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Strong whisky, stronger women

James Berry examines the growing trend of women drinking whisky, traditionally a male preserve.
By James Berry
You probably think that it’s beyond you to pin her down, that all-evasive female whisky drinker. What exactly is her natural habitat? How does she behave? Can she be characterised? But the fact of thematter is, if you can’t find her you’re simply looking too hard. She’s right there in front of you; in the pub, propping up the member’s bar, on the small screen, the big screen and on the cover of magazines. They have never been too far apart, women and whisky. Almost without exception you could probably surmise that wherever and whenever there has been whisky through the ages women have never been more than a stones throw away. Chalk and cheese they are not.

But neither are they bread and butter. Because as with many age old institutions and practices there invariably come a vat load of presumptions and stereotypes as well. Just ask the nearest person what image the typical whisky drinker conjures up in their mind. The Highland Scot ambling through misty glens with a kilt and hip flask? The weary southern American blues man perhaps, possessing a voice so gravelly it can only have been reared on rough tobacco and bourbon? Well-bred rugby players injecting a burst of life in high spirits after a testing game? The crusty septuagenarian enjoying a daily dram in his leather armchair, faithful labradors at his feet? More than likely one of these caricatures will fit the bill. And then what about a group of energetic young women, fun loving, modern and attractive hitting a city bar straight after work to let their hair down, leave their pretensions at the door and go a little wild? Or the celebrity pin-up necking a blend with a mixer at a party? Unlikely. But are these prejudices changing? Can we leave the last century where it lies? When, way back in the early 1950s, influential US R&B leading light and precursor to Chuck Berry, Wynonie “Mr Blues” Harris, released an album singing of Women, Whiskey and Fishtails you can presume with a certain degree of conviction that he was far from an observationist. More definitely he was saluting his highest passions, reflecting fervently on his immediate experiences. And as a modern internet posting made by a user known as Paulbrow still asserts: "If you’re looking to write a cool song that people can relate to, just write about the important things in life: Whiskey, Women, and Wine ... The three W’s.” They exist side by side, especially in music, but strictly as mutually exclusive parties, rarely becoming the same in the eyes of the mainstream. Perhaps more importantly, whisky has always been a man’s tool of status, inspiration and extremity. And inevitably it has become largely a sexist institution. But does this stereotype, which has to some extent been engraved eternally in stone, discourage young female drinkers from trying whiskies in the first place?

