Would The Little Lady Like A Wee Dram?

Whisky firms have long promoted their liquor as strictly for men, but a new generation of women has embraced the water of life

Features
Proof of change? “Mad Men” actress Christina Hendricks in a Johnnie Walker advertisement (©Diageo)

Women who like a tipple are turning away from long drinks and sweet, sticky cocktails in favour of whisky. Despite it being long viewed as a “man’s drink”, today, female whisky drinkers in the UK make up 37 per cent of the market, compared to just 15 per cent in the 1990s.

There has long been a cultural taboo regarding women drinking whisky, despite them having a long association with it. Maria Hebrea, an Egyptian woman who lived in the 2nd or 3rd century, devised an early version of a whisky still. By the 18th century, women in the US were producing most of the whisky, before industrial distilleries became popular. In those days, whisky was used as a medicine to treat everything from headaches or infected wounds, and was distilled at home in the kitchen. Men would often ask women to marry them based on their distilling talents.

In America, during the decades after Prohibition, mainly due to the association between prostitution and women drinking or serving whisky, women were not even permitted to drink liquor at the bar.

Today there is a crop of new female distillers, blenders and tasters. Why, then, is whisky still considered a “man’s drink”?

In Britain women tend to order wine, vodka and gin compared to darker spirits. Certain drinks are seen as strictly for women. As a lover of whisky and other dark spirits, I have often been offered long drinks such as vodka and orange, or sparkling wine, both of which I dislike and rarely hear women ask for whisky.

This is not surprising. Whisky has long been packaged and advertised to appeal exclusively to a male market. Until recently, whisky bottles were usually chunky, heavy, and decorated in minimalist, dark logos. In 2013 the whisky brand Dewars launched its “Meet The Baron” advertising campaign, in which a knight in shining armour character went to the assistance of various male whisky drinkers in difficult situations, for example being saddled with an unattractive woman. The Baron would find a way to replace her with a group of lingerie models. The message was clear — attractive women desire male whisky drinkers. After numerous complaints of sexism, the campaign video was removed from various websites, though not before nearly 300,000 people had seen the clip. The campaign is a clear example of how whisky companies tend to focus on the heterosexual, red-blooded male. It is interesting that despite the amount of effort that goes into market research and focus groups prior to ad campaigns being launched, no one thought that this particular commercial might come across as a badly-thought-out piece of circa 1970s knuckle-dragging nonsense.

The whisky bottle is often a prop in TV detective dramas, in particular when being snuck out of the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet by the senior copper wishing to strike a gentleman’s deal with a colleague. It has always been regarded as part of the wheeling and dealing of powerbrokers. Think of the dinner parties in the Edwardian era, in which, after the food is finished, the ladies go into the parlour to drink coffee and play bridge, while the men drink whisky, smoke cigars and talk politics.

But as more women turn to whisky, depictions in popular culture reflect this shift. The singer Lady Gaga described Jameson whisky as one of her “love interests”. Pop artist Rihanna sings about it. The actress Christina Hendricks is featured in an advertisement for Johnnie Walker Black Label. My favourite US sitcom of the moment, Grace & Frankie, features the two main female characters enjoying a pair of whisky flights bought for them by potential suitors.

Things are slowly changing. Not only is whisky drinking in general on the rise (according to International Wine & Spirit Research, consumption across the US has increased by almost 30 per cent from a decade ago), but more women are trying it.

According to those who run the Whisky Lounge, a London- based tasting club, its London Festival last year was an even split between female and male attendees. In Taiwan, where whisky is hugely popular, women make up almost half of all whisky drinkers.

Another reason for whisky’s increasing appeal is that new whiskies are being produced that can be mixed and used as a base for cocktails. Bourbons tend to have a sweet streak, and grain-to-bottle distillers are creating all sorts of complex, flavourful spirits.

Food writer Rachel McCormack has been a whisky fan for over 20 years and is writing a book on the topic, Chasing the Dram: Finding the Spirit of Whisky (Simon & Schuster), having travelled around the Highlands and Islands of Scotland researching and drinking for the past year and a half.

“For me whisky was never a man’s drink,” says McCormack, who grew up in Scotland. “My parents had two couples who were friends and both of the wives drank whisky and soda. They were both very tall. My parents were both small and drank gin and tonic so I just assumed from a very young age that whisky was a tall person’s drink, not a man’s drink.”

