‘This will sort…’ I finish the sentence for James, ‘the men from the boys?’ James, my host at a Scotch Malt Whiskey Society (SMWS) whisky tasting in Edinburgh’s Leith Street, immediately looked a little sheepish. I had just sniffed and sipped a dram of Laphroaig, a smoky, oily, medicinal-tasting whisky, known as ‘Marmite’ amongst aficionados. I could see why it is a ‘love it or hate it’ drop, as whisky is in general, particularly amongst women.
Recently, however, more and more women, including the 20-30 age group, are swapping fizzy wine and fruit-laden cocktails for a fine Scotch. In France, Italy and Switzerland, and in a number of Asian countries such as Taiwan, female whisky drinkers are increasing in number, while more than a third of whisky drinkers in the US and nearly a third in the UK are women.
I travelled to Scotland to learn about how whisky is made; its diversity and appeal; and why, for so long, this fabulous tipple has been seen as a ‘man’s drink’. I head for the Glenkinchie Distillery, half-an-hour out of Edinburgh, for a tour with distillery manager Ramsay Borthwick, who explains that in pre-industrial revolution, farmers’ wives often had a personal whisky distillery in the kitchen. ‘There are more women involved in the production of whisky these days,’ says Borthwick, ‘although some of the work involved in making it requires a lot of muscle.’
After the tour I ‘nosed’ and sipped a Glenkinchie 12, a single malt from Orkney, with a light peaty, nutty flavour, quite heavy for a Highland whisky. My whisky guide was Nick Morgan, head of whisky outreach at Diageo, the world’s largest producer of spirits. ‘The real challenge, wherever you are, is getting a glass in front of someone. There is a whisky for everyone. Big, smoky favours, or as light and sweet as you like.’
At Diageo, 17% of the overall workforce in malt distilling are female, and 40% in management roles. A quarter of all apprentices are female.
At the coppersmiths in Clackmannanshire, where the stills are built to make whisky, I speak to site manager Charlie King, an affable man who clearly loves his work. ‘I hope we get a female apprentice in the next intake,’ says King. ‘One applied last time, but didn’t make it through. I reckon it would be a good thing for the lads. Any woman came to work here with them would be treated like a princess.’
At the Cambus Cooperage in Alloa, eight miles east of Stirling, Tom Duncan, site manager tells me how keen he is to train up women as coppersmiths. ‘One girl came to me for a job, really fascinated with coopering,’ says Duncan. ‘I encouraged her to apply – she would be an asset – there is no reason women can’t do this job.’
I drink whisky cocktails with Annabel Meikle, director of the Keepers of the Quaich (Gaelic for shallow drinking cup), an exclusive club that offers invitations to join only to those who have made an ‘outstanding contribution’ to whisky.
‘I am delighted [the club] is now being run by a Scottish woman, living in Scotland, and one who loves whisky, and drinks it regularly,’ says Meikle, sipping a whisky sour. I have a Whisky Collins made with a Highland Malt, and a Manhattan with Johnnie Walker Black Label, creamy and slightly fruity – a perfect balance with the sweet vermouth and bitters.
Meikle is one of the most influential people in the Scotch whisky world. I ask if women and whisky go well together. ‘There have always been women in all aspects of whisky,’ says Meikle, ‘and I don’t think sexism in this world is a phenomena, actually. I have only ever had one, “What’s a little woman like you doing drinking a big, smokey whisky like that”? comment, and that was from a journalist.’
Another way to be introduced to whisky is with food parings. A sweet single malt, matured in bourbon and sherry casks goes well with a hard, salty cheese, such as a mature cheddar. Hot and spicy curry dishes are delicious with a premium blend. Glenkinchie is perfect with delicately smoked salmon, crab, and other salty sea food snacks. ‘Whisky and chocolate are a dream combination,’ adds Meikle.
At the Scotch Whisky Experience, a visitor attraction in Edinburgh, I meet Julie Trevisan Hunter, head of marketing, who tells me that around 52% of those signing up for the tour are women. ‘There are many stereotypes about whisky,’ says Hunter, ‘one is that it is a “man’s drink”.’
In the meantime, I am doing another tasting, beginning with a Whyte & Mackay, 13-year-old blend of 80% grain, 20% malt, with a sherry-type finish. ‘Only about 15 years ago,’ says Hunter, ‘at corporate tastings, there would be a lot of surprise when they saw me, a female guide, and especially when they realised I had a personal interest in whisky.’
At the Queen Street site of the SMWS, operations director Jan Damen tells me that female membership is increasing annually. ‘We thought of attracting women to the club when we had this place designed,’ said Damen, ‘so we avoided making it look like a typical male members club, you know, all dark leather and wood.’
According to Rachel McCormack, who has spent a year researching a book on her experiences with whisky, during her time travelling around Scotland, meeting people in the industry as well as whisky obsessives, she has rarely encountered hostility from male whisky drinkers.
‘There are women all over the whisky industry nowadays, distillers, master blenders, distillery managers, engineers, and brand ambassadors,’ says McCormack. ‘Talking to a lot of men in the industry around retiring age, it’s a great source of pride to them that there are more women in the industry who are getting really high up and doing really well.’
Why do so many women still insist they ‘hate’ whisky? ‘When you start drinking you want something sweet and entry level whisky is quite smoky and fiery. They think they don’t like whisky as they have never tried really good whisky. Also the image in their head is often still that it’s their grandad’s drink.’
McCormack may be right, but for me, and a number of other women who are sick of being offered something sweet and ‘easy drinking’, I want my tastebuds tested, not cosseted. That, in my view, is how to separate the women from the girls.
Julie flew Easyjet from Stansted to Edinburgh and stayed at the Old Town Chambers, five-star serviced apartments. To find out more, visit www.lateralcity.com.