My mom is one, I’m married to another, and I’m raising a tiny one. They’re my friends and coworkers. They’re everywhere, some of them really enjoy whiskey… and for some reason, the whiskey industry is still figuring out what to do about that.
There’s the problem of persistent sexism of the type that Justine detailed in this piece. I’ve heard unfortunate echoes of these stories from other women: boorish brand ambassadors for those women drinking whiskey, mansplaining customers for those women serving whiskey in their professional roles as bartenders or brand ambassadors themselves.
There’s also the patronizing approach from the capital-“I”-Industry that Justine described in her follow-up, in which female drinkers are coddled for fear of “intimidating” them. In practice this seems to entail pouring women a dram of something weak mixed with something sugary. Ignoring the details of “what, how, and why” that preoccupy us here at MALT, women drinkers get a condescending pat on the head for enjoying whiskey… or, you know, whiskey for girls.
I meditated on all this as I considered a bottle of J. Rieger & Co. “Private Stock” on the shelf of my local bottle shop. The reason gender came into play is that this is a barrel pick from Bourbon Women of Chicago. I was then unfamiliar with this group but found myself intrigued, particularly after a friendly Binny’s staffer poured me a sample of this.
I was impressed. This is serious, challenging bourbon – complex, deeply flavorful, high proof. My immediate reaction was that this was a cracker of a selection, regardless of whether the selector was female, male, or other. I wanted to learn more, specifically from the people involved.
Before we progress any further, let me say that I’m fully aware of the many potential missteps possible here. I’m a man writing an article about women and whiskey, for heaven’s sake! Treading carefully and with due sensitivity, I’d note my belief that sexism – in whiskey, as elsewhere – won’t be remedied until people of all genders are able to have frank discussions about it.
Moreover: MALT is a global platform, one dedicated to telling interesting stories about all corners of the whiskeyverse. I happily stumbled upon a local tale that happens to involve women and whiskey, and I am merely acting as a conduit for it.
That said, I believe that the stories of others are best told in their own voices. I therefore spoke with Jessica Montalvo, one of the co-ambassadors for Chicago chapter of Bourbon Women, the one responsible for this pick. She referred me to her co-member Monique Huston, an experienced spirits professional.
Bourbon Women was started in Louisville, KY by Peggy Noe Stevens back in 2011. The Chicago chapter followed two years later. “Really the most special thing about the group is they’re not whiskey professionals. They’re not in the spirits business,” noted Monique. “It just brings people together.” The emphasis is on interaction, camaraderie and networking, with the whiskey serving as a uniting force. “We’re all here because we love the way this thing tastes, and it’s really interesting.”
The group runs several events, most notably the annual Bourbon Women Night in March. $40 gets you two hours of tasting more than 100 whiskies, including the annual club pick, of which this Rieger bourbon is one.
As for selecting this cask: “We really loved the nose on this,” remembers Jessica. “The nose and the taste didn’t exactly match up… That surprise also appeals to us. We tend to like the surprising whiskies, and we tend to gravitate to that.” Indeed, with the industry focused on providing innocuous, cloying concoctions as a lure to women, the fact that this is full-bodied and high proof is a most pleasant surprise.
“These ladies drink a lot of bourbon,” Monique reasoned. Jessica added that the group’s palates are developed (given the significant time they spend tasting and educating themselves), and – like many seasoned whiskey drinkers – they gravitate towards bourbon with a greater intensity and complexity. “We’re not saying, ‘this would be great in a cocktail;’ we’re asking people to evaluate it neat” asserts Monique.
The group tasted six samples, forming a consensus around this one. Despite the diversity of palates, the quality won out above all. “Good is just good,” recalled Monique. The bottlings have customarily been done at cask strength, to preserve the character of the whiskey that won the day. “This is the best thing that we thought we tasted, exactly the way that it is,” per Monique.
This is a J. Rieger & Co. Private Stock 6 year old Straight Bourbon Whiskey. It was distilled by MGPI in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, from a mash bill of 99% corn, 1% barley. It is bottled at 65.2%. I paid $70 for 750 ml.
One of the refrains I heard from both Jessica and Monique was that they sought to create spaces where men were welcome, but in which women stepped to the fore. With that in mind, I shared the majority of this bottle with Kelli (a.k.a. Whiskied Wanderlust) from the Chicago chapter of Women Who Whisky. I passed along drams to roving brand ambassador Kathryn Aagesen, as well as a pair of my whiskey-loving coworkers. Their notes are included below. I have not provided any of my own.
J. Rieger & Co. Bourbon Women of Chicago Private Stock – Review
Color: At first, a fawn-like tawny… when rolled in the glass, gleams gems of fresh copper and ruby from its center, and at the periphery, glows with a familiar and nostalgic uric hue.