Ann Miller is the International Brand Ambassador for Campbell Distillers and as such spends her time travelling the world, promoting Campbell’s brands; ultimately a woman in a man’s profession. She believes that the world is changing. “In the past, as an industry, we have maybe put forward images that are more masculine than feminine in terms of consumption, I think. The typical consumer and the
occasions when whisky may be consumed are perhaps more associated with pursuits that up until recently have been more male than female. That is changing and so the consumption patterns that go with it are changing too.” That is, however, a point that appears to have been lost on international rock chick, Hollywood actress and celebrated widow, Courtney Love. As reported in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine back in 1993: “I don’t think I want to be sitting on a porch drinking whisky and singing the blues. Knowing me, I’d probably end up at a bar asking some guy to get me another martini. Still bleaching my hair at 59.” And that coming from a wild, wild woman who you can presume has pretty much tried the lot. Despite these problematic preconceptions the celebrity whisky drinker’s guest-list is quietly filling up with modern media femme-fatales aplenty. With high paced 24-hour party people populating this generation’s Hollywood social scene, fuelled insatiably by a gossip-grabbing,
fashion-hungry media invariably tipping the spotlight in the direction of scene-leading ladies, there’s no doubt that the girls have wrestled many a preconception into their court. And across the Atlantic back in Britain statements of intent such as the 'Ladette' movement of the late 1990s – a direct retaliation to ‘New Laddism’ culture encouraged in the Loaded era of glossy men’s lifestyle magazines – proved that not only were they refusing to be ignored, but that they were going to out do the boys while they were at it. And what better tipple to make their mark in a
supposedly male world, than a drop of the hard stuff? Amongst these new whisky enthusiasts are pretty woman Julia Roberts who has proven herself to be one of the strongest and most consistent Hollywood actresses of recent times and Lisa Kudrow, best known for her role as spaced-out Phoebe in Friends as well as a string of successful movies. Perhaps coffee and cookies isn’t all she's knocking back in Central Perk. Others that are known to certainly indulge in a tipple or two are Scottish sex symbol Sharleen Spiteri of the rock band Texas, British TV and radio youth icon Zoë Ball and news broadcaster Kirsty Young. In fact the latter two’s recent matrimonial big days have even been fuelled by whisky. Kirsty insisted that her wedding day celebrations would only end when the “last drop of whisky” was drunk and Zoë emerged from the registry office, following her marriage to dance music guru Norman Cook (aka Fatboy Slim), with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s swinging by her side.
Incidentally, Norman is known to have a penchant for vodka and orange – you can cast your own assertions over who wears the metaphorical trousers in that relationship. And if you wanted any more evidence that the rich and famous female A-list were embracing whisky as a quite realistic pleasure you need look no further than the world’s single brightest star, female or otherwise, Madonna. Her late December Highland wedding to British film director Guy Ritchie was held at Dornoch Cathedral and the reception at the Carnegie Club at nearby Skibo Castle. Naturally, in keeping with the setting, she ordered in a large consignment of Scotch for the indulgence of her guests. So all very different women in character, apart from a noticeably consistent streak of confidence, identity, independence and control. And with such a credible band of modern women drinking, enjoying and asserting their dominance with whisky to some extent we’ve already vaulted the drink’s major mythical obstacle. Namely that women simply wouldn’t want to, or maybe even couldn’t, contemplate handling such a strong spirit, especially not straight. And that’s the end of the matter. Ann Miller of Campbell Distillers: “Occasionally on my travels I’ll come across people who say ‘it's just out of the question to add water to whisky’, or that ‘you wouldn't dream of adding an ice cube’ and they have very fixed ideas. But I feel, and always have felt, that whisky’s there to enjoy and that it’s up to people to enjoy it in whatever way and on whatever occasion they see fit. And I do find that women are receptive and very interested in what I’m talking about.”All other problems aside, this is the real stumbling block to which we keep returning. Whisky is a drink steeped in history, an established heritage with its traditions, practices and unwritten rules. Perhaps the purists (including the main producers) are afraid of losing their very defined identities to the masses. A train of thought that Sibh Megson, Marketing Manager of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, travels on also. “Absolutely! They’re terrified of losing their core market. When it’s been a drink traditionally aimed at men the brands are scared to move away and do anything too radical. They’re not going to put it in a tall, elegant long-necked bottle and position it to women.“But if whisky isn’t aiming itself at women, women certainly seem to bepositioning themselves as serious whisky drinkers. Sibh herself is part of a seven strong management team at the SMWS, only one of whom is male. Everything from tasting to selecting to buying and marketing is overseen by women. And that could be a better thing than your stereotypes would expect. Ann Miller: “I think what’s interesting is that women can be very good at appreciating the finer points of whisky. When it comes to doing a whisky nosing or tasting which makes use of your skill and judgement in a competitive way, even though there may be very few women represented numerically it’s often very interesting that in an objective test they often come out better. “Women have a very well tuned sense of smell, obviously because more often than not it is women who cook, they use it with perfume, with children, combined with all the other roles they do. And they are more confident at using it than many men are.” So not only can we determine that women are quite capable of enjoying a whisky, regardless of whether that’s on traditional terms, but we can also quietly assume that they might even be better at it than men. The problem here being that many women will never be made aware of that fact unless attitudes change. “I think that people are certainly aware that part of the image is ofthe hardened drinker,” adds Sibh
considering how its increasingly irrelevant iconography colours many a first impression, “and that’s not very feminine now, is it? But maybe if people started applying the language of wine to whisky it would certainly make it more accessible.”There may be some way to go until whisky culture’s stereotypes become entirely untainted as far as the female drinker is concerned, but there’s no denying that whisky is a lot more accessible than it used to be. Especially in view of the profile brought to it by such strong and successful groups of women, but is it more the image of whisky that has been overhauled or the image of women? “I think there has been a subtle change in both,” considers Ann Miller. “I mean, there have been big changes in the image of women over the past 10 or 20 years. They’ve been able to move forward with much more confidence in their careers and they’re beginning to drink and enjoy the things men have traditionally enjoyed when they achieve that status. I think also that whisky itself is perhaps changing slightly in that over the past 10 to 20 years we have witnessed the growth of single malts phenomenally in Europe, the UK, US and North America, which has made it more accessible. Whisky has kept pace with social changes and consumer demand in an interesting way.”There is no difficult answer. The fact is that female whisky drinkers are everywhere you’d expect to find a male drinker and, depending on the depth of your prejudices, a great deal of places you wouldn’t. And the only stereotype it seems they’re willing to stand by is one of strength, character and independence. You certainly won’t expect to see an article on the outdated imagery of the female whisky drinker in 50 years time. So not so much of whisky and wild, wild women – although naturally that is not out of the question. More whisky and strong, strong willed women.