Bunnahabhain. Monday morning.

I’m a woman that likes whisky. Now, I know I don’t need to explain this to you. I know that you may like whisky too. And I’m sure that if you do like it, if you have any sort of taste or enthusiasm for any type of usquebah, that you will probably have encountered at least one of these common assumptions about women and whisky.

1. You must be a masculine woman.
Because women don’t really like whisky, do they? The kind of woman who drinks whisky only does so as a pseudo-masculine conceit, doesn’t she? Some sort of attempt to get down with ver lads? A whisky-drinkin’ woman is laying desperate claim to a man’s balls, capability and ambition. Doesn’t Mrs Thatcher like to drink whisky? And Madonna too? Well, there you go then.

2. You would rather be drinking Baileys.
You are visiting a distillery and are automatically offered some hideous gloopy sweet concoction in lieu of the tasty dram that you came looking for. For, it is assumed by some makers and purveyors of the good stuff that, simply because you don’t have testicles, you would automatically rather be drinking something creamy or pastel coloured with a fookin umbrella stuck in inside it.

3. You prefer ‘feminine’ whisky.
Would you like a lowland malt, madam? I’m sure your delicate palate isn’t up to the bruising of a brutish Caol Ila. Surely you’d rather have a Bladnoch? A ladies dram?

(This lady would rather have a Bowmore.)

Given these persistent and hard-to-shake assumptions about women whisky drinkers, I was very interested to read this piece about the recent rise of women members of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. In the article, the SMWS celebrates the fact that it has managed to create the ‘right atmosphere’ for women. As one of them (ahem) I wouldn’t dispute this, but I wonder whether the SMWS might now, in a similar spirit of accommodation, turn its attention to the language of its panel’s tasting notes?
For example in the current list, cask 29.67 is described thus:

“In the unreduced taste the panel found scorched bacon, peanut brittle sprinkled with chimney soot and rubber in the nicest way — can you imagine it? Maybe Ursula Andress in a wetsuit. . . ”

Now, I love reading the SMWS’s tasting notes, and they are not specifically at fault here. For you will find comparisons of whisky to women, ranging from the predictable to the bizarre, throughout most whisky ‘bibles’ and all over the review pages of Whisky Magazine. Here, for example, is one eminent whisky critic’s description of a 12 year old Rosebank:

“Relatively young, but beginning to weary nonetheless. Perhaps this tiredness is caused by worry about the future. A feminine whisky that has lost the first bloom of youth. Snatch a kiss while you can.”

This sleazy uncle stuff is fairly typical of the genre, but more surprising (to me at least) was this review of a 15 year old Glenmorangie which appeared a few days ago on the ScotchChix blog

“This older sister to Glenmorangie 10, the girl next door, is a bit of a wallflower. With her strawberry nose and vanilla palate, Glenmorangie 15 should be just as pleasing as her sibling. However, she simply doesn’t open up the way Glenmorangie 10 does, leaving this Scotch Chick just a tad disappointed.”

To me, that’s poorly written as well as being offensive. Aigugh!

Whisky is something that inherently evokes fascination and desire. It is a drink that is both complex and elusive. Because it is all of these things, one of the principal vocabularies used to describe it is that of sexual — and specificially heterosexual — possession. And while the culture of whisky production, sale, and consumption may be shifting to accomodate women, the vocabulary of whisky certainly hasn’t caught up yet. Its always demure or yielding this, coy or coquettish that. But whisky is not a woman. And such comparisons of whisky-to-woman act, I’m sure, as an impediment to many women’s enjoyment of a wee dram or two — reinforcing that persistent and eroneous stereotype of it being a man’s drink.

Bowmore at Bowmore.

But there are other whisky metaphors no less evocative, and certainly not as irritating as those afforded by gender. For example, this whisky seller has superb tasting notes that are redolent, idiosyncratic, and never resort to an offensive language of sexual desire (at least not that I’ve seen). For example, their website describes a Talisker 25 year old suggestively as “the love child of Brian Ferry and Eartha Kitt”. References to the Who’s great performances, Moon still at the drums, abound. These epithets may be obscure to some, but to me are far more powerful and compelling than any comparison to a leering whore or a perfumed great aunt (the latter being a favourite reference point of whisky critics for the output of closed Forres distillery, Dallas Dhu).

