Whiskey had a representation problem long before acclaimed whisky writer and educator Becky Paskin called out Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible for its sexist lingo. The historically male-dominated space has largely treated whiskey as a boy’s club, regardless of that idea’s veracity. In the process, female and non-binary producers and consumers have been cast aside or ignored.
The controversy that swirled last month was a harbinger of change. The old way is shifting and the lens that we view whiskey through is (finally) widening. The dialogue about sexism and inclusivity in whiskey may be uncomfortable for some, but it’s a necessary first step — driving progress and adding awareness. To keep the conversation going, we opened the floor to key women in whiskey media, promotion, and production. Diageo Reserve U.K.’s Global Brand Ambassador Jenna Ba, Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey’s Brand Ambassador Sailor Guevara, whisky journalist, educator, and co-founder of Our Whisky Becky Paskin, and Consulting Master Distiller Marianne Eaves all chimed in with their thoughts about the critical issues facing their industry.
Their answers are deeply insightful and offer plenty of hope for the future.
Before we get into ways the whiskey industry needs to change, what is the industry getting right in our current climate?
Liquid diversity in the global whisky industry is fantastic right now. Whisky is being made for every type of consumer, distilled all over the world, designed to be mixed in every way, and with flavor combinations that are better than ever. I’m a total advocate for the globalization of whisky. From Denmark to India, from Australia to Mexico, we’re seeing unique people produce it, present it, and enjoy it. This brings excitement, innovation, and includes everyone in the tapestry of the whisky world.
We are especially seeing this in scotch, which has been previously focused on tradition and heritage. It is beautiful to see how whisky fans are united by wonderful liquids produced there, no matter their cultural fabric. As I like to say, passion doesn’t need a passport.
I would say, for the most part, I have seen the whiskey industry begin to create spaces for women in leadership roles. In the past ten years, I have been so incredibly shocked by the number of women in leadership positions in distilleries and brands. I say “shocked” because this was not the case when I entered this industry — I think we are beginning to get that right. Brands are finally speaking out publicly against racism.
I think brands are going to be forced to look into themselves and realize that they are a part of the problem if they have minorities inside their brands and in leadership positions in their brands. It’s a start, so I am hopeful.
For the most part the whisky industry is making great strides toward marketing whisky as inclusive and a drink that can be enjoyed by anyone. Representation in advertising campaigns is improving, with brands such as Johnnie Walker, Haig Club, The Glenlivet, and Jack Daniels leading the way.
I am seeing more awareness, at least at the surface level, sometimes a little deeper, in the current climate. I am seeing more women being highlighted and stories being told. People are committing to not just opening the door for more women to come in but also seeking out women and asking them to tell their stories. I think this isn’t commonplace in the industry.
I had the tremendous fortune of having people asking me to tell my story and it makes a huge difference. For a woman behind the stills who is doing everything herself, there’s very little time to self-promote.
Women are clearly the minority within the whiskey space. Why do you think this is the case?
Women have always been part of whisky, whether it is scotch, bourbon, or Irish whiskey. They have been a leading force in liquid development and beyond, and we need to tell their stories. We keep walking on paths created by legendary women, seeking inspiration from the likes of Elizabeth Cumming who distilled at Cardhu in the 1820s until well into her old age. In our time, there are three incredible women making waves at the Roe & Co. Distillery in Dublin, Ireland. Hayley Millner (Brand Manager), Lorna Hemy (Master Distiller), and Caroline Martin (Master Blender). Their skills have come together to craft a wonderful Irish expression in Roe & Co. and an inclusive, welcoming space in the distillery itself.
The Johnnie Walker blending team is full of inspiring women, most of whom are scientists who are working every day to create new blends in never-seen-before flavor profiles. If I look to the very top of Diageo, 55 percent of our board are women setting a great tone for the organization. The future of women in this industry is simple: Let’s together share stories, celebrate success, and encourage an open, vibrant whisky community around the world.
I believe this is a symptom of what the world looked like and still looks like in many cases. I also believe it was a space where men didn’t want women. Women weren’t invited to be whiskey drinkers, so why would women be invited to work in the industry or have any ownership in the industry? Whiskey has been seen as a man’s drink, it’s been marketed (and still is) to men and thought to be drunk only by men.
Although women have always been involved in the creation of whisky and have enjoyed drinking it for centuries, whisky has historically been heavily marketed exclusively toward men. During the 1950s-1980s a lot of whisky marketing heavily sexualized and objectified women, promoting whisky as a “boy’s club” drink enjoyed in dimly-lit libraries under clouds of smoke. Some brands’ misguided attempts to appeal to women have been to advertise whisky as “mellow” or “so soft even a woman would enjoy it.” That perception has taken root, and even today many women simply don’t consider whisky as a drink they would enjoy.
