The Girl Drinks **

R.G. 2011

“You know, you have a rather masculine taste in cocktails.”

The happy hour confession made by a girlfriend of mine had initially caught me off-guard. It’s true that my Negroni stood in rather stark contrast to the lightly-spiked iced jasmin-tea that she was drinking, but until the words left her mouth my understanding had always been that my taste in cocktails couldn’t really be commonly considered as anything but “good” remaining otherwise un-marked by gender or any such irrelevant detail.

For her it was an observation -- intending no positive or negative value in the remark. It was like hearing my mother saying “your shirt is on backwards” without passing judgement but accepting that I had the kind of mental capabilities that could afford such a thing.
And though it took me a moment to digest, I understood. Through the eye of mainstream society, there’s a link between spirits and gender that’s hard to ignore. Like many things under the western sun, spirits are considered highly attractive for their socio-economic symbolic value. The finest and rarest of whiskies, for example, relays images of affluence, sophistication and, well, a rather masculine dedication to the idea of the “perfect dram.” With all this, it’s too easy to look at the work of women in whisky and spirits though the lens of masculinity : To see their accomplishments either as feminine interpretations of masculine territory or as anomalies acting in defiance of natural female inclinations. But it’s neither of these.
Many early Scottish distillers were females; many (if not most) early bartenders were, too. It’s true : In the beginning of the 16th century, the early days of uisce beatha, while the men were out tending the barley fields in Scotland, their wives were responsible for distilling. And shortly before the start of the 19th century, as Englishmen watched the doors of their taverns, their daughters were doing the mixing and serving from behind the bar. Why women should be ousted almost entirely from these realms once their posts started to pick up a little bit of glamour and prestige relates back to the age-old sexist hierarchy of who collects the glory and who’s asked to step aside.
While today there still exists a remarkable number of women working at the heads of highly-regarded distilleries (some of whom are highlighted in this issue) their roles in the industries of whiskies and fine spirits are rarely given the spotlight and in the greater society their place is still too frequently marginalized.
The last bar I worked in New York I was partnered for certain shifts with a tall Irish man about five years my senior. I won't say it was uniquely gender, because height, age and the incidental Irish accent all worked to give customers an overwhelming sense that "I should ask this guy for my drink." On more than one occasion I found my young, female face opposite a client who would ask questions of my colleague who was at least a meter away (and occupied). Being relatively new to the bar (and the world of cocktails), my colleague would ask the question back to me and I would respond directly to the customer. Typically unsatisfied with the result, follow-up questions directed to my colleague by the client would be subsequently pushed around our small triangle until the patron finally got thirsty or overwhelmed by all the yelling.
The stories of sexism I’ve accumulated on behalf of employers, co-workers and patrons in bars, restaurants and elsewhere is in no way limited -- but I feel like this anecdote is telling in a different way. When it comes to the world of spirits, image still plays a heavier hand than product. Even when considering typically well meaning people, there’s a certain kind of competence one frequently expects from a master distiller, a bartender, or a liquor shop employee; a competence that’s measured by the use of the appropriate accent and the presence of a face which is unmistakably masculine.

On the side of consumers, women and men are typically in agreement that whiskies and such things (i.e. alcohol) are made for a masculine type of sophistication and taste. Though, as history would have it, they weren’t necessarily made to anyone’s taste -- and they certainly weren’t intended to be sophisticated.
There is a long and predominantly utilitarian history (having much to do with pharmaceutical origins) as to why whisky and cocktails taste the way they do and though standards of production have risen greatly for both, their gritty roots are still very present in every sip. Consequently, no one is born liking the awful bitterness of cocktails like Negronis, or the burning bite of a peaty, cask-strength Islay, as such things frequently go against our innate inclination for soft and sweet. It requires a great deal of work to train ones taste buds to appreciate (even to eventually love) the complexity within these realms and I personally find it hard to believe that anyone is particularly predisposed to it. My adoration of Negronis and bitter IPAs and the likes of a agressive, young Kilchoman comes from years of working in spirits and retasting a lot of stuff that didn’t go down so good on the first try. A genuine appreciation of a wide range of spirits and cocktails is something I had to work for, with the only advantage of having the will to do so. And it’s that way for everyone in the field.
On the Ardbeg website -- self-proclaimed peatiest Islay whisky -- there's no short supply of words evoking masculinity : "Untamed," "powerful," "rugged." There's even a page that compares the whisky to a chopper (bike, that is). But the name of the Master Blender (from what I could gather) only appears once or twice, and her title as Whisky Creator is never mentioned. And, yes, her title. 
Rachel Barrie currently occupies the post of "Chief Noser" (or more officially, Chief of Product Design) for the world's peatest whiskies. Being severely out numbered in a male-dominated field, Ms. Barrie takes pride in her elegant blouses -- simple markers of her sense of feminity. Not that her blouses (or skirts, or sex) have much to do with the whisky; she creates fantastic whiskies like Supernova, Uigeadail or, recently, Alligator because she's a chemist, has over 20 years of experience in the field and is (quite simply) extremely talented. As if that could be enough. Events for Ardbeg where Barrie is present include a fair share of leather and dirt and "Land Girls" in tiny shorts and big rubba boots. Simple markers of feminity falling short of what marketing requires, Barrie is dressed up in leather and chains and heels and Arbeg tatooes. I won't go as far as to say that Barrie doesn't care for this treatment (afterall, everyone likes a little dress-up and to know the truth you'd have to ask her personally) but the message of Moet-Henessey and their marketing team is obvious : Sex is the most important ingredient a woman can use to sell a product, even when she's responsable for its prize-winning quality. Co-worker Bill Lumsden, on the other hand, gets a suit and a speech about a whisky with "hair on its chest." (You have to see it to believe it, folks.)
Understanding that culture, not genetics, makes spirits more of a “guy thing” is important when considering the work of women in the field. Viewing the tastes and accomplishments of women in whisky and spirits solely in comparison to those of men creates a limited and marginalized place of what women can be, do and experience -- effectively putting a cap on the greatest accomplishment of a person, claiming that it may not exceed the best of anyone of the opposite gender. Even the idea that terms of “femininity” or “masculinity” could accurately describe characteristics of whiskies or cocktails works to further an unnecessary, gendered segregation of personal tastes. (And while I don’t feel I should go into much detail about it here, I’d like to ask of those so inclined to do so to, please, think twice about referring to a spirit as a woman in your future tasting notes.)
Drawing attention to the tastes and work of women in a field where they’re typically out-numbered is an effort to bring further credit to the work of all passionate people in the industry. As more women integrate into the domain of whisky, spirits and cocktails, one can envisage moving further away from preconceptions about gender -- affording us a common recognition that the grounds are level when attempting to achieve greatness. And then, on that note, we can raise our glass to the collective struggle to create or find something extraordinary to put in it.

** Whisky Magazine France's article for the Fall 2011 issue, unadulterated

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