In the mouth: A thin tapestry of toffee and adult candy melts open to medicine cabinet lavender and shoeshine. Hot candied nuts, oranges and chlorine disperse into Christmas chair leather, vanilla, rum, hand salve, and cowhide gloves used to feed old nags.
In the mouth: Hot lemon knives, spicy grains and Sparkle glass cleaner build into a quick juicy roundness that deadens to an unexpected, stale floral bouquet. The prickly, acidic heat softens into memories of citrus, candy and wood.
Conclusions: A fine, dynamic bourbon with bright, discrete flavors and fragrances that play together, for the most part, like old friends. Nice, painful spice (expected/desired in a straight bourbon) and a broad panel of flavors and textures come together and exchange good ideas. Admittedly, its variety of taste profiles and aromas would make it an interesting candidate in experimental cocktails.
“Kitty’s” Notes (she requested quasi-anonymity)
Color: Translucent chestnut
On the nose: Burnt caramel, citrus, toasted marshmallow, campfire.
In the mouth: Grainy, ton of heat, sharp, acidic, spice on the finish, Sichuan peppers.
Conclusions: Packs a punch… for a girl.
Color: Lovely clover honey.
On the nose: Skunky yet minty. Walnut bran muffins (but what psycho enjoys a walnut bran muffin, these days?!) typical Play-Do bourbon nose, which you can break down to flour, salt, and Red #5 (I guess) It nosed of Black Opium perfume by Yves St Laurent.
In the mouth: At first sip, shocking! Like the first painful sip of alcohol I’d ever had, like the confusing, fiery first slurp of Triple Sec when I’d smuggled a bottle from my dad’s liquor cabinet into the basement when Julia and Shannon spent the night Sophomore year. The first sip hurt my feelings.
The next two sips I took 24 hours later, and this time it was admittedly much gentler. I’m used to gentler scotch at a lower ABV, or at least if it’s cask strength, it’s a flavor profile I prefer, like peat and smoke. There isn’t a lot to hide in this 65.2% straight bourbon. Bear with me.
After day two of tasting, some rose and lime notes revealed themselves. Lots of orange and orange peel. Finish of rubber cement drying on my skin. I mean this as a compliment.
Conclusions: I respect it but overall it tastes like anger to me.
Color: Dark mahogany.
On the nose: Oh hey there, bourbon! Vanilla smacking across the nose, oak and honey, cinnamon; maybe some menthol, Sharpies. With water, more wood comes through with a dry, dusty note; vanilla and a hint of maple syrup, burnt sugar. Water brings out the pickle and dill notes.
In the mouth: There’s heat and some serious spice, with that pickle note. Lots of wood, hints of clove and char. Water exposes more vanilla, oak, ginger and clove spiciness, menthol. The finish is spicy and minty and just won’t end.
Conclusions: Once you get beyond the high proof, the nose is beautiful. But I just can’t find the palate pleasing. It’s an example of high proof not doing the whiskey any favors. It’s too strong without water but sort of one-note with it: dry, heavy on the wood, dill and pickle notes. And the finish won’t end, which is the most off-putting of all.
So there you have it. Hopefully, the diversity of opinions (and, indeed, styles) illustrates an important point about not generalizing when it comes to women’s tastes in whiskies, any more than you would for the other half of the whiskey-drinking population.
I asked both Jessica and Monique about what they’d say to the women in MALT’s audience. Jessica thought for a moment and then offered, “I would want women to be mindful of continuing to encourage other women to learn and drink. There are still a lot of women who feel intimidated by whiskey. They feel like it’s something they have watched their grandfathers or fathers drinking growing up.”
“When you encourage women to really think about what they’re drinking, on equal footing, they’re more apt to attend, they’re more apt to ask questions, and get out of their comfort zone” said Monique. Bourbon Women Chicago’s events are open to men, but they remain focused on creating times and places when women – as producers and consumers – can step to the fore.
Jessica suggested, “Let’s continue to try to do entry-level events. I want women who are novices to this to not be afraid to come out to events. Don’t be afraid to keep learning and trying.”
And what would they say to the men among us? “Don’t discount women as whiskey drinkers.” Jessica cautioned. She also advised the trade, “One of the easiest ways to build a drinkership is that if you bring the women, the men tend to follow. Encourage women in your life to learn and make that an inviting process… make the choice to be inclusive.”
In that spirit of inclusion, I’d like to echo Jessica and Monique’s entreaty to our male readers: open up some space for the women in your life to enjoy whiskey with you. I’m happy to have had the opportunity to do that here, and hopefully the review bug has bitten a few of the ladies who generously contributed their time and insights.
Alexandra, Dora, Justine, Noortje, and TV do superb work, and there’s always room for more voices in the MALT chorus. If you’re a woman who loves whiskey and has a story to tell, I’m sure Mark and Jason won’t mind me saying that MALT will always be a welcoming place for you. Cheers!