whisky and women

Bunnahabhain. Monday morning.

I’m a woman that likes whisky. Now, I know I don’t need to explain this to you. I know that you may like whisky too. And I’m sure that if you do like it, if you have any sort of taste or enthusiasm for any type of usquebah, that you will probably have encountered at least one of these common assumptions about women and whisky.

1. You must be a masculine woman.
Because women don’t really like whisky, do they? The kind of woman who drinks whisky only does so as a pseudo-masculine conceit, doesn’t she? Some sort of attempt to get down with ver lads? A whisky-drinkin’ woman is laying desperate claim to a man’s balls, capability and ambition. Doesn’t Mrs Thatcher like to drink whisky? And Madonna too? Well, there you go then.

2. You would rather be drinking Baileys.
You are visiting a distillery and are automatically offered some hideous gloopy sweet concoction in lieu of the tasty dram that you came looking for. For, it is assumed by some makers and purveyors of the good stuff that, simply because you don’t have testicles, you would automatically rather be drinking something creamy or pastel coloured with a fookin umbrella stuck in inside it.

3. You prefer ‘feminine’ whisky.
Would you like a lowland malt, madam? I’m sure your delicate palate isn’t up to the bruising of a brutish Caol Ila. Surely you’d rather have a Bladnoch? A ladies dram?

(This lady would rather have a Bowmore.)

Given these persistent and hard-to-shake assumptions about women whisky drinkers, I was very interested to read this piece about the recent rise of women members of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. In the article, the SMWS celebrates the fact that it has managed to create the ‘right atmosphere’ for women. As one of them (ahem) I wouldn’t dispute this, but I wonder whether the SMWS might now, in a similar spirit of accommodation, turn its attention to the language of its panel’s tasting notes?
For example in the current list, cask 29.67 is described thus:

“In the unreduced taste the panel found scorched bacon, peanut brittle sprinkled with chimney soot and rubber in the nicest way — can you imagine it? Maybe Ursula Andress in a wetsuit. . . ”

Now, I love reading the SMWS’s tasting notes, and they are not specifically at fault here. For you will find comparisons of whisky to women, ranging from the predictable to the bizarre, throughout most whisky ‘bibles’ and all over the review pages of Whisky Magazine. Here, for example, is one eminent whisky critic’s description of a 12 year old Rosebank:

“Relatively young, but beginning to weary nonetheless. Perhaps this tiredness is caused by worry about the future. A feminine whisky that has lost the first bloom of youth. Snatch a kiss while you can.”

This sleazy uncle stuff is fairly typical of the genre, but more surprising (to me at least) was this review of a 15 year old Glenmorangie which appeared a few days ago on the ScotchChix blog

“This older sister to Glenmorangie 10, the girl next door, is a bit of a wallflower. With her strawberry nose and vanilla palate, Glenmorangie 15 should be just as pleasing as her sibling. However, she simply doesn’t open up the way Glenmorangie 10 does, leaving this Scotch Chick just a tad disappointed.”

To me, that’s poorly written as well as being offensive. Aigugh!

Whisky is something that inherently evokes fascination and desire. It is a drink that is both complex and elusive. Because it is all of these things, one of the principal vocabularies used to describe it is that of sexual — and specificially heterosexual — possession. And while the culture of whisky production, sale, and consumption may be shifting to accomodate women, the vocabulary of whisky certainly hasn’t caught up yet. Its always demure or yielding this, coy or coquettish that. But whisky is not a woman. And such comparisons of whisky-to-woman act, I’m sure, as an impediment to many women’s enjoyment of a wee dram or two — reinforcing that persistent and eroneous stereotype of it being a man’s drink.

Bowmore at Bowmore.

But there are other whisky metaphors no less evocative, and certainly not as irritating as those afforded by gender. For example, this whisky seller has superb tasting notes that are redolent, idiosyncratic, and never resort to an offensive language of sexual desire (at least not that I’ve seen). For example, their website describes a Talisker 25 year old suggestively as “the love child of Brian Ferry and Eartha Kitt”. References to the Who’s great performances, Moon still at the drums, abound. These epithets may be obscure to some, but to me are far more powerful and compelling than any comparison to a leering whore or a perfumed great aunt (the latter being a favourite reference point of whisky critics for the output of closed Forres distillery, Dallas Dhu).

Anyway, as you may have gathered, one of the things I enjoy so much about Islay is the whisky. It was, in fact, an Ardbeg at the Port Charlotte Hotel that induced my own whisky epiphany some years ago. The taste of an Ardbeg 10 or a Bowmore 17 just says Islay to me, it speaks of gold and green and blue, of rocks and peat and salt water, in a manner more vivid and eloquent than any metaphor I or anyone else could dream up. And, after all this discussion about the language of whisky, I find that I really lack one to adequately capture the feel of Bowmore’s lochside warehouse, with the cool smell of the sea and the promise of its slowly aging casks. I just don’t have the words to describe it. But it is something very close to whisky heaven.

Bowmore. Last Sunday.