Anyway, as you may have gathered, one of the things I enjoy so much about Islay is the whisky. It was, in fact, an Ardbeg at the Port Charlotte Hotel that induced my own whisky epiphany some years ago. The taste of an Ardbeg 10 or a Bowmore 17 just says Islay to me, it speaks of gold and green and blue, of rocks and peat and salt water, in a manner more vivid and eloquent than any metaphor I or anyone else could dream up. And, after all this discussion about the language of whisky, I find that I really lack one to adequately capture the feel of Bowmore’s lochside warehouse, with the cool smell of the sea and the promise of its slowly aging casks. I just don’t have the words to describe it. But it is something very close to whisky heaven.

Bowmore. Last Sunday.


23 thoughts on “whisky and women

  1. Excuse me for butting in ladies, I’m a mature student who is currently studying graphic design, and my latest brief involves trying to get more women drinking whisky. I have to research what women whisky drinkers are looking for in a drink, as well as a brand name that could attract women. I appreciate that women should just drink what they want and not have a ‘girly’ drink created especially for them, If I was a whisky drinker then I know that I would just drink what I like, but this is about introducing more women to the wonderful flavours of whisky!
    I wonder if any of you could help me and give me some feedback?
    Thanks Tina x


  2. Excellent post. Stumbled upon it as I finished the last of my Ardbeg. Friend / colleague was in Islay recently and came third in a blind whisky tasting much to the chagrin of the old, white, 60 yr old competition who were 3 times older than she. A decent drink is a decent drink. It belongs to no-one. Cheers!


  3. I quite agree – Ardbeg being the highest of all heavenly whiskies ever distilled and like you say the shocked looks you get when you say you would like it straight as opposed to on the rocks or with water!! Give us some credit here “chaps” – this is the 21st century and whisky isn’t solely your domain any more!!


  4. Bowmore is delicious – like smoke over water in the fog. Yum.
    I haven’t run into that kind of sexism directly much, not since I was in my 20s and some fool commented that he’d never seen a woman drink Guinness. I have him the look of death and he went away.
    When I was in Yorkshire in the early 90s I remember being shocked that so many barman assumed that the girls would take a half rather than a pint. As a matter of course.

    I suppose the equivalent here and now is assuming that a woman wants a lady drink, something fruity, Cosmo anyone?

    I want to go tour a distillery now, just to see.


  5. Beautifully written, thank you!

    I wonder how them blokes would feel if the analogies of possession were of another form, such as slavery, or England ‘possessing’ Scotland.


  6. God, those notes you quoted really are shameless in their harnessing of sexual possession to consumption. I’m a whiskey drinker also. But I’m more of a boozer than a connoisseur, so I rarely run into distillery culture. However, I grew up around the brewing industry. It’s mostly dead in the UK now, and I’m sorry to have seen it go (for one thing, I will always love the smell of hops in a lab and the sound of my feet on steel catwalks), but the industry was in many ways a holding pen for the worst of the reactionary old soaks.


  7. you are right again – i had never given it a thought until you brought it up but the descriptions are really sexist – I love whisky – i don’t drink it much but it has to be the right atmosphere – a cold night with the stove burning away and it MUST be served in a crystal glass – some fine classical music and a really good book – a tiny splash of water just to cut through and allow the flavour to develop on the tongue – oh i can just taste it now – my favourites? I couldn’t possibly say as i haven’t tried them all yet – i do love the Balvenie but then i also love Highland Park and Bowmore – i am not a connosieur(how DO you spell that?)I just enjoy it, and can’t wait for the winter to come – anticipation is all part of it – i know i could have one tonight if i really wanted to but no – I like to keep it special – what a romantic – but that’s me!


  8. Lovely post. I’ve yet to visit Islay, but Ardbeg is one of the favourites in this household. But the 17 year old, not the 10. Had I known you were a SMWS member I would have arranged a meet up in Edinburgh! If you ever have the opportunity to go to one of their tastings do try and go. I went as the driver so couldn’t really do much tasting (although a couple of sneaky sips from DH’s glasses may have happened) and I still enjoyed it.


  9. I’ve definately encountered a fair amount of surprise when I enjoy a dram – I’m not only female, I’m in my mid-20s, and American to boot. I went to a Scotch tasting hosted by a local bar, and was the only woman under 40 in the place. The few older ladies there were all accompanied by their husbands, as well.

    As for the more ‘feminine’ whiskys, give me a good Speyside over a flowery Lowland any day! I haven’t yet sampled a lot of Islays, but the fine stuff is harder to obtain on my side of the ocean. :) And often times the really good stuff is out of my budget. Boo! I also really hate it when bartenders assume I want it on the rocks instead of neat just because I’m a female. No ice, just a little splash of spring water please!

