WomanScape is kicking its heels up with the second of this two-part series on whiskey and women. It looks beyond the history of the industry and the women who kept the distilling fires burning.
Today’s spotlight focuses on the current landscape for women producers and consumers of whiskey. They’re changing old adages and bringing an artful creativity to the industry by reframing expectations about gender roles and cultural stereotypes.
Women & Whiskey Taboos
While women were always involved in the production of whiskey, they weren’t encouraged to be consumers in North America until the 20th century. Society frowned on women who consumed alcohol, particularly during Prohibition in the 1920’s and 1930’s. As well, traditional expectations for women actually linked alcoholic consumption to prostitution.
Ironically though, women helped to keep alcohol production and consumption alive. During the Temperance Movement, it was illegal for the police to search women so they helped hide the sale of alcohol. Fanelli’s Bar is one of the oldest, storied bars in New York where women helped front a grocery store while secret bootlegging runs were funneled through basement cellars. See recent photos of Fanelli’s sign and cellar.
What’s neat is the women’s movement benefited from women’s new-found freedoms in dress and alcohol consumption. Pauline Morton Sabin advocated for the legalization of alcohol with her Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform. She successfully lobbied for state regulations in 1929.
In Europe, alcohol taboos were different. Mothers used whiskey as remedies for colds and illness. Women didn’t work in whiskey sales but they had jobs in production plants and worked on bottling lines. However, most people wouldn’t know Bushmill Whiskey’s success at the turn of the 20th century is indebted to Ellen Jane Corrigan.
Corrigan was widowed and became the owner of the Bushmills company. She increased production and garnered accolades across Ireland, England and France for her 1889 Expo entry in the spirits competition in Paris. As Ireland’s oldest whiskey producer, Bushmills sales continue to climb with increasing global demands for whiskey.
Increasing Number of Women Producing Whiskey
There is definitely a growing list of women producing whiskey in the U.S. A recent article in Epicure and Culture lists the Top Ten Women Distillers. Yet what stood out was how many producers mention the mentoring network of other women who have helped them navigate the industry. Each spoke to their passionate love of whiskey and new ideas about product or the process improvements.
For example, Becky Harris from Catoctin Creek Distilling in Virginia (their photo above) makes whiskey using 100% rye that is kosher and organic. Her engineering background in chemical and process engineering helped her develop the recipe and production process. WomanScape will feature her walnut old fashioned recipe on Instagram and FB.
The Science of Women’s Tastebuds
Molly Wellman from Wellman Brands is another producer who says her success in the industry is also related to gender. The science of taste and smell seems to point to some pretty convincing evidence for why women actually have better tasting buds than men. A Health.com study says female brains have 43% more cells and 50% more neurons in their olfactory centers, and more taste buds on their tongues.
The story gets better when we look to Japan. Ann Soh Woods discovered new ways to produce whiskey despite her atypical entry into whiskey production. (Woods is pictured in this Forbes photograph below.) I discovered her story and brew at my local wine retailer a few months ago when I wanted to purchase an affordable bottle of whiskey.
The store owner recommended Kikori. He said the smooth finish and elegant notes of this Japanese whiskey were surprisingly sophisticated. He was right! The whiskey taste didn’t have the burn of harder brands, but its velvety, complex character was remarkable.
Woods, who was born in Japan, grew up watching her father’s love of whiskey. But what fascinated her were the rituals and culture surrounding it. Woods’ whiskey recipe is unusual because it uses rice, which brings out a lighter taste with bright floral notes. She is marketing her whiskey as a cocktail blend and it’s 2016 Gold Medal win at the San Francisco Spirits competition illustrates why it’s taken the industry by storm.
Today, Woods is proud to thrive in what she calls a male dominated industry. The company has grown rapidly across Japan and the United States, and Woods admits more women are becoming educated, savvy consumers. It also makes sense that women are more interested in whiskey because it’s now legal to market to women. Until 1987, the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States banned commercials on television or radio.
I can see other evidence of change in the industry. Back in 2000, I did a strategic management study of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) – the government arm that regulates all liquor sales. The industry was dominated by men but stores were just starting to build marketing campaigns that appealed to women. When the LCBO appointed Bonnie Brooks as vice-chairman of the LCBO in 2016, I knew the industry was definitely evolving.
Women shaping the industry as consumers
According to Fred Minnick, the author of Whiskey Women, only 15% of women enjoyed whiskey in the 1990’s. This number has grown to 37 percent in the U.S. and a new book by Heather Greene adds a further punch. Heather is New York City’s first female whiskey sommelier. In her new book, Whiskey Distilled: A Populist Guide to the Water of Life, she dispels whiskey myths that may intimidate women. She also speaks to the nuances of tasting and flavors, and claims whiskey is a natural aphrodisiac.
Other evidence suggesting the number of whisky-loving women is on the rise is manifest in Kevin Schlittenhardt’s Supercall publication. The publication is dedicated to the spirit of cocktails and culture and lists “ 8 Badass Women Who Love Their Whiskey.” Turns out a surprising number of iconic figures from all walks of life are cracking the whiskey barrel wide open.
In the music industry, Lady Gaga (pictured below performing in Toronto) and Rihanna love their whiskey as much as presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton and Kate Middleton. In fact, Clinton’s tour of the Maker’s Mark Distillery in Kentucky in 2016 lead to a special bottling of Rodham Rye!
So here’s the rub. I like the sound of whiskey loving women being badass. That is, if badass means we are simply free to do and drink what we want. But if badass means we are aggressively keeping up with the boys and the benchmark is still a male marker, no thanks! Who wants to be on par with the same dumb cultural stereotypes that keep women pushing that relentless boulder up hill.
When whiskey isn’t a some kind of male bravado, chest-thumping drink, women won’t have to endure funny looks or silly jokes when ordering a whiskey at the bar. A bartender friend recently told me a woman ordering a whiskey still drew unusual reactions. Someone inevitably jokes about feminine sensibilities or women whiskey drinkers as “ball-busting types”.
But the bartender also said progress is happening. Social attitudes are shifting when people go to a bar. They want conversation and many friendships evolve over a whiskey tumbler. I’m hopeful whiskey will continue to be a small way that women gain equality but I’ll keep checking back with my bartender friend. She always has something interesting to share. Women & Whiskey: The Trail Continues