Whiskey. As long as it’s been distilled, whether as bourbon, rye, single malt, Irish, English, scotch or any other variant, the spirit has been clothed in machismo, the ultimate guy drink.
George Bernard Shaw referred to it as “liquid sunshine.” Mark Twain felt that while “too much of anything is bad…too much good whiskey is barely enough.” Winston Churchill liked to keep a glass going throughout the day. Humphrey Bogart famously avoided stomach ailments while filming The African Queen by sticking to a diet of “baked beans, canned asparagus and Scotch whisky. Whenever a fly bit [director John] Huston or me, it dropped dead.” Frank Sinatra was partial to Jack Daniel’s. And then, of course, there’s Don Draper, fictional adman extraordinaire, who was never above a glass of Canadian Club rye, even if the workday had just begun.
Women, on the other hand, have a less robust history in terms of sipping whiskey. Which is ironic considering the spirit owes its very existence to one Maria Hebrea, an alchemist in second or third century Egypt, who is credited with inventing an early version of the still, the apparatus used to produce distilled alcohol. What’s more, in the 18th century, before the advent of industrial distilleries, women produced a good portion of the whiskey right in their kitchens.
Why? Whiskey was used medicinally. Fred Minnick, author of Whiskey Women, notes, in an article that first appeared on npr.com, that “if you had a scratch or a sore ear or a headache” you would be given whiskey. "It was the Tylenol, the ibuprofen of the day.” In fact, in the 1700s, whiskey making was such a coveted skill that men would take out classified ads in gazettes and propose marriage based on distilling talents.
So what explains women shying from a spirit they helped popularize? One theory is that women, although free to drink alcohol in the privacy of their homes, weren’t welcomed in bars because of a strong association between women drinking, or serving, whiskey in a bar setting and prostitution, a holdover taboo from the Prohibition. Distilleries followed suit, steering clear of targeting women in advertisements. Certain states even made it illegal to feature women in liquor ads. It wasn’t until 1987 that the Distilled Spirits Council of the United Stated lifted a ban on advertising directly to women.
"There's a lot of intimidation and mystery around whiskey," says Heather Greene, author of Whiskey Distilled: A Populist Guide to the Water of Life, in the same npr.org article. According to Greene, many women felt uncomfortable ordering the drink in a bar setting because it might make them “look assertive or aggressive.”
These hang-ups are quickly fading, however. Women are tired of being defined by “girlie drinks” such as Cosmopolitans. They also continue to break barriers in terms of the “Boy’s Club” in business and, as such, feel more empowered. Then there’s the scientifically proven fact that women have a superior sense of taste and smell, which makes them uniquely qualified to enjoy the subtle flavor profiles of whiskey.
Combine this with whiskey’s slight sweetness and affordable price tag—not to mention the rise of whiskey based cocktails like Old Fashioned, Whiskey Sour and Manhattan—and it’s no surprise that the percentage of female whiskey drinkers has risen from 15% in the 1990s to 37% today.
Spirit brands, always on the lookout for ways to expand their audience, have taken notice. Jim Beam now employs Mila Kunis as its spokesperson. And Johnnie Walker has tapped Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks.
"Women are absolutely the future of whiskey," Minnick says. Not just in terms of drinking, but also production. The whiskey industry continues to welcome more and more female distillers, blenders and tasters.
With that in mind, let’s leave the final word on women and whiskey to Oscar-nominated actress Ava Gardner, who famously said, “I wish to live to 150 years old, but the day I die, I wish it to be with a cigarette in one hand and a glass of whiskey in the other.”
Many other interesting and timely beverage alcohol-related topics will be the subject of over a dozen sessions at the all-new BAR Management Conference at BAR 17, the beverage alcohol industry’s premier annual gathering, May 21-22, 2017, in Chicago, IL. The BAR Management Conference offers bar professionals access to an array of lectures and workshops intended to explore bar trends, pain points and best practices towards profitability. For more information, visit Restaurant.org/BAR.