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Becky Paskin On Sexism In Spirits And The ‘Whisky Bible’ Controversy

The whiskey world has had its eyes opened wide this week. The language and metaphors employed by acclaimed whisk(e)y reviewer Jim Murray, author of the Whisky Bible, have come under scrutiny after a post by Becky Paskin — a world-renowned whisky journalist, educator, and the co-founder of Our Whisky — highlighted 34 overt, gendered sexual references among the tasting notes of Murray’s newly released Whisky Bible 2021.

What started as a straightforward critique has quickly become a flashpoint for broader conversations about sexism in the spirits industry. Beam Suntory, Diageo, and Chivas, along with a wide-range of whiskey-focused organizations and publications, have expressed their disappointment in the language used in the guide, which includes passages like the following:

Have I had this much fun with a sexy 41-year-old Canadian before? Well, yes I have. But it was a few years back now and it wasn’t a whisky. Was the fun we had better? Probably not.

As of this morning, Beam is reviewing any planned media slated to highlight its “World Whiskey of the Year” winning rye — indicating that they may choose not to use Murray’s praise in trades ads at all. In response to Paskin’s posts and the broader discussion, Murray told The Times, “This lady is entitled to her opinion, just as I am, about a whisky.” In fact, he and Paskin are aligned on that point. As Paskin said to me over the phone, “Jim Murray is free to write about whatever he wants in whatever way he wants… but that doesn’t mean that the whiskey industry needs to support it.”

As a whiskey writer and a woman of color, I have also voiced my outlook on the industry — which I’ve personally found to be a friendly place that still has lots of room for improvement when it comes to inclusivity. Is it welcoming to read a book that associates whiskey with the explicit sexualization of women? For some, maybe. But not for me, Becky Paskin, and plenty of others throughout the spirits industry.

All of this lends itself to a broader conversation about the fine line between freedom of speech and condoning problematic language. And while this viral moment might get lazily categorized under the #CancelCulture banner, it’s important to recognize how the turns of phrase used in the Whisky Bible might reinforce sexism. To dive deeper, I spoke with Paskin over the phone about these subjects and her larger hopes for the whiskey world.

Do you think that whiskey is welcoming?

In what respect?

In terms of inclusivity.

I think generally whiskey is a very welcoming spirit, in terms of the people who work in the whiskey industry are extremely welcoming. They’re very kind, they’re very warm, and it doesn’t matter where you are on your whiskey journey. There’s always information that you can acquire in a really, really, really nice way. People in the whiskey industry are great at being able to educate and teach people, no matter where they are in their whiskey journey about any aspect of whiskey.

I think it could do better. I think the whiskey industry could be better at being welcoming — certainly for women and people from different ethnic groups as well — because I think that there is this common perception that whiskey is still a man’s drink. And I think a lot of that perception can be changed, but it’s a very slow burner.

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I know you co-founded Our Whiskey, and you’ve definitely been a champion of being the voice of inclusivity. So what do you think is a way that positive change can come about and help form a more inclusive industry?

So… I think historically whiskey has always been marketed to men. Particularly white men. And so it’s now got this reputation as being something that only really men can get into, and that’s kind of made women maybe perhaps feel like it’s something that they can’t even, or they shouldn’t even bother trying. Now I’ve had countless discussions with some of my friends where they’ve told me, whiskey isn’t really a drink for them. And I’ve asked them why. They go, “Oh, it’s too strong. Oh, it’s too manly.” And I think that’s just… it’s a sad response because, of course, anyone can drink anything they want to. Our preference for flavor isn’t defined by our gender. And already there is this barrier to entry where women feel like it’s not something that they can get into.

Let’s take the example of a brand like the Glenlivet. If you look at the marketing campaign that has been running in the US — all of its branding has been gender-neutral, particularly on Glenlivet Founder’s Reserve. So in the US, the gender split on whiskey is around 35% women. And the Glenlivet Founder’s Reserve has a gender-neutral positioning. It’s targeted at both men and women. It’s gender-neutral coloring, and there are men and women featured in its advertising campaigns and its marketing campaigns and people of color as well.

And what they found in the US is that Glenlivet actually has a 50-50 gender split in terms of its audience. So when you actually market towards a different demographic to the one you’ve already been marketing to, you’re naturally going to bring people into that product. Consumers tend to buy into brands when they see themselves reflected on screen. If you don’t see yourself reflected, why would you feel like that’s a product for you?

You take the example of things like cars and watches that have been traditionally marketed at men. Women aren’t necessarily going to feel like that’s a product that they can enjoy and get into because it’s always just marketed at men. It’s the same with whiskey. If you start to include more women in your campaigns, actually showing the face of the modern whiskey drinker — because let’s be honest, women do enjoy whiskey, it’s not a unique niche thing. Women do enjoy whiskey. Let’s start showing more of them in marketing campaigns, and hopefully, that will start to encourage more women to realize that it is something that they can enjoy as well.

Glenfidditch

I found it very interesting that Glenfiddich did an Instagram post backing your response to Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible. So, let’s get into that. Most people and I have noticed this within the industry — not only just industry people but whiskey fans, in general — haven’t actually read the book. So, how did you come across these 34 different references to women and sex in the book?

