A few years ago, I was at a whisky festival with three friends. We were a few drams in and we decided it was time to make our way to the Highland Park stand. Once there, we found the brand representative to be very knowledgeable and informative as he spoke about the whole whisky-making process, right from growing the barley to the different types of cask and their respective influence. There was, however, one obvious flaw with his spiel. It was only directed at one half of the group. The male half.
After he had finished, he turned to my (female) friend and me and stated, quite proudly, that he had the perfect whisky for us – a real ladies’ dram. Whilst my friend and I were in mid double take, he poured us a sample and asked us what we thought. My friend nosed her glass and, initially, suggested that she could detect raisins. Then she changed her mind, preferring sultanas instead. However, there was something in the background that she couldn’t quite put her finger on. A few seconds later and she had it: raisins, sultanas and just a hint of misogyny.
This ridiculous notion of a ladies’ dram has received plenty of attention recently with the news that Diageo has submitted labels to the US Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau for a female edition of Johnnie Walker, namely Jane Walker. When I first clicked on the link, I was surprised to find that this wasn’t the latest offering from the Whisky Sponge. In reality, though, I guess you couldn’t make this shit up.
In her great piece on the topic, Becky Paskin writes that “it’s too early to comment on its intentions, though perhaps the release is a defiant statement about the power of women…” I’ve never met Becky Paskin but I respect her optimism. For me personally, any attempt at a defiant statement would have involved removing the Johnnie Walker name from the label altogether so that Jane Walker didn’t read as some kind of subtext.
Years ago, whilst working as a teacher in Manchester, it became apparent that, amongst the youngsters playing football in school teams across the city, the number of those of an Asian heritage was entirely disproportionate to the schools’ population. Moreover, the number of those who subsequently moved up the ranks was virtually non-existent. Therefore, an initiative was developed to a) discover the reasons why they weren’t taking part and b) encourage them to do so.
Nobody made the sweeping statement that Asian kids just might not be interested in football and that’s why they don’t take part. Neither did anybody suggest that there was the need for a type of football specifically aimed at Asian kids. Now, change ‘Asian kids’ for ‘women’ and ‘football’ for ‘whisky’ and you’ll see my point. It’s a ludicrous idea.
At the moment, this is all based on conjecture, of course, so whether bottles of Jane Walker actually ever land on our shelves or not, we’ll have to wait and see. I, for one, hope not because, just in case I haven’t made it clear, I think this is utter pish. ‘Feminine’ edition bottlings are condescending, patronising and, put simply, whether complete whisky novice or connoisseur, they are not what women want. What women want is to be able to head to a bar, order a dram with a ppm level of Woah!WTAF and not be told it may be a bit strong and have they considered something lighter. They also want to be able to head to a tasting without having to endure the mansplanations by ‘Mr Ardberg’ (yes, that ‘r’ is intentional) when they know infinitely more about whisky than he could ever aspire to. If Diageo’s commitment to gender equality is real (and I believe that it is) then, as one of the biggest and most influential players in the whisky industry, it could do worse than invest money in setting up a consortium of whisky producers whose main aim is to work together to eradicate the lack of any real diversity on the whisky scene. But how? Well, not with the likes of Jane Walker. If the industry is genuinely interested in encouraging more women to spend their hard-earned cash on whisky, one first step would be to ensure that conflicting messages such as this are also eradicated…
Don’t be cold
The first time I saw this post from Dave Prior on Instagram, referring to his ‘tough day at the office’ regarding a photo shoot for Pure Scot, the irony of it was not lost on me. You see, my first thought was that there’s nothing ‘Pure Scot’ about it at all. In a country where seasonal weather conditions are virtually non-existent, there’s no way any pure Scottish woman, whether in her right mind or not, would wear that, outside, whilst drinking her dram; she’d catch her feckin’ death. Really, you see some sights here on the Costa del Leith but not that. Never that.
Pure Scot’s website and social media channels are littered with similar images. It makes no difference if their head of marketing happens to be a woman; the objectification of women is still exactly that – the objectification of women. Dress it up with a new label if you wish, Pure Scot, but there is nothing tongue in cheek about any of this; ‘hipster sexism’ is still sexism.
For most businesses – big or small, new or established – social media is an important (if not the most important) way to advertise their brand. And Scotch whisky is, essentially, a brand. Think about how many likes, shares, comments and retweets such images receive. On the one hand, women hear that whisky is for everyone, regardless of gender. Then a gratuitous image like this appears on their timeline or in their feed; an image designed to cultivate the belief that women should only drink whisky if they look like this. And it’s this conflicting message which resonates. Pure Scot’s motto is ‘Don’t be told’ and it ‘is for anyone who has the courage to be themselves and push boundaries. They are not told what life to lead or which Scotch Whisky to choose.’ Great! As sexist pish doesn’t appeal to me, I won’t be choosing Pure Scot. For the record, this is how real, un-Photoshopped women, who don’t look in need of a good roast dinner, tend to enjoy their dram on an evening in Scotland. It’s more a case of ‘Don’t be cold’.
When presented with gratuitous images (by Pure Scot and the many other offenders), the environment of women only whisky events clearly has its appeal. Now, there’s always some random who chips in with ‘and how would you feel about men only whisky tastings?’ My ‘CBA With This’ response tends to be that, for the most part, a men-only whisky tasting is actually just a whisky tasting.
If we take another trip back to Manchester, nobody chipped in with ‘what about an initiative to encourage white kids into football?’ White kids were already very well represented in the world of football; there was no need. Change ‘white kids’ to ‘men’ and ‘football’ to ‘whisky’ and, once again, you’ll see my point.
Clearly, neither did anybody suggest some kind of permanent segregation of Asian kids. It was more a point of establishing ‘safe spaces’ where they could build confidence, have fun and learn about football before heading off to join other clubs. Again, change ‘Asian kids’ to ‘women’ and ‘football’ to… OK, I know you get it now.
You can’t say you’re worried about ostracising yourself if you’ve already been ostracised. It’s a bit like saying you’re worried about resigning from your job when you’ve already been fired.
My mother used to tell me that sometimes, it’s not just what you say but also how you say it. Likewise, it’s not just what you highlight, it’s how you highlight it. By using their gender in a bid to highlight the lack of equality in the world of whisky, some women fear ostracising themselves. This isn’t a notion that I personally subscribe to. You can’t say you’re worried about ostracising yourself if you’ve already been ostracised. It’s a bit like saying you’re worried about resigning from your job when you’ve already been fired. It’s impossible to highlight the issue of gender inequality in the whisky industry or on the whisky scene, without highlighting gender itself. Women should only start worrying about the possibility of ostracising themselves once parity has been achieved. And only when the likes of Diageo stop arsing about with ‘feminine edition’ whisky labels and release a gender pay gap report which simply states “GENDER PAY GAP CLOSED”, will women be any closer to that.