Some of it is conditioning. Some of it is access. I think some of it is just the nature of how our industry evolves. Whiskey matures slowly and apparently so do the heritage and traditions in our industry. When I made the move from Brown-Forman to Castle & Key there were so many people — mostly consumers (both women and men) — that were very publicly questioning my “right” and ability to hold the title. Also, within the industry there was resistance from one of the big distillery interest organizations, that suggested I wasn’t “allowed” to take the title because it wasn’t handed to me by one of the old white men that had been “knighted” as a master distiller decades before. However, there were other master distillers that really embraced me and encouraged me, and that was what I chose to focus on.
Even if you haven’t faced challenges personally, what are some hurdles you’ve heard about your peers having to overcome as women in whiskey?
I consider hurdles to be life experience. I enjoy climbing mountains, and if that was easy, I probably wouldn’t get so much satisfaction from it. I tend to think the same about all other obstacles. I have experienced being cut off on panels, been asked inappropriate or unnecessarily complex lines of questioning, and not been taken seriously. I choose to learn from frustration. I don’t have all the answers, but I do have the drive to find them out and share my knowledge even further.
I find change can be driven through interaction. Recently I met a man at a friend’s home who said he would offer me a drink, but it was whisky. I laughed, we chatted, and by the end of the conversation, he was keen to discover Lagavulin and impatient to find out more about Port Ellen. By opening our minds and having honest conversations, we drive diversity.
Oh, I have faced probably most of the challenges that can be faced by women in this industry. I have been told I was not considered for roles in the industry because I was a woman. I have been sexually harassed with lewd comments and butt-grabbing at events in the past. I have been belittled by men and mansplained countless times while leading tastings or events. I walked away from the industry twice after hitting my head on the glass ceiling one too many times. There was a time when you didn’t see female faces in any brands if you were young and wanting to enter the whiskey business.
I look back on some of the experiences I have had and think, “wow, I can only imagine what it was like for the trailblazing women before me!”
Never have I heard a man being asked, “What’s it like to be a man in whisky?” but it’s something women are asked all the time. It leads to many women feeling as though they need to prove their credentials and knowledge. As editor of Scotchwhisky.com, I banned our contributors from asking that question or focusing on gender at all. People working in any industry should be credited for their talent, skill, and passion, not praised for being marginalized.
Something that all women in production leadership roles face is people’s assumptions of what their role probably is — secretary, sales, marketing, or gift shop — and therefore not being taken seriously as a distiller or given the respect they have earned. I learned pretty early in my career that I need to own my accomplishments, not just to benefit my own career trajectory, but to provide a new experience for people. This seems so strange to even say, but have you ever had someone pull back their hand and yelp when you give them a firm handshake? Well, this gentleman even went to the extent to elevate the energy in his voice and say, “YOU HURT ME, I THOUGHT YOU WERE A LADY!”
Well, I normally get compliments on having a nice handshake. It’s hard to describe how an interaction like that makes you feel. So, women have to walk this fine line. On one side you say, “Heck with it” and be you and take no prisoners. But we all know what the repercussions of that approach can be. Or you try and push through these uncomfortable, awkward moments when men and women try to put you back into a traditional box.
Part of my nature, as an introvert, is to watch people and listen closely which, in my early career, allowed me to navigate rooms filled with people who would look right past you. They never even made eye contact with women, because women never held important roles. I hope that things are changing. I believe that slowly they are.
There’s been a lot of talk about sexism and inclusivity within the whiskey world. What does inclusivity look like to you?
Inclusivity is about making your own kind of music, dancing in your own special way. It is about placing value on diversity, about being conscious of your own biases and the myriad of great ideas we might be missing because of them. Ultimately, inclusivity is not just handing a pen to put a signature somewhere, but giving people the power to write their own letters. I am super proud of my colleague Eboni Major, Master Blender at Bulleit, who recently launched Blender’s Select, an innovative product that is designed specifically by her palate and from her experiences.
As someone used to dealing with racism, xenophobia, and sexism, I can’t highlight enough how fundamental intersectionality is to inclusivity. Women are not a homogenous group. There are so many identity intersections in the struggles and opportunities they face, just as in taste. From single grain scotch, Haig Club, to the high peat Octomore, don’t expect us to like one and not the other one.
Yes, and this talk is long overdue. I am thrilled to see women like Becky Paskin bringing this discussion to the forefront because it’s been happening for years but not in such a spotlight. To me, I see many glimpses of inclusivity now, and I am thrilled. I work for a whiskey brand with an all-female executive team and my founder and CEO is a Black woman as well. I can name ten female distillers that are visible and leading the charge off the top of my head. I can name female master blenders and directors of whiskey production for major brands and craft alike. I can host whiskey tastings and the room can be 95-percent female. I have hosted events in the past year where the room was 90-percent Black attendees. It’s so exciting! I couldn’t have imagined this ten years ago.
Let me be clear though, it’s just a spark. Change throughout needs to happen. We need people of color in ownership and leadership roles. We need equity in our industry and that means actually looking at who the consumer is and marketing to everyone who enjoys whiskey, regardless of gender and skin color. Brands have to begin this work right now.
Equal opportunities and pay for everyone within the workplace, regardless of gender, race, or sexual orientation. Inclusivity also means never judging a person on their choice of drink. If a young woman (of legal drinking age) orders a neat scotch or a pint of stout, that should not be a surprise, and certainly doesn’t invite sexual comments of any kind.
