By Liza Weisstuch

The last glass ceiling

Liza Weisstuch is a spirit, lifestyle and business journalist who's work has appeared in the Boston Globe and the New York Times
As one of the few writers of the XY chromosome set to specialise in whisky, I can’t help but reluctantly spend a fair amount of time noticing how odd it is that the spirit’s unyielding reputation is that of a man’s drink. I am talking about whisky across the board—American, Irish, single malts, blends—the whole spectrum. And the more time I spend studying the industry and products the more counterintuitive this seems.

Let me assure you: you’re not about to embark on some shrill feminist screed. This is a rumination on advertising and marketing and how the big guys are missing the boat, neglecting a very major demographic with disposable income and a well demonstrated history of trend-setting, not to mention that whole tendency to talk amongst themselves.

Mainstream advertising for many whisky brands—at least in the U.S. – is presented in a way that not simply disregards women, but appears to alienate them. Take, for instance, the television spots for Jim Beam that show men pulling some kind of conniving stunt (often to get women’s attention), and close with the tagline “Guys never change. Neither do we.” And then there’s the Crown Royal slogan: “For Every King, A Crown,” which has a TV spot featuring a father intensely passing on the skills and tricks of something of no less importance than billiards amid a dark rec room. It’s so somber, you’d think they were talking about the family history of prostate cancer.

To be fair, there are brands that have developed campaigns that might not be mistaken for ads for aftershave or sweat socks. They tend to be the single malts, which focus on heritage and narrow in on the sense of a distillery’s place and history, not some imposed, contrived machismo-enhancing power. I am by no means advocating for gussying up the existing advertisements with figures in red lipstick, black dresses and stilettos. That, in fact, would be even more atrocious—and just silly.

William Grant has long been placing its clever caricatured Balvenie ads in the culturally relevant, politically exploratory The New Yorker, but I’ve barely seen another single malt ad in the eight years I’ve been religiously reading that magazine. Those who read the prestigious magazine’s long, narrative articles and notice those ads might just be curious enough to do a little bit of investigation.

The leap to advertising in women’s magazines is a drastic one, and any brand that ultimately does that will truly be a fish swimming against the rough current.

From the institutional side, much more market research will have to happen before that can occur. I have been attempting to dig up some kind of hard data for years on the gender split of purchasing and consumption of whisky to no avail. And from the brands’ end, more educational outreach will have to herald and then accompany that, or it will be for naught. But when the time does come, it will go far. Consider, after all, the product that generally dominates the ad pages in any women’s magazine: perfume. What’s one of the first things you’re told at a tasting? That’s right, smell, smell deep and take your time, your nose is an important instrument. Who will be the intrepid pied piper who exploits women’s interest in scent and draws them into the world of whiskey through that avenue?

The last point I’d like to bring up here, which is the first I offer to anyone I ever get ‘That Look’ from – that befuddled look from a stranger –when I order a cask strength single malt or an overproof bourbon with an ice cube at a bar. If you’re reading this, you’ve been to a festival or a tasting or maybe you keep a record of your own tasting notes. You’re well aware that various whiskies express notes of chocolate or heather or honey or vanilla or almond or fruit or spice or sultana on the nose or palate.

Last time I checked, those weren’t flavours that were necessarily disagreeable to ladies.