After years as a silent-movie star, Greta Garbo uttered her first words on film in 1930's Anna Christie, famously telling a bartender: "Gimme a whisky with ginger ale on the side and don't be stingy, baby."
As notable as this line became, however, whisky has long been considered a man's drink, the favourite tipple of cowboys, gangsters and British fops. But the last decade has seen a change in the landscape that includes more female representation both socially and professionally. And it's not just fast-talking, hard-drinking broads who are taking to the spirit. The new whisky regime is full of smart, sophisticated women who aren't afraid to experiment with their drink or flaunt their considerable knowledge of it.
"Women are now drinking whisky on their terms with no stigma," says Annabel Meikle, sensory whisky creator for the Glenmorangie Company in Edinburgh, Scotland. "They're saying: 'We know this is a boy's game, but we want in.' "
According to the Edinburgh-based Scotch Malt Whisky Society, which is Scotland's premier whisky connoisseur club and has chapters all over the world, women accounted for one quarter of all new memberships between 2005 and 2008, a considerable rise over previous years. It's a trend that Gabrielle Shayne, director of marketing for the American chapter of SMWS in Sunrise, Fla., says keeps growing steadily. She attributes the growing fan base to a few factors. "Women are creatures who like many choices and the whisky category has so many varieties," she says, citing the many countries that make it (including Scotland, Ireland, Japan, the U.S. and Canada) and the many forms it takes (from blend to cask types). But she also acknowledges the influence that men can have on women's propensity for whisky. "Women tend to try something or become interested in something that their boyfriend, husband, father or brother enjoy," she says.
Recently, though, the SMWS held a women-only tasting event in New York, drawing 120 participants, a number that Shayne suggests points to a desire by female whisky fans to establish their own tastes. Similar gender-specific events are also being held in other corners of the world. The Victoria Whisky Festival in British Columbia, for instance, has included women-only tastings headed by a representative from the Bruichladdich Distillery in Scotland. And South Africa's annual FNB Whisky Live Festival, which was founded by two women, Karen Chaloner and Sian Neubert, eight years ago, recently added women-only events to its calendar.
The idea behind such events, however, isn't to completely shut men out: Meikle of Glenmorangie views women in charge of a tasting as beneficial to both sexes. "By putting women in a role like mine, it instinctively makes other women more comfortable, but it does the same for men who are more apt to ask questions they wouldn't ask another man for fear of sounding uninformed," she says. "Everyone is more relaxed when a woman is doing the presentation." Although Glenmorangie doesn't do anything to target women specifically - "We don't like to divide our audience," Meikle says - it is doing its part to make whisky drinking less rigid. "We are engaging women who have already tried whisky and letting them know that it's okay to add a splash of water or to mix it in a cocktail or soften it with soda."
As stereotypical as it may sound, a surefire way of attracting women to whisky events has been to pair it with food, which Meikle says makes the spirit less intimidating. The result is a new creative culinary frontier. "I love to put a drop of Glenmorangie's Quinta Ruban variety with some mint into a crème anglaise," she says.
Sherry Stone, a 38-year-old project manager in Toronto, also melds whisky and food. Her mother introduced her to the spirit, giving her a taste for single malts like Glenfiddich and Glenlivet. But once Stone started to venture out on her own, she made her own discoveries, not the least of which is adding whisky to chocolate truffles or a ganache cake frosting. "I find whisky and tea also make a great pairing in desserts," she says. "There's something about the smoky notes in whisky that play off the tannins in the tea nicely."
A woman ordering a whisky in public hardly turns heads these days, but Stone remembers a time when people weren't so cool: "I used to get funny looks when I ordered whisky in a bar in my early 20s." While she acknowledges that it's still mostly "guy-oriented," she sees a lot more women drinking the spirit, neat or with a splash of water. And many seem to be taking it seriously. "They study and understand the complexity of single malts," Meikle says. "They're the ones you see at the whisky shows taking notes."
Of course, there's also the all-important social aspect, the fun of raising a glass with others. "My greatest accomplishment," Meikle adds, "is getting my mother to drink whisky."
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