A man’s view on the sexism in whisky debate

let’s begin

A lot has been written recently about the sexism in whisky debate (and thanks to BrewDog the wider alcohol world) the old guard, the ill-conceived thoughts of drinkers that are being verbalised and the misconception that women in whisky are somehow less knowledgeable then men in whisky. Here’s my view on it as a man who clearly has not been a victim of sexism in this regard, but knows those who have and has a strong build up of rage every time it happens.

I hear, and see, how some men treat women at whisky shows from time to time; all polite at first but then after a few drams the lesser-man decides it is appropriate to make comments about the female brand ambassadors and pourers. Maybe its about their looks, their supposed inferior knowledge compared to man (which, surely by definition of the situation – punter at a whisky show speaking to someone within or passionate about the whisky industry should tell you which has the more qualified opinion) or maybe its the descriptors and ways of addressing these women; ‘love’, ‘darling’, ‘sweetheart’, ‘blondie’.

Why these beta males feel any of this behaviours is appropriate is beyond me, and I believe, nay hope it is perpetrated by a minority of men, but there is never an excuse for attitudes and behaviours like this, it is 2018 and we are all equal and we should not still be having the sexism in whisky debate.

And its not just whisky drinkers.

On the trade side you have the occasional person who passes wildly inappropriate comments, but because of the strength of character of many of the women in the whisky industry, of which there are lots, they are often called on it and slapped down with a verbal shot across the bow. These folk are becoming either fewer in number, or at the very least more reigned in and aware in general, thank goodness.

That is not the image the industry should be portraying, and definitely not the truth of the majority of men within the industry who not only treat women as equals and with dignity, but look up to and respect women who are driving the category forward, pushing the bounds of innovation and who occupy some of the most sought after jobs in the industry. Women such as Stephanie Macleod, Master Blender for Dewar’s (and Master Blender of the Year 2018), Rachel Barrie, Whisky Maker at Brown Forman, Georgie Bell, Global Whisky Ambassador for Bacardi / Dewar’s and Becky Paskin, Editor of ScotchWhisky.com to name but a few.

What annoys me most is when I see women addressed separately to men at tastings, or in presentations as if they are there as a +1, or are casually standing there killing time wondering where other drinks might be. There is no need for this to happen, I have seen it time and time again, and it is down right rude. Why should you be addressed as a second-class attendee? Or as if you are there not of your own volition? Or be told that they’ll get you a soft, sweet, floral whisky as its ‘more attuned to your tastes’ (seriously – how would the host know?! That might also be the taste preference of a leather-clad hairy Hell’s Angel, but I bet the host did not make him feel patronised).

This is not only disgraceful and totally out of kilter with an industry that is attracting near enough an even split of male / female new drinkers at a rapid pace, but upholds the old traditions of whisky being a closed circle, something you graduate to but only when you’re ready and are a male aged 45+ and are exclusively adorned in a plethora of tweed.

Attitudes and openness to gender equality vary around the world, and frustratingly that sometimes needs to be taken into account, however wrong the viewpoint is when compared to our open, Western ideals and psyche, but again this is not an excuse and people should be called out on it.

Whisky advertising over the years has not helped this way of thinking, with campaigns and campaign lines being incredibly sexist, but that was the way back in the 50s, 60s and to a degree 70s, but these notions of ‘sex sells’ and whatnot have been rightly consigned to the history books, although I have dug up some examples below to show you what they were like – wow.

“But women want different whiskies to men, surely?”

I once sat on a panel debate at a well known spirits conference in my capacity as a branding consultant in the spirits industry and one of the questions put to the panel was ‘how do you create a whisky for women?’. There was silence for longer than anyone wanted there to be silence before a comment, from a female member of the panel, was fired back; ‘pink labelling, single grain and make sure you tell us how sweet and fruity it is’, again silence, then laughter as the audience realised she was mocking the question.

We as a group followed up with explaining that whisky is created and packaging is designed for whisky drinkers, not for men, nor women, more often than not the briefs I get to create new products or to help an established brand appeal to new audiences barely mention gender, if at all, focussing on Millennial age groups and attitudes towards whisky that we are looking to target, not whether they are male, female or trans.


