“Do you want some of this?” Danielle Graham’s cousin asked her while they were up at the family cottage in Ontario. Then 19, she had never tasted alcohol before, let alone the amber liquid that her cousin was now offering—but, intrigued, she said yes. He poured them each a glass and asked her if she wanted anything with it.
Graham wasn’t sure what to request.
“I dunno, Coke?” she responded. Her cousin shook his head. “Not with this.” Then he handed her a glass of Glenfiddich whiskey.
“I’ve heard that a lot of people are not immediately enthralled by the strong taste of whiskey but I didn’t have a problem with it, I really enjoyed it,” says Graham, who is now the co-founder of tasting and social club Women Who Whiskey’s Waterloo chapter. “Maybe partially because I thought it was something that not everyone could drink and I felt like, I’m going to take on that challenge.”
That idea—that whiskey is not something everyone can drink—has been gnawing at me since I noticed that my dad would serve whiskey to the other dads, but none of the moms would partake. When I started drinking, I worked on developing a taste for beer in high school and university, and when my 20s hit, I basically fell in love with wine, but for some reason, whiskey still felt like it was out of reach.
Whiskey is the most popular form of hard liquor sold in Canada, and while the majority of Canadian whiskey consumers are definitely men, according to sales data, at least one in three purchasers are women. And that market is growing. So, why is a cosmo considered ‘girly’ while whiskey has garnered a reputation as a ‘man’s drink’?
That’s the question that landed me on the rooftop patio of Toronto’s Park Hyatt hotel with tasters of Jameson Irish Whiskey, Knob Creek Bourbon and Crown Royal Canadian Whiskey in front of me, and Graham and her Women Who Whiskey Waterloo co-founder Eva Skuza to guide me. I was nervous, but these ladies quickly put my fears at ease. They taught me to smell the whiskey prior to sipping it, but not too much because, unlike wine, it’s often 40 percent or higher in alcohol, so taking in a big whiff will only hurt your nostrils. They also showed me how adding a drop of water can change the taste as the whiskey opens up and, to my surprise, I enjoyed it all—and started to wonder why I hadn’t given whiskey a fair shot earlier.
Like me, Skuza originally considered whiskey “inaccessible” and only started drinking it recently. She and Graham are still reminded of that perception when they order whiskey at restaurants. Skuza says that often times, after placing a drink order, the waiter will return to the table just to make sure he heard right.
“The reaction is kind of excited, like this is abnormal,” explains Graham. “Not a negative.”
One of Skuza’s colleagues, who is Scottish, was particularly thrilled when he heard that she enjoyed whiskey and wanted to bring her along to his father’s whiskey club—but soon learned that wasn’t possible because the club was, as the Little Rascals once said, “no girls allowed.” So Graham and Skuza joined forces to start a Waterloo chapter of Women Who Whiskey, a club founded in 2011 that now has more than 20 chapters around the world. Their events now routinely sell out.
How did whiskey become gendered in the first place?
Times are thankfully changing (more on that soon), but in order to understand why women ordering whiskey is still sometimes seen as “abnormal” requires a look back at Canadian history.
Back in the day, and by that I mean pre-1900s, women were a major part of the alcohol production industry. In fact, according to The Atlantic, in the 1700s, American men would put out ads specifically looking for wives who could home-brew beer or distill spirits. However, as the whiskey industry grew, so did its perceived connection to prostitution, since it was sold in large volumes in brothels by sex workers.
Shortly thereafter, the Temperance Movement, propelled by predominately protestant Christian women in Canada and the U.S., pushed against the consumption of any and all alcohol.
“The Temperance Movement really demonized whiskey, but more than that, it really, really demonized women who drank whiskey,” says Davin de Kergommeaux, author of Canadian Whiskey: The New Portable Expert. De Kergommeaux sees gendered marketing of whiskey and the fact that literal boy’s clubs are built around the beverage as residual effects of this movement. “But with the current generation, people don’t differentiate between men and women drinking whiskey and this is kind of trickling up,” he says.
But are things *actually* different now?
Times have seriously changed since The Temperance Movement (phew!), and whiskey companies are slowly taking notice. De Kergommeaux points to Diageo’s Haig Club as an example of brands that are now actively trying to be more inclusive, and dispelling common misconceptions around whiskey drinking through their ads. As a result of these efforts, the Haig Club’s consumers are about half men and half women, a spokesperson told Marketing Week.
Within the industry, it may not be exactly 50-50, but De Kergommeaux says that he’s seeing a lot more women in the industry, representing brands as well as on the distilling side. Women like Caitlin Quinn, a distiller at Eau Claire Distillery in Turner Valley, Alberta.
Quinn did her masters in brewing and distilling at Scotland’s Heriot-Watt University—and out of her class of 60, she says she was one of five female students. But like Graham from the Women Who Whiskey club, Quinn saw this disparity as a draw.
“With there not being a lot of females in the course, it’s one of those things that make you want to get into it, to show people that women can do it,” says the 26-year-old. “People are surprised almost that I’m the distiller in here and I like that about it.”
At whiskey tastings and industry events, Quinn sees the effects of that long-standing gender gap first-hand. She explains that aside from only a handful of women actually being at whiskey events, she’ll also hear comments like “This is too strong of a whiskey for you… it’s too developed for females.” Often, people will assume that she is attending an event with her husband or boyfriend, rather than as a seller.
That said, she does see things in the industry changing, though slowly.
“I went to a conference in May, in Glasgow and there are a lot more females getting into it now,” says Quinn, who also notes that a lot more millennials are showing interest in what was once classified as an old man’s drink. “Like you see a lot more females, even in brewing—it’s still a male-dominated industry but you see a lot more female brewers coming out now.”
Cheers to change!
Whiskey isn’t the only alcoholic beverage with an arbitrary gender.
“It’s the same thing for men,” says Graham. “If they want to order a cocktail, they’ll get ‘Oh, is it for your girlfriend?’… men have a lot of gendered stereotypes, too.”
With that in mind, despite its name, Women Who Whiskey is not an all-girls club.
“The main piece for us was, ‘Let’s provide a better example,’ so we actually are inclusive,” says Skuza. “We call it Women Who Whiskey, it’s focused on women, but nowhere do we say ‘no men allowed.’”
The whiskey basics
I’m not sure if whiskey is my go-to order just yet, but it’s definitely less intimidating to me now. One thing that really helped was my chat with Taylor Corrigan, the rep for Collingwood whiskey. He gave me the low-down on what you need to know before giving whiskey a shot (lol). Here are the basics:
- Whiskey is a type of beverage that can be made anywhere (though this is disputed by some purists). This hard liquor is made from cereal grains, such as corn, rye or barley, and aged in wood vessels. Rye, scotch and bourbon are all forms of whiskey, they’re just made in a different area of the world
- Whiskey can be mixed in cocktails but is often served straight, “on the rocks” (i.e. with ice) or with a water back (i.e. with some water added). As the Women Who Whiskey club showed me, if you get whiskey straight, adding small drops of water as you sip can open up and change the flavour
- The reason that some whiskies are labelled as “double barrelled” is because the barrels change the colour and flavour of the whiskey. Aging a whiskey in two different barrels is done to make the flavour more complex
- “Single malt” refers to a whiskey that is made from a single recipe, versus blended
With files from Laura Hensley