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Whisky: Strong enough for a man. Now enjoyed by women

Whisky tastings are as much about walking women through the processes behind distillation as they are about tasting notes.

Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

Donna Wolffe knew her inaugural Women and Whisky 101 event would be popular, but she didn't quite anticipate a standing-room-only bar situation on the evening of Family Day.

The owner of the Caledonian, a Scottish-themed bar just west of Ossington Street on College, Ms. Wolffe partnered with William Grant and Sons Distilleries to host a free, women-only whisky-tasting and information seminar. The idea was to thumb a nose at the outdated stereotype of whisky as a "man's drink." As the event's turnout would demonstrate, plenty of women were game.

"Our Facebook event got 100 RSVPs," Ms. Wolffe said, motioning to a cordoned-off tasting room filled with some 35 women ranging in age from 20s to 60s, rows of whisky glasses gleaming before them. In the bar's main dining area, additional clusters of women clientele patiently passed the time until a second session began.

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She added, pleased: "We weren't even planning on doing two."

While whisky has seen a resurgence in recent years, thanks in part to a renewed interest in spirit-based cocktails and the glamorous, booze-slugging world seen on television's Mad Men, the recent rise of women whisky consumers is especially striking.

"Whisky's definitely become more of an 'It' thing in the last four or five years," says Beth Havers, whisky portfolio specialist for William Grant and Sons, and the presiding whisky educator at Women and Whisky 101. Heather MacGregor, media relations co-ordinator at the LCBO, notes net sales in whiskey have seen a 9.3 per cent rise since 2007.

Ms. Havers attributes her own love for amber spirits to a stint in Edinburgh, Scotland, more than a decade ago. Since then, women consumers have come to account for an estimated 20 per cent of Canadian whisky purchases. And women are increasingly dealing in whisky behind the scenes, too.

"Our [marketing] team at William Grant and Sons, working with whisky, is all women," she says.

Despite the surge, she admits there's still some lingering trepidation around the consumption of hard spirits by women – one that might be traced as far back as the women-driven temperance movement of the 19th century. Certainly in the years post-prohibition, these beverages have been marketed to men.

"It can be quite intimidating," she says. "And with all the types of whisky out there – Canadian whisky, bourbon, Scotch whisky – people in general can get kind of lost in it. But that it's always been associated with a men's culture hasn't helped."

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So, Ms. Havers's whisky-tasting seminars are as much about walking women drinkers through the processes and back stories behind whisky distillation as they are about tasting notes. At the Caledonian, she explained what blended whiskies are and what defines a single malt, in addition to the proper approach to whisky sniffing ("careful, like a first date") and tasting (twice, to catch all the flavours).

Catherine Solmes, who attended the Women and Whisky tasting, likes subverting the notion of the spirit as a "man's drink."

"Women are supposed to stick to wine spritzers and chocolate martinis, so I like being a woman who drinks whisky," she says. "It's sexy."

Though her mother is a long-time whisky drinker ("Saskatchewan winters will do that to you," she jokes), Ms. Solmes only began imbibing amber spirits about two years ago. Many of her female friends have simultaneously become interested in whisky drinks of late, as well.

"Drinking Old Fashioneds and Manhattans has definitely made us want to explore different whiskies," she says.

Andrew Kaiser, owner of the whisky-specialist bar Emmet Ray, just west of the Caledonian, agrees that the number of women ordering whisky from his establishment has steadily increased over the past few years. Proprietors of whisky are beginning to take note too, he thinks, citing a trend toward "prettier" bottle designs and brighter label colours.

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While Mr. Kaiser can't be certain of the exact forces behind the trend, he has a theory of his own.

"Vodka sucks," he says. "Whenever someone orders a vodka soda, I'm like, 'Really? Have you ever had a whisky and soda? Do you know what you're missing?'"

Ms. Havers thinks whisky's rise in popularity among women in part of a cultural shift.

"Women obviously don't want [whisky] to just be seen as a man's drink," Ms. Havers says. "We all want to be seen as equals, in every area. And so, more women are willing to try their hand at it."

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