Oh look, a beer for women and a whisky glass for women too, thank god – its about time

Seriously BrewDog, what the hell were you thinking? As well intentioned as your foray into Pink IPA to be sold 20% less than Punk IPA with some of the profits from the sale of both going towards worthy causes that help women and to bring up the gender pay gap conversation, you have seriously botched it, instead delivering a patronising example of how brands try to fit in with global movements.

Twitter did its best to explain, succinctly what they thought of it here and here.

I wrote last week about Johnnie Walker’s Jane Walker release, describing it as:

Over the last 24 hours I’ve spoken to a number of people, male and female, and posted a couple of questions about the product on Instagram and Facebook about this and their views and the unifying response is how patronising this is; changing the name of the product and doing a limited edition packaging design of the same liquid, as they do with Blue Label many times a year around the world with different limited edition packaging releases being sold in various territories around the world… but why not go one further and do the limited edition pack design, keeping the name to avoid all this ambiguous storytelling, but where all profits go to help the cause, not just $1?

More than this, calling the bottle Jane Walker seems even more contrived as there never was a Jane Walker, but in the history of the Johnnie Walker brand there were two key female figures who would easily have been deserving of a limited edition bottling in their honour, namely Elizabeth Walker, the wife of John Walker, who was instrumental in the creation of the original blend that went on to become the Johnnie Walker signature whisky, and also Elizabeth Cumming, from whom the Cardhu Distillery was bought (this is where the core malt component for Johnnie Walker is distilled, in case you were unaware).

The big thing here is that it does demonstrate progress and does demonstrate that the whisky industry is behind women, which is great news, just executionally I’m not so sure. I sincerely hope the campaign, and limited edition Jane Walker bottle raises lots of money for this great cause.

And now, you lucky lot, there is a whisky glass designed especially for you too! No more clumsily spilling whisky as your dainty hands struggle to cope with a heavy tumbler or basic Glencairn glass (!). 

ScotchWhisky.com reported on the glass, with an excerpt of the interview with Luxor Crystal co-owner Caro Reindl where she said she ‘was inspired to create a new style of whisky glass after visiting Scotland’s distilleries for the first time. I visited a few distilleries and I thought they always use the same glass – the Glencairn glass – and I was interested in why there was no other shape of glass. We wanted to create a new shape especially for women to enjoy their whisky with ice, or mixed or whatever. I think the normal whisky tumblers are often a little bit too big for the women’s hands. We tried to find a nice shape especially for the women. It’s more elegant, stylish.’

Safe to say it was not received well.

A few final thoughts about sexism in whisky debate

A lot of the time I do believe the condescending, patronising comments are made innocuously by people who are not used to women being so into whisky as they have been in modern times, but it is these people who need to be gently updated on the world and their customers as one comment too many and they will lose future custom and those people will tell the world about their experience, and rightly so.

And that’s how it should be; we are all whisky drinkers, we all have knowledge to a greater or lesser degree, what does it matter what our gender is? Sure as hell does not matter to me, or the majority of people within the industry. I sincerely hope that people make themselves more aware, and think twice about what they are saying, and thinking, as no one should be made to feel lesser than their opposite gender counterparts and no one should be made to put up with comments around their ability to enjoy, to discuss or to produce amazing whisky just based on gender as this will only prolong the sexism in whisky debate.

GreatDrams supports the #OurWhisky movement which is a campaign “designed to challenge ‘out-dated perceptions’ of the stereotypical whisky drinker” and can be found on TwitterInstagram and Facebook.

Whisky brands and messaging should be gender-neutral.
We should all be treated as whisky equals.
That is all.

Tags: Jane Walkersexismvictim of sexismwhisky debateWhisky Drinkers
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My name is Greg, and I’m a brand strategy consultant, writer, speaker, host and judge specialising in premium spirits. My mission is to experience, share and inspire with everything great about whisky, whiskey, gin, beer and fine dining through my writing, my brand building and my whisky tastings.

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