People

The times they are a changing

This month we ask a female only panel of whisky drinkers whether the image of malt whisky is changing
By Dominic Roskrow
The Panel
Gillian Bell, proprietor of online catering company Caledonian Connoisseur (GB)
Abigail Bosanko, author and whisky enthusiast (AB)
Annabel Meikle, Scotch Malt Whisky Society (AM)(Q) Whisky is seen primarily as a male drink. Is this changing?GB: In the main I think yes, but Scottish women have drunk whisky for ever. And isn’t the French female market the fastest growing? But whisky has definitely still got a macho image.AM: I think it is changing – but slowly. I think that women have become more confident about asking for a dram in a bar situation – they are more likely to know what they are after instead of asking the barman’s recommendation. Recently I asked for a dram in a bar and the fellow next to me told me what a good dram it was – it may have been conversational but he probably didn’t expect me to know! When I look around the Members’ Room – I see lots of ladies enjoying their drams – all ages etc. But perhaps they feel safer in here than out in pub world. I rather like asking for a dram – you sometimes get a raised eyebrow.AB: For better or worse, whisky and machismo have a long-standing relationship. In the United Kingdom there is a kind of masculine heroism attached to serious drinking. The amount a chap can drink without actually falling over is still seen by many as a test of manhood. There are plenty of mature, professional men in Edinburgh today who have privately admitted to me that they can’t bear to touch a drop of whisky because the smell takes them straight back to their misspent youth and memories which also tend involve a late-night curry and a gutter.(Q) Why does the perception exist and what can be done about it?AB: One simple reason: all whisky advertising is targeted at men. I would love to see it targeted at women for a change. Whisky is a grown up drink. Mature and sophisticated and I would like to see mature and sophisticated women advertising it. Super-confident, independent types, cool and sexy style icons such as Charlotte Rampling, or Renee Russo or Isabella Rossellini.AM: Yes, I think the perception exists because it is perhaps seen as not a ladylike drink – that it’s only big burly blokes that drink it. I think that women are not so bothered by that now – they will drink what they like. Women are drinking more anyway now – perhaps not a good thing. We have to rethink what and when we drink – if you are used to having a glass of wine or a G&T before dinner – have a Lowland – or a light Islay instead. Too often the dram gets relegated to the end of the meal when your taste buds are dead and you have already had some wine. If women understand there are many different styles of whisky they may become happier to ask what is best for them.(Q) Is whisky stuck in a time warp and are whisky producers partly guilty of causing this?AB: Yes and yes. Being proud of tradition is no bad thing, but let’s dump the sexist tradition please and only keep the good traditions of excellent whisky making and all the skills that go with that.AM: I don’t think it is stuck – there are plenty of women – young and old who love their whisky. Some of the advertising may be focused towards a male market – because that’s where they perceive their audience is. It has become less stuffy recently – aimed at a 30 something guy looking quite cool – but there needs to more women drinking the stuff. I find this quite surprising as there is lots of women within the advertising and marketing side of the industry.GB: Is Scotland stuck in a time warp? It’s not just whisky, but things are changing, look what the easy drinking boys are doing.(Q) Can women and in particular younger women, enjoy whisky? Indeed, in your experience, are some starting to?GB: Absolutely, I guess it’s about experiencing it. But what I discovered personally was that my palate has matured in the past five years and it’s only in the past year that I’ve started to have a real appreciation. It would not normally be a woman’s first choice when ordering a drink. But I’ve got a number of friends who are getting seriously into their malts – and they discovered it through curiosity and are finding they love it.AB: Yes, I agree. just so long as women can survive the advertising which tends to put them off. Once they try it, they often like it but you need to get them to give up some industry-sanctioned prejudices first: namely that whisky is a man’s drink and therefore girls probably won’t like itAM: Women are enjoying whisky – I see them in the Members Room. It is a good environment – not trendy but not stuffy. Often during tutored tastings you get someone who has never really tasted good whisky before. They get some information and a range to compare and suddenly they are off – you see another world opening up for them. They usually had a bad experience with whisky when they were younger and it put them off!(Q) Our women’s tasting (see over) showed that women aren’t necessarily drawn to the blander and more mainstream whiskies. Is this the
case?AB: Definitely. It’s patronising to think women have to have everything ‘toned down’ for them. It perpetuates this whole macho image that you’ve got to be tough to try a full-bodied, heavy whisky. You don’t have to be tough, you just have to be curious.GB: Absolutely, it’s all about personal preferences – there is no difference between what a man and a woman enjoy in flavour. At least not that I’m aware of – but someone may have done some scientific research.AM: Again the perception is that our palette prefers something lighter and I was delighted that the results proved otherwise. Personally, I love a light Lowland as much as a really peaty malt – but at different times. Men seem constantly surprised when I say that I like a powerful malt. I think it’s where the ‘bravado effect’ comes out – a woman asks for a dram and she is offered something really powerful and he thinks – she’ll never like that! And hopefully be put off. Yes – many woman are put off by big, peaty whiskies but I did a tasting with some young hotel staff recently and the girls all loved the Laphroaig!(Q) Will new ways of presenting whiskies – pink whisky, unusual finishes, different ways of drinking it, all help attract women?AM: I think it does attract a different market because it seems fresher, perhaps more attractive. Whisky is a powerful drink, perhaps using it a cocktail is a way to make it a bit easier. Finishing could help – certainly the colour of your dram affects the way you feel about it. We have had some port finished pink whiskies which were hugely popular. The colour certainly helped! A woman needs to be in a comfortable environment to experiment and get good advice.AB: But not if it’s only done as a cheap gimmick. It has to have some serious foundation – tradition really is a good thing here – the tradition of whisky making and true variety – as opposed to the tradition of sexist whisky marketing. Women would like imaginative innovation which seeks to amuse and delight. Nothing pompous or patronising.GB: New ways of presentation will help introduce both men and women to whisky. Not necessarily just women – look what has happened in the Alco-pop revolution. Not that whisky EVER wants to be associated with it. But I guess marketing, and tasting will help bring in all sorts of new converts.