a couple of weeks back with this one, but as a company so far run and managed by two guys, we felt it would be wrong and intrusive for us to post alongside so many of the brilliant women throughout and involved with whisky celebrating this simple fact - however much we might both self-identify as feminists and allies throughout the industry (and indeed society). We aren’t there to appropriate or intrude on their experiences. How would we know what it’s like to be other than a CIS-hetero-white male in whisky? But we can support, and we can definitely call time on this one. Thankfully, internally the industry is changing to be more inclusive, and so is the range of drinkers who will happily and openly now order a dram. Honestly, there has really only ever been one word to describe the notion that whisky isn’t a woman’s drink, or is only for manly men, and that’s that it is complete and utter bulls***. Obvious sexist drivel.

What if I were to tell you about a number of studies in recent years on taste and sensory perception, specifically regarding whisky? What this research shows, consistently and conclusively, is that women are simply better tasters than men. Not as good. *Better*. Sensory analysis on whisky, as opposed to chemical analysis, comes down to smelling and tasting a dram and being able to identify the flavours present, mainly as volatile compounds waft up and over the olfactory bulb in the nose (research indicates that approximately well over 70% of taste is undertaken by the nose, not by the tongue). The olfactory bulb will then associate these essentially smells with memories, and thus call to mind and identify specific flavours. Of course, it goes without saying that everyone’s memories and olfactory bulbs are unique - there are no wrong answers in whisky tasting. Just the occasional strange one. But it is pretty clear from the majority of research that women more than men thrive in the linguistic and commutative parts of the brain (this is something that personally I’d always had my doubts on, that biological sex in some ways determines what skills and parts of the brain someone is likely to excel in, but apparently it is supported by the majority of investigations to date). Being more linguistically capable, women are therefore on average much more likely to be able to identify a flavour and put a name to it than men. Simples. Thus they are better tasters. Yes, you might argue that the fact is unproven if we want to know purely about the sensations of tasting, what a man might pick up but be unable to put a name to; but really, what good is specifically a whisky taster if they can’t identify and communicate what a dram tastes like, rather than just stomping around saying, “Yup, it’s good. Good whisky, whisky good. Me wantie more.”. 😝

So if women are actually better in whisky, where does this myth start? It’s an odd one, particularly seeing that the person most responsible for popularising whisky internationally was Elizabeth Leicht Williamson, usually known as Bessie Williamson. She started in 1934 as a typist/secretary to Ian Hunter, the then owner at Laphroaig on Islay. From typist she rose quickly to office manager; she realised the importance of the American market and took over distribution responsibilities there after Mr. Hunter had a stroke. From getting this role in 1938, she was the full-time official distillery manager within a few short years, responsible ultimately for both production and business decisions. It was Bessie who was perhaps the first to really realise the importance of the American market to Scotch and make it a regular and desirable commodity in the States, in part through her regular visits there and partially through her strong West Coast character. It is often said that she was an incredible ambassador for the whole category and really moved Scotch whisky onto the international stage. While this is true, she was also clearly loyal to her brand, and maybe a tad too successful with that, as the misconception particularly in the States that whisky is always intensely smoky (and therefore some people dislike or won’t even try it) is a hangover from just how effective a salesperson and whisky advocate she was.

For our money, the main prejudice towards whisky as a man’s drink likely comes about predominantly from advertising and marketing trends throughout the middle to late 20th century, right up until whisky took a long hard look at itself in the early to mid-2000 and realised that, no, we shouldn’t be marketing this great and diverse spirit solely to old men in smoking jackets in the social club, and mainly rich old men at that, but that whisky is incredible and should be enjoyed by everyone. Fortunately, the industry itself is making good progress with that, remembering to present whisky as an exciting, sexy spirit for all. Another factor may also have been radio and television writers in the same time period, hunting for a strong drink to give that character a sense of harshness, bitterness or drunken boorishness, and lighting upon whisky. And why not? Vodka is light and pure, very clearly a chemically distilled process. Rum is associated with the breezy and celebratory culture attributed to South America and the Caribbean islands. And tequila or mescal? It’s Mexican, so of course the American public couldn’t possibly take you seriously with that. Whereas whisky? It’s dark. It’s from a dreary, rainy land. We still don’t even know half of what there is to fully understand it, let alone learn about it. It’s the natural dramatist’s choice.

So for all the bulls*** and false publicity, women do, have, and always have enjoyed whisky and been involved in the production of it. Some people will tell you that women have a more delicate palate, so can’t handle big smoky flavours. What about lighter, fruity and cereal-driven Speysiders? “Oh no, whisky is too rich for women, too complex, too strong.”. That is frankly the biggest load of crap we’ve ever heard. We know lots of men who, when they were starting or even now, couldn’t stand a peaty dram, and as many women who wouldn’t have got into the spirit without it. Plus, on the above, what woman, seriously, that you’ve ever met, seriously doesn’t like a good drink and getting drunk, at least as much as men? Whisky, as we’ve said again and again elsewhere, is all about flavour. It’s diverse, unique and beautiful. There is something for everyone. And everyone should try it. Not found one you like yet? (Gender irrelevant - as, incidentally, sexual preference, racial identity, nationality, disability, age [above legal minimum], and any other criteria you might choose to name). Chances are, you just haven’t found the right dram to suit your palate and your personal tastes. Find the spirit too strong? (Again, differentiating personal criteria irrelevant…). Try adding some water. That not working for you? (Rinse and repeat, you get the idea - gender, race, sexual orientation, and so on, none of that matters). Why not try a highball or fruity whisky cocktail? The options are endless. As almost are the drams.

Originally, I had planned to end this post with a shout out to the many, many brilliant, incredible, knowledgeable and passionate women we know throughout whisky, so here goes... The maverick, snack-pairing Abi Clephane who works as an ambassador for Bruichladdich, Alwynn Gwilt and Gemma Louise Porter, both working for William Grant & Sons to represent the Balvenie, Georgina Legg, formerly ambassador for Chivas and many other brands, now working with Glendronach up in Speyside; to the fantastic Dr. Rachel Barrie, managing the output for all the Brown-Forman distilleries, Lorna Davidson at ever innovative and organic new distillery Nc’Nean, even and not least to Angela D’Orazio at Mackmyra in Sweden, all in terms of masters of distillery; down and across to Annabel Thomas, at least if not more vital at Nc’Nean, Helen McKenzie Smith at Lindores Abbey Distillery, and Victorija Macdonald as founders, co-founders, CEOs and innovators, doing the hard work necessary behind distilleries and bottlers alike; journalists and equality advocates, like Becky Paskin, founder of the #OurWhisky movement; right down to the dedicated, astute whisky influencers, bloggers and reviewers across the Internet - @whiskygirlsfinland, @girlwithcaskstrength, @tour_guide_ontour and @duchessofislay being among our many favourites. Okay, yes, we may have found an excuse to namedrop a few, but this list is far from exhaustive of the many, many women we admire and know throughout whisky, at all levels! They certainly like a dram, as do so many of our diverse group of friends. This post is for them. Whisky is for everyone. Slàinte!


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