Where I believe our industry is now in its maturation: Master Distiller Alex Castle, Master Distiller Molly Troupe, Master Distiller Christine Riggleman and her daughter Master Distiller Lauren Riggleman Weller, President Brit Kulsveen, Mollie Lewis, Master Distiller Nicole Austin, Head Distiller Lisa Wicker, and the list goes on, are making paths for more women to come in. We can’t rely on men to change what opportunities in this industry look like ahead, which is one reason I left Castle & Key.
I want to be a part of making real opportunities for growth and raising inclusivity in the industry.
How do we as an industry change the misconception or idea that whiskey is a “man’s drink?”
Firstly, whisky should be embraced without misconception. This means we must address our own uncertainties and fears. Secondly, most men in whisk(e)y are our allies. Let’s share the stories of how everyone around the world interacts with flavor in their own unique way. My favorite Johnnie Walker Highball is a twist on a West African drink called Bissap (made with sorrel/hibiscus), and one of my favorite ways to enjoy Lagavulin whisky is with ice cream. It’s unexpected but wonderful.
We continue hiring women. We continue educating women. We continue creating safety for women in our industry. We need brands to change their entire thought process and look at the world because, everywhere I look, I see whiskey women and people of color who are passionate and avid whiskey drinkers. People like you need to continue to write about it in our voice, the voice of a Black woman. People like me need to continue to be out there holding space for women and minorities. We need to be intentional about what brands stand for and hold brands accountable for outdated marketing.
I would like to see all ads for the next several years feature just women and minorities.
Through equal representation in marketing. Women currently account for 35 percent of whisky drinkers in the US, yet are rarely seen in whisky marketing. Brands control whisky’s image. Their marketing influences how the media writes about it, how scriptwriters convey whisky drinkers in film and TV, how bars serve it, and ultimately how we as consumers perceive it. It all starts with the brands. They have the power to bring about change by accepting their target demographics are no longer just middle-aged white men.
I think brands that don’t have the opportunity to have a woman at the forefront of their brand, should be conscious of their marketing. When you start a bourbon brand all the smart advisors say the market is men. So, most new brands also fall into the trap of the current mindset that it’s a man’s drink. But do they know that women are the ones doing most of the buying? You are marketing to women, who are expected to do everything, keep the household up along with their own career, and supporting the family and their partners. We have to do better and depict women as more than just the sexy prize.
Ultimately, what would you like to see change when it comes to evolving for the better in the whiskey space?
I’d love to see more diverse conversations, and people from different cultures owning, distilling, blending, representing, and enjoying whisky. More access for people to have the chance to interact with the liquid in their own way, free of judgment.
In “Field of Dreams,” the cornfield voice said, “If you build it, they will come.” We should act similarly, “If we open it, they will come.” Uncork that special bottle and share it with your friends, the liquid doesn’t care about their backgrounds and preferences.
Ultimately, we have to remove the fear that we may lose our positions, our jobs, our places if we speak out against something that is wrong. I cannot live in that fear any longer. I don’t know if it’s my age, my tenure in the industry, or the current climate socially, but I am done being afraid. At this point, I can lose nothing. It’s more important that women who are entering the industry or who want to attend a whiskey event or grab a bottle off the shelf or work behind the bar have a better, safer, and more inclusive experience than I did.
That’s what I am passionate about now. I want to see a landslide of change in my lifetime in the industry I am so in love with and I’ll fight to be even the tiniest part of that change. I am grateful to the women before me, next to me, and I am excited to meet the women after me.
Firstly, whisky producers need to listen. After years of staying silent, female consumers and women in the industry are now speaking out and companies have a responsibility to take this issue seriously. The global whisky industry needs to work collaboratively, admit there is a problem and find practical solutions together. Individual brands have done fantastic work in equally representing their audiences, but it will take a cooperative approach to make meaningful change. As consumers, we can call out sexism when we see it, using instances as an opportunity to educate. Changing the whole world’s perception of who whisky drinkers are won’t happen overnight, but we can step by step bring about change together.
Let’s get rid of the “well, it’s always been this way” attitude. Let’s also move past “everyone’s entitled to free speech.” Well, they are, however when you’re promoting the industry or a brand you have a responsibility. Perpetuating the notions that women are “toys” whether it’s directly targeting a real person or not, hurts us. I think the whole country slid back when the ballots were counted in 2016. People knowingly voted a man into the most powerful office in our country who treats women as things and is celebrated for it. I think this has supercharged the notion that men can do or say whatever they want to women if they don’t stay in line and act nice.
Well, I suppose I could go on that rant forever. I don’t want to bring politics into whiskey, but this is about character and suppression.
I have had so many men reach out to me and thank me for being a strong role model for their daughters. I want men to start seeing all women with the same respect, and perhaps that’s the core of it. When you walk into a room and see a woman and a man standing together, stop to check your gut assumption that the man is in charge and the young woman is his assistant or his daughter. Like the women I listed before, she is just as likely to be making the product and running everything.