McCormack says that during her research she has never experienced sexism, from distillers, distributors or her male counterparts. “The really serious aficionados are the same. You like whisky, you want to know more, you want to share what you like drinking, they are thrilled you are at their whisky event, and don’t care if you are a woman or a man. This is something I found highly contrasts with the wine industry as I have felt deliberately excluded and even elbowed out the way by middle-aged men at a few industry tastings.”

But it was not always like this, even in whisky-obsessed Scotland. During the 1950s and 1960s, pubs in working-class areas were male-dominated. In those days women mainly drank sweet sherry while the men downed beer with whisky chasers.

“What changed in Scotland and elsewhere, was women going into pubs,” says McCormack. “When you start drinking you want something sweet, and entry-level whisky is quite smoky and fiery. If you look at most student bars they will sell more cheap bourbon than cheap whisky as it is sweeter. For young women, the image in their head is often still that that’s their grandad’s drink so they dismiss it.”

Billy Abbott runs Dramboree, a weekend summer camp about whisky. I ask him why, traditionally, whisky has been seen as a man’s drink. “It’s a hangover from the days when drinks were even more gender-divided than they are now,” he says. “Al Murray’s ‘glass of white wine’ or ‘fruit-based drink for the lady’ is funny because of how true it was for years.”

Outside casual drinking, the world of whisky fandom is male-dominated. “A few days of hanging out in Facebook whisky groups is enough to depress anyone with an inclusive attitude to whisky,” says Abbott, “but fortunately there are more people challenging those attitudes, and things are starting to change.” These days, he is seeing more women who are “geeky and knowledgeable” about whisky. He knows three master blenders, five prominent whisky writers, more than ten brand ambassadors and three whisky club organisers, all of whom are female. 

Do male whisky drinkers fear their female counterparts? “In the whisky world, it often seems to be the people who like to have a special ‘away from the wife’ place or interest,” says Abbott. “The number of dens and man caves in which I’ve seen pictures of walls clad in shelves of meticulously-sorted whisky is both impressive and depressing. They often seem threatened by the intrusion into their special manly world, and I see that continuing while people divide their private spaces by gender lines.”

Jason Standing is a founder of a London-based tasting club, Whisky Squad, which began as a group of friends meeting to hold tastings, and has grown substantially from its first meeting six years ago. Whisky Squad holds monthly meetings and currently has 500 people on its mailing list.

“I used to find that most tastings would be very competitive and a bit macho, with the men showing off how much they know about whisky,” he says. “We then began doing blind tastings, and this changed things, because all you were doing was talking about the experience you were having in tasting that whisky.”

Why have women been reluctant to drink whisky? “It is literally the historical social meaning ascribed to it, and the packaging,” says Standing, “which is ridiculous. A lot of it is prestige- driven, which is why it is sold more to men. But within the single malt community, because it is perceived as having more distinctive and diverse flavours, and the packaging and marketing is less geared to men, more women are turning to whisky.”

Lora Hemy is Head Distiller at Halewood Wines and Spirits, in Liverpool. She is working on distillery projects in Wales and building new English and Welsh whisky brands. Has whisky’s depiction in popular culture led to women feeling as if it’s not “their” drink?

“The idea of whisky being an old man’s drink is an anachronism,” says Hemy, “but I think that feeds the constructed novelty surrounding the female whisky drinker. I like to think that is starting to change now, but I am still occasionally confronted with surprise even from within the industry when I talk about my love of drinking whisky as well as making it.

“Recently there have been some marketing campaigns directed specifically to women and this does feel problematic to me. I’d rather we focused on quality of liquid and base ingredients, barley provenance and fermentation rather than a gendered approach to advertising.”

Are we in the midst of a whisky revolution for women? “The history of whisky has been shaped by some very revolutionary women, going back hundreds and thousands of years,” says Hemy, “so if we are having a ‘moment’ it’s been going on a long time.”

“When I started the book,” says Rachel McCormack, “I didn’t realise how relatively few women drink whisky. One of the things I have done is get female friends to try whisky and find at least one they like. So far I’ve had a one hundred per cent success rate. So, you know, one woman at a time.”