“Do you even drink whisky?” “How did you end up at a distillery?”
At Nc’nean, we are a predominantly female team, and these are just a couple of the questions we regularly get asked when chatting about our careers. The perception that whisky is a man’s drink still very much exists today - so on International Women’s Day we’re taking a look into why this is and what we can do to change it.
WHISKY AS A MAN'S DRINK: WHY DO THESE PERCEPTIONS EXIST?
Old leather armchairs, men propped up at smoky bars, glasses of golden liquid. A traditional perception of whisky which is still very prevalent. But where has this come from? Over a third of whisky drinkers in the UK and the US today are women, so why do we still get asked questions like the above?
Whisky has existed for a long time, over 500 years in fact. And for many years whisky served as a workman’s drink in male dominated industries. Having a high alcohol concentration, it was light and easy to carry and lasted for a long time once opened (unlike beer, cider or wine), making it a popular choice for workers like miners. This ‘workmans’ perception lead to early film imagery of miners, farmers and lonesome cowboys being pictured drinking whisky.
Interestingly, by the late 18th century, records have found that American women were distilling at home, in addition to making clothes, baking bread and churning butter.(1) But it wasn’t long before the positive connection between women and whisky was broken. By 1850 it was common for prostitutes to legally sell whisky as a side hustle in the states, so many women didn’t want to be seen with the drink for fear of association. This, alongside the prohibition of alcohol in the 20’s, led to women being banned from drinking liquor at bars after the prohibition ended in 1933 due to the same connotations.
Since women were now disassociated with whisky, when early advertising and film began the drink was predominantly marketed to men, and this has never really changed. Rarely has a whisky advert on TV featured women drinking it, and stereotypes in TV series (like Mad Men’s Don Draper) has only shaped this notion even more.
INFLUENTIAL WHISKY WOMEN
Ironically with all the male perceptions about whisky drinkers, nowadays there are plenty of women doing an awesome job behind the scenes in the industry. But it might surprise you to know there were a few women earlier in the 20th century too who helped shape the industry today.
Bessie really was a woman of spirit. She was the only female in the 20th century to own and run a distillery. When she began working at Laphroaig at the age of 29 she had no connection to the distillery. After a holiday on Islay in 1934 she applied for a summer job working as a shorthand typist(3) and after sticking around for a couple of months, she was promoted quickly through business to a managerial role. After the original owner died in 1954, the distillery was left in her name. A testament to her skill, hard work and commitment to Laphroaig.
Though Rita was born in Scotland, she came to be known as the Mother of Japanese Whisky. Rita (originally known as Jessie Roberta Cowan) met her husband Masataka Taketsuru after he came to study the art of whisky making in Scotland. After they married in the 1920’s, they both made the long journey back to Japan and started up their own distillery, which then became major Japanese drinks business Nikka.(4)
WHAT CAN WE DO TO HELP?
Whether you are a whisky drinker or not, there are a few easy things you can do to help rebalance perceptions. If you’re a woman who doesn’t consider yourself a whisky drinker, we suggest giving it a try! If it feels a little daunting, then there are plenty of ways we love to drink whisky which don’t involve neat spirits. How about a Whisky Six, a simple whisky and soda, over ice with a sprig of fresh mint. A light, refreshing and easy-going serve.
If you are already a whisky drinker, male or female, then try encouraging your friends, male and female, to try whisky. Perhaps host a tasting, a cocktail evening, or just spread the word.
Finally, vote with your wallet. Don’t support people or brands who peddle these myths (for example, the sexist language in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible, highlighted recently by our friend Becky Paskin).