I, like most people in the whiskey industry, hadn’t read the book. But I was aware of the reputation that Jim Murray has, and I was aware of some of the remarks that had been made in certain guidebooks, but I hadn’t really given it a second thought.

It was actually another journalist named Felipe Schrieberg. He writes for Forbes, and he contacted me. He’s a good friend of mine. He contacted me and said, “I want to write an article about some of the sexist remarks in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible, but I don’t have a current copy of the new one.” So, I used some of my contacts to find a copy in PDF form, and I sat on a train coming down from Scotland to Brighton, where I live, sat with my mask on, as you do on a train. And I sat, and I went through the PDF of the Whisky Bible [2021] searching for as many crude terms as I could see, which wasn’t pleasant. And I feel sorry for other people in the carriage because every now and then they heard me go, ‘Oh my god!’ when I came across another entry that was pretty vulgar.

So that’s how I found all of the terms. And anyone who has a copy, a PDF copy, of the book will be able to do the same thing as well. It’s in black and white.

Specifically, in Murray’s response, a couple of things I noticed he said. He said that it’s an “attack on free thought and free speech” [and] it’s “straitjacketed dogma.” What’s your response to this? And how do you think we can create a balance as journalists?

To the point about this being an attack on free speech — well, I’m also exercising my free speech. So I don’t see that there is an issue there. That kind of negates the point. I didn’t start out to campaign against him. I said my opinion publicly. I just put it on social media. This wasn’t something published in a magazine or this wasn’t a call to arms. This was just my opinion.

Now from that moment, what I didn’t realize was how much support my opinion had and how much it was also shared with a lot of other people in the industry. That’s where the groundswell of support has come from. And it’s only from that point where people started to come out with their own thoughts and opinions and stories, did we, myself, and lots and lots of hundreds of other people, and I’ve been messaged by probably thousands of people now, Gabby, in support of what I have written. And all of them calling for brands to not support the Whisky Bible.

My work has been, both as a journalist and as a campaigner and an educator in whiskey, to make whiskey feel as welcoming as possible to anybody. And I feel like if anyone was to pick up a copy of the Whisky Bible and read that whiskey is comparable to having sex with women in the most vulgar terms, is that really accessible for a woman picking that up?

I feel that it’s extremely disrespectful, not only to female whiskey drinkers, it’s disrespectful to the people who have made that whiskey as well. The blenders, the distillers, the people behind the brands… By objectifying us in such vulgar terms in a whiskey review book where it has no place anyway — again, that’s my opinion — it objectifies women and basically says, “Well, you’re not of any consequence in this industry.”

My mom always said, “You can do whatever you want, of course. You can say and do whatever you want, but you cannot pick the consequences… or the repercussions.”

Exactly. And I think all it would have taken was for Jim Murray to have said, “I’m sorry. I realize now I shouldn’t have said those comments or maybe they aren’t fitting for today’s whiskey consumer. The whiskey consumer has changed since I first started publishing the Whisky Bible, and they may have been accepted then, but they aren’t accepted now. I’m sorry. I won’t use that language again.” And the fans would have said, “Okay, forgive, and move on.”

But the fact that he does not want to change, and he has publicly said that he doesn’t want to appeal to anyone who is “woke,” which — I think is a good thing to be woke. Currently, it’s a negative term. But I think he’s kind of put the nail in his own coffin a little bit.

Have you had any backlash to what you’ve said? Have you experienced anything from readers on his side that feels like you’re out of line?

I have seen some negative comments from people in the whiskey community. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, of course. I don’t think there’s a need for name-calling. I certainly haven’t called Jim Murray any names at all. I tend not to read too much into it. I think people have followed Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible for a really long time. So they obviously enjoy it, and they see him as a kind of hero, I suppose. But I guess this term “cancel culture” keeps popping up a lot and this idea of being against freedom of speech. I don’t see it as being decent excuses for condoning sexism.

I think either you are a feminist or you’re not, and if you’re not feminist, then well, fine, say these things. But, yeah, there have been negative comments. But I don’t pay attention to them.

That’s important. I mean, you have to do that for your own mental well-being, I’ve learned. For my last question, what is the desired outcome? What ultimately would you like to see occur from this situation?

I would like to see whiskey, as a whole, move forward with the understanding that there is no room for sexism within this industry, among consumers, or among people who are working within the industry themselves. I think there are learnings to be taken from this incident. I think what happened online, the reaction that occurred online to the posts that I made is the result of a lot of underlying tension among whiskey consumers and people in the whiskey industry who are tired, just tired of this attitude towards women in the industry.

A lot of it is unconscious bias. Some of it is outright sexism, and some of it is really inappropriate. But it’s there, and it still exists. And I think, for too long, the industry has, while saying that they don’t condone it, not really done anything about it. What I would like to see is some real action going forward for the whiskey industry, as a whole on a global level, to really stamp out sexism and to make it a truly inclusive product that anybody, regardless of race or gender, can enjoy.

That’s what I want to happen because I love whiskey. I love the industry. I think it’s amazing. I just want it to do better. I want it to be the best it possibly can be.

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