I am a woman, I enjoy good whiskies and I am keen to go beyond The Famous Grouse - delicious, smooth and easy as it is - to find whiskies that will match my recipes and make a total dining experience. Perhaps I should also mention that I am 40 years a food writer, a well-published author, have a palette, albeit trained only through experience, and have led whisky tastings in the past for Waitrose when they were a major client of mine.
What interests me, in both food and whisky, are the stories behind the product which lead, inevitably, to artisan producers of both food and drink. It is the small makers that intrigue me, those contributing to and conserving the environment of their workplace and enshrining it in their products.
I like to talk about my interests and so, I believe, do most women. We are collaborative creatures, more at home chatting about taste sensations than sitting alone by the fire with an I-Spy tick-it-off-the-list mentality that also cares about how much and how rare a whisky is. This is why I have formed a whisky club for women in my home city of Chichester on the UK’s south coast. Some 20 of us from a mailing list of 30 - mainly 55yo+ professional women - meet 5-6 times a year for a one-course supper followed by 5 whiskies and 4 foods to taste, then mix and match. It is the most enormous fun, all very civilised and responsible, and gives us a chance to chat and share experiences. Women do that so well and you can hear us in action on this BBC World Service feature by Lucy Burton on Whisky for Women.
Much has been written recently about the feminisation of whisky and whether it is right? Come on! Blue bottles, classy labels and celebrity endorsements are not going to attract those who come along to Chichester’s Whisky Women! The ink-like bottle (who remembers Quink?) of the Haig Club was a turn off for most of us but, once poured, the light cereal and fruit notes of the grain whisky proved popular with many of my guests. However, when I spoke to talented young sparkling wine maker Art Tukker about wine cask finished whiskies, the Haig Club bottle was instantly attractive to both he and his partner Jody. This underlined my feeling that celebrity and whacky bottles are aimed more at the younger market than at women - or should that be, the more mature woman?
The recent Daily Telegraph Whisky Experience was a very male affair - the session that I attended might have attracted 10-15% women, no more. And there was plenty of male talk about maybe having a little too much of the 70 whiskies on offer before heading home, none of which seems aimed at attracting more women drinkers - at least, not of my age!
When I owned a deli in Arundel men used to come in and ask for a Cheddar that would take the roof of their mouth off. For 20 years, since its conception, I have been cooking at West Dean’s Chilli Fiesta and men are well known for wanting the Naga/Vindaloo effect. Heat/strength/peatiness alone is a Man Thing. Balance and roundness of flavour is something to delight in and to share.
Yes, the whisky industry needs to widen its appeal to keep market share and attract an increasingly gin-centric public. But look at some of the gins on offer at the moment! They are not here for the long term. I would say that keeping quality at a fair and sustainable price is the key to future success for the whisky industry. Stop dumbing down the great names, keep some mystery but move with the times and beware of and attentive to the new whisky world. Look at what happened with wines: the new world created wines to drink now, no laying down or ageing and it was all most attractive - for a while. The Establishment was shaken but came back fighting. New ideas so often turn into sort term fads - I usually say one night stands but here, in print, I cannot (with authority)! Whiskies are like romances - they should linger on the palette and in the memory.
Are people suggesting that new introductions - mainly of non-age statement and softer style whiskies - are simply for and to attract women? I hope not. There is doubtless much to learn from emerging whisky producers but don’t homogenise the traditions and tastes of the great names. Create something different. And then let’s share it together, men and women, old and young, traditionalists and progressives. The men who come along to my open tastings, often at art galleries and theatres, enjoy my slightly more female approach to whisky just as much as the women! However, for the time being, Chichester's Whisky Women are enjoying their Tupperware or Book Club approach to whisky very much indeed.