    On the “Scotch” versus “whisky” debate: I believe that in America the laypeople use ‘Scotch’ as a term to distinguish the whiskey as being from Scotland (the good stuff). After all, here we also consume Irish whisky, and produce both Tennessee whiskey (which we generally call simply “whiskey”) and Kentucky bourbon whiskey, which we refer to as “bourbon.”

    So, in a bar in America, if I wanted to drink Tennesse whiskey like Jack Daniel’s (not a fan of Tennesse malts, myself), I’d order a “whiskey.” If I wanted a good Kentucky Bourbon whiskey like Bullit or 1792, I’d order a “bourbon.” And if, as would be most likely, I wanted a fine dram of Cragganmore or Oban, I’d ask for a “Scotch.”

    On reading over this comment, I suspect that a large reason why I like Scotch is that I grew up in bourbon country Kentucky, and thus part of a culture that appreciates fine bourbons.


  10. I believe Americans simply call it “Scotch” to distinguish from the brands of American Whiskey – and then have come up with their own version of Scotch Whiskey, and called it SCOTCH — so the U.S. general public doesn’t even realize that Scotch is a Whisky or a small batch (by comparison) production on the seashore of one of many Scottish Isles.

    Anyway, I love your writing and this post is just another reason why. True, men and marketing often think WE women want to be like them – balls and all. No though, we are our own. I totally enjoy how you flesh this out here … with great detail and proof!! I love ale myself. Not a wine drinker and that is really the thing here in U.S. lately.


  11. A very interesting post. I’ve only been drinking whisky for a year (yeah, it took me 7 years of living in Scotland to finally catch on to what all the fuss was about) so I’ve not encountered the offensive tasting notes. In fact, the only strange comment I’ve had was at Talisker (oh, Talisker, how do I love thee?) while smelling the different expressions they had out in nosing glasses in the shop. A foreign lady got talking to me and asked which one was the best one for women to drink.

    If someone tried to deny me my beloved Ardbeg because it wasn’t a woman’s drink I might have to commit violence on them!


  12. Once again you are just spot on with your observations. The leering, creepy uncle is sadly a trope that we all know well! And a love child between Brian Ferry and Eartha Kitt? That is something I can get behind 100%!


  13. Absolutley beautiful and insightful post. I appreciate whisky, enjoy it even. Of course, here in the US we kept the “e” in whiskey since we excel at stubbornly inserting things where they don’t belong.
    One day I’ll make it to Islay and raise a glass to you. Thanks for sharing.


  14. Excellent post. As a woman who enjoys ale, I once went to the student organised Real Ale Festival here and was absolutely appalled to read taste notes in the student-compiled guide such as “It’ll hit you strong and brutally, like a backstreet abortion” and many other equally offensive mysognist, racist and homophobic notes. They quite rightly got kicked out of CAMRA, but I would have liked to give them a kicking myself.


  15. I’ve never really bothered with those tasting notes (don’t mean much to me), so I hadn’t really noticed the language used in some of them. For me it’s just either I like it or I don’t and the only way of finding out is tasting them. But then I’m male and usually don’t get offered these horrible sweet concoctions.

    Interesting to read about this from the other perspective. At least my sister must be pleased with me then: While she doesn’t drink any whisky (because she doesn’t drink any alcohol at all, doesn’t agree with her) she loves the smell of it. So she gets the honour of opening my as yet unopened Bruichladdich PC6 when she’s visiting next week.

    Oh, and your last paragraph is one of the best descriptions of the whole whisky and Islay thing I’ve seen for a while. It’s impossible to describe in words, as they are just crutches.


  16. This is AMAZING!

    What a wonderful thing to read. Political, insightful, funny, evocative, descriptive, brilliant. Your blog is still topped by none.

    I feel many of the same stereotypes cross over to the drinking of ale.

    I also enjoyed ‘foolishly excited’ in the last post viz your encounter with the adder, but I failed to find the correct words to respond.

    Suffice to say I also experience foolish excitement at the sight of rare creatures and am also irritated by the outdated stereotypes surrounding the consumption of alcohol.


  17. Agree (1000).

    I’m tired of always having to explain that yes, I would quite like a dram (same goes for ale). And that yes, I would quite like to visit yet another distillery. And that no, it’s not Scotch damnit, it’s whisky (mostly to silly Americans).


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