By Bethany Whymark

Opinion: Analysing whisky's XX factor

The world of whisky is undergoing a slow but steady gender revolution
We’re going to start this column with a confession. When I stepped into the role of Whisky Magazine editor, mere weeks ago, I was under the mistaken impression that I was its first female editor. This misapprehension – the belief that, if you went back just a few years from 2022, you would be unlikely to find a woman in charge – laid bare my own prejudices about the industry. So, in the pursuit of rectification, this first column will highlight leading females – starting with our own house.

Margaret Rand was this publication’s first female editor. Appointed at issue 3, she saw it through around half a dozen issues, covering a rapidly changing whisky market and reporting on Glenmorangie, Talisker and the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, among others. She is also an award-winning wine writer, as a past editor of Wine Magazine and contributor to Decanter and World of Fine Wines, and a judge for the Decanter World Wine Awards.

Peggy Noe Stevens was the world’s first female master bourbon taster, and is a contributor and taster for our sister publication American Whiskey. She founded the Bourbon Women Association in 2011, which now has members in 42 US states, Great Britain, and Australia. She is an inductee to both the Whisky Magazine Hall of Fame and the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame. Formerly working in hospitality and marketing with Hyatt and Brown-Forman, she now runs a consultancy business which has supported distillers including Jim Beam and Jeptha Creed.

Becky Paskin is a spirits journalist, presenter and consultant specialising in whisky. She is a former editor of the The Spirits Business. She co-founded OurWhisky, a subscription club designed to open whisky tasting to a wider audience, followed by the OurWhisky Foundation, which supports women working in whisky around the world. In 2016, Paskin became the first writer (of any gender) to receive a General Certificate in Distillation from the Institute of Brewing and Distilling.

Elizabeth McCall is the assistant master distiller at Woodford Reserve. A Certified Specialist of Spirits, she joined Brown-Forman’s R&D team in 2009. After being invited to train as a master taster by Woodford Reserve’s veteran master distiller Chris Morris, she was promoted to master taster in 2016 then to assistant master distiller in 2018 at the age of 33, making her one of the youngest female distillers in the US.

Achievements such as these give a snapshot of the whisky industry’s trajectory with regard to gender diversity. However, this diversification is taking time to filter through to the level of global accolades. Of the 79 luminaries inducted into the Whisky Magazine Hall of Fame since 2004, only five are women, and there are 11 women among the 106 inductees in the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame, which was launched by the Kentucky Distillers’ Association in 2001.

The Global Icons of Whisky Awards are yet to crown a female Master Distiller/Blender of the Year, but for three of the last six years the title of Distillery Manager of the Year has gone to a woman, and the number of female entrants and regional winners in the Master Distiller/Blender category is increasing apace (recent regional winners include Victoria Eady Butler of Uncle Nearest in America and Julieann Fernandez of Distell in Scotland).

Conscious gender bias is, overall, unlikely to have caused this imbalance. It is instead, perhaps, a consequence of women’s historical back-foot start in the labour market. While this is being redressed, we must endeavour to avoid positive discrimination, which would be a grievous insult to women who have worked to secure positions on their own merits and deserve to be judged by the same standards as men.

On any given day, the womenfolk in the whisky industry are making as significant, knowledgeable and innovative a contribution to it as the menfolk (and this is without dissecting the contribution being made by the swelling ranks of non-cis-gendered people working in spirits).
Eleanor Roosevelt famously said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent” – and the women of whisky have decided not to freely hand that consent to anyone.