We need to stop gendering whisky

This week saw Jim Murray’s latest Whisky Bible published, and Becky Paskin call him out for his sexism. The industry reacted remarkably well, and hopefully we’ll see some much needed change.

Real change requires more than just condemning whilst it’s convenient, it requires our long term involvement. So I’d like to propose a simple change we can all make. Hopefully it will not only make you less likely to be seen as a beastly relic, it’ll also help you see more in whiskies themselves.

First, some quick background. Those close to me - and some who have merely been nearby when I’m drunk - know I’m writing a book about grain whisky. (I wouldn’t hold your breath. It’s been seven years so far, at this rate it’ll probably be published just after “The Lonely Planet Guide to the Heat Death of the Universe”...)

One of the sections of the book is on perceptions of grain whisky. It aims to tackle certain myths and misconceptions that affect grain whisky. But some of those affect more than just grain whisky. Please remember that the following is a draft, and subject to change... 

Grain whisky is feminine whisky

Unfortunately many people imbue whisky with a gender. Indeed, it’s not uncommon to see the term “Lowland Ladies” when referring to some Scotch malts.

The problem of gendered whisky becomes evident when contrasting the qualities being assigned – or not – to each gender. When describing a whisky as feminine, it is generally the case that the traits being referred to will be ones such as “soft”, “gentle”, “sweet” and “quiet”. Absent, or reserved for masculine whiskies, are traits such as “strong”, “interesting” and “complex”.

It is true that many people may not mean any harm by this. But what we overlook is that language isn’t just something we use to describe the world, it also changes how we view the world.

In German the word for a bridge is a feminine noun. In Spanish it’s masculine. Shown a picture of the same bridge, German speakers described it with the words “beautiful”, “elegant”, “fragile”, “peaceful”, “pretty” and “slender”. Spanish speakers used the words “big”, “dangerous”, “long”, “strong”, “sturdy” and “towering”. Interestingly, the test was conducted in English – which has no gender for the word bridge. It seems it was the translation of the word into their native language that guided their choice of words without them even knowing it.

This is why I rail against assigning a gender to any whisky – be it malt, grain or blend. When we do so it will change the way we think about that whisky, and opening one path to a description can unconsciously close other paths that could be equally as valuable. The bridge can be both elegant and strong, both pretty and towering. We are much more likely to see that if we choose not to assign it a gender.

With that in mind, here is what you should do if you want to say that a whisky is soft and gentle:

Say it is soft and gentle.

Stick to the flavours and experiences. Don’t use gender to describe whisky. Don’t force yourself into constraints you didn’t even know were there. Don’t exclude flavours by opening the door to prejudice. And take a moment to think about how old societal prejudices might feel for those you’re trying to include in your whisky tasting experiences.

As to grain whisky – yes, it is often soft, gentle and sweet. And it can also be challenging, forceful, flavourful, interesting, fascinating, deep and complex.

I truly believe we need to stop using gender in our descriptions of whisky. Hopefully I’ve convinced you.

(And again, please remember that was a draft. It’s only being published because of the exceptional circumstances from this week. Be kind!)