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Women are leading a whisky renaissance after previously being booted out of the industry

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Marianne Barnes, Kentucky’s first female master distiller, claimed her career was the direct result of a background and interest in another predominantly male field, chemical engineering.

“To give you an idea, in my class of 50 or so there were about 12 women,” she explained. “In these science and technology fields, it’s still skewed towards men, so going into the workforce in the first place there’s just more men going after those jobs.”

For Becky Harris, co-owner Catoctin Creek, a similar background with Barnes led to a shared a profession. Harris worked as a chemical engineer before founding Catoctin Creek with her husband in 2009. “The reason I became the distiller was because I was the one who was best suited to do it in our personal situation,” she explained. “Maybe that’s what it really talks to, is that women are starting to become the most qualified to do it, and that’s a good thing. Being interested in a field, and saying this is the field where I feel like I fit.”

In addition to more women entering the workforce with backgrounds that apply to industries such as whiskey production, it doesn’t hurt that women also have superior palates to men. “Brown-Forman’s sensory science department is all females actually,” said Barnes. “It’s interesting to know that women have a better sense of taste scientifically.”

Harris has seen first hand how much perception has changed overall in a predominantly male workforce. “I’m 48 years old and I’ve worked in engineering for some 20 years so things are much better than they used to be. The silliest thing is when I drive a forklift, and somebody says, ‘a woman driving a forklift!’ and I go heck yeah I drive a forklift! But those things are just silly. It’s nothing that speaks to the product or anything else as far as that goes, I’ve never heard any brush back about that.”

Viktorija Macdonald, who is involved in numerous aspects of the whisky industry, suggested that both men and women in the whisky industry are younger than the whiskies they are representing. 

“The message that we receive from whisky enthusiasts and customers is that they do not want to be lectured by children, and they do not buy in to their credibility. Interestingly, on the flip-side, I have been told that at 41 years old, even irrespective of my knowledge, past track record and abilities, that I am too old. Apparently, you have to be a 23-year old with a good wiggle to sell whisky, and this has to change. Many distilleries, I believe, are employing women for a wrong reason, not because of their knowledge of whisky.

“I am not saying that young people cannot play an important part, of course they can. However to have opened up new markets for distilleries mentioned above with no support from the industry – financial, marketing, HR, etc. and then be told that my experience is irrelevant because I am not in my 20s, is farcical.”

This was echoed by Eszter Gyory, who is in charge of the whisky collection at the Hilton London Metropole’s Whisky Lounge bar. She suggested that stereotypes exist everywhere and when it comes to a whisky specialist or whisky sommelier, people usually picture a middle-aged Scottish gentleman with a moustache. 

“Of course, they are surprised when they see a young blond woman who claims to be the expert of whiskies,” she said. “But then it takes only a couple of minutes to convince them that I know what I am talking about. It feels really nice to see the surprise on their faces. It makes me proud. I don’t think age has anything to do with being a specialist or not. I believe if you have a passion, interest or curiosity for something then that motivates you to become an expert; not age or gender.”

According to Allison Patel founder of Brenne Whisky and Local Infusions, is of the belief that whisky is still viewed as a “male” drink due to Hollywood. Lots of leading men order single malts, pour themselves a glass of Scotch, and celebrate or relax with whisky in hand on the big screen. Socially, it’s still not thought of as a lady’s drink because it’s not girly and, frankly, it’s not for everyone.

There will never be an umbrella sticking out of a whisky cocktail, she said.

Marketers have already started tapping into the market, which means that a female whisky revolution could soon be near. Lady Gaga has described Jameson whisky as a love interest, while actress Christina Hendricks is featured in an advert for Johnnie Walker Black Label. 

Concerned with issues surrounding gender diversity in business? Don’t miss Real Business’s First Women programme:

Drawing on ten years of the First Women movement and the phenomenal network of pioneering women the Awards has created, this programme features The First Women Awards and The First Women Summit  designed to educate, mentor and inspire women in all levels of business.

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