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Tastings, not just a man's world

posted Jun 27, 2017, 6:20 PM by Whisky Belles   [ updated May 28, 2018, 8:10 AM ]

Picture it, Sicily 1922…

Ok, you got us. The Whisky Belles weren’t around in 1922, but who doesn’t love a little Sophia Petrillo (Golden Girls) when setting the scene?

Where was I?

Oh yes…

Our founders have been dabbling in the world of whisky for a smidge of time. One Belle was born to Scots Immigrant parents with a family connection to Oban. As such, Oban (and Famous Grouse, naturally) were the standard family drams. It was all up-palate from there, developing into an ongoing love affair with peaty and smoked whiskies. The other Belles grew up in households where one parent drank bourbon while the other parent drank scotch. Whisky was always explored and discussed in the home.

It’s no surprise that we Belles enjoy our whiskies and are always looking to expand our own knowledge and understanding.  This leads us to attending various tastings and master classes. Whisky tastings are an economical way to broaden the palate, learn what you might like or dislike, try different whiskies and expand your general knowledge of the spirits, distilleries and processes. They often range in price from free (yippee!) to $100+ a ticket depending on who is sponsoring the event, which drams are included, and if the tasting has an additional purpose, such as selling bottles or raising funds for charity.

Time after time, we attend a tasting, see a few new female faces around the table and, at the end of the night, discover they have no intention of returning. Sure, some attendees discover that the drams tasted that evening didn’t appeal to them. More often, the feedback we hear from women is that they weren’t comfortable with things said during the tasting.

Oh, boy! Do we know what they’re talking about!

Beneficial as they are in introducing new drams to people, tastings also play a role in whether or not women return to another tasting event at a specific location in future or if they choose to spend their whisky budget elsewhere. Even being experienced whisky enthusiasts we’ve encountered sexist, demeaning and degrading remarks by male presenters, enthusiasts and distillers.  Some of this is intentional as they are playing to the room that is 99% men, some may dislike women drinking whisky, while others are parroting what they have seen and learned in the industry. 

We’ve decided to share some of our recent experiences to help other women understand that they are not alone; we face the same negativity that they do and in some cases. When we feel safe, we call it out for what it is; exclusionary behaviour.  One thing we’re certain, enjoying whisky has nothing to do with being a man or a woman. It is about enjoying the spirit in the glass before you.

Experience the first: Bringing sex to the table.

At a recent club tasting a Belle was sitting at the table with a small group of attendees reviewing the latest releases.  The gathering was small and filled with great banter and lively discussion. One of the attendees commented on the age of the whisky being tasted, it was the right age to drink and reflected that “just legal age” woman he preferred to copulate with. The sound of chuckling filled the room. The lewd discussion continued for the rest of the evening, every man in the room refused to meet the eyes of the Belle in attendance.  The Belle left the event aggravated by the behaviour and inspired to write this post!

Experience the second: The weak woman.

Another Belle recently attended a tasting where she was one of three women in the room. All three had encountered each other at tastings for years. Two were passing acquaintances of the presenter. After requesting a show of hands to see who was new to tastings and whisky in the room, the presenter proceeded to acted as if the women were the only inexperienced people in the room. Jokes we made about watering down spirit before introducing it to wives and girlfriends. Men were admonished not to give a women a cask strength dram, nor to bother introducing her to a peated whisky as it’s too strong and both the smell and taste are offensive to women. While the men nodded, laughed, and joked about how their women just don’t get whisky, the women in the room were left with a distinctly bad impression.

Experience the third: Cloak of invisibility.

At another tasting, participants were passing around boxes and bottles to get a closer look at them. Reading, photographing, and making notes on drams is a pretty common occurrence at many tastings. A male attendee, who had previously indicated that this was his first ever tasting, and first time drinking whisky, by-passed the woman sitting beside him every time he passed the bottle. He reached around her, over her, but never once did he pass the box to her. This occurred all evening, despite watching the individual he passed the bottle to hand it to the woman for review each time he bypassed her. As the evening wore on, it appeared as if she didn’t exist and wasn’t worth interacting with.

Simple complaints? Perhaps. But the end result is that the whisky world loses something when a large portion of their market disengages. There are stores we don’t set foot in anymore, tastings we no longer pay to attend, and distillations we have no interest in purchasing because of the behaviour of some representatives.

As a business owner, distillery rep, or lover of the spirit, how women are treated during tastings should be an area of concern. As of 2013, nearly a third of all whisky drinkers in the UK were female (29%) while in 2015, Fred Minnick, author of Whiskey Women wrote that 37% of the US whiskey market was made up of women.

Our best piece of advice? Stop gendering whisky! Don’t suggest that “the little woman can’t handle the smell, or a cask strength dram”. Don’t advise the “men-folk” to water down their drams by 50% when introducing them to women. And if you hear an uncomfortable or sexist remark, don’t laugh. Don’t act as if it’s ok because everyone else is doing it. It’s no ok, and it won’t stop until our allies (specifically, other men) around the table loudly and unequivocally reject this behaviour at tastings and events.

It’s hard going against established stereotypes but everyone will feel much better when tastings are inclusive. When you’re presenting, emphasize that everyone’s palate will be different. Some will love sherry (*shudder*) while others will flinch at the smell of an Ardbeg Corryvrecken. Remind tasters (and presenters) that there’s no “one way” to enjoy your drink. Neat is great. Water opens up a different world to the nose and palate. Pipettes and droppers can help control water introduction to the spirit. Chocolate and cigars, should you be so inclined, can enhance the experience. And, most importantly, speak up when you hear something inappropriate. Loudly. Let everyone know what to expect at your tasting; no sexism allowed!