Posted on | April 1, 2013
Written by | Brandy Rand
Greta Garbo perhaps said it best when she uttered her very first words on film in the 1930 movie Anna Christie: “Gimme a whiskey, ginger ale on the side. And don’t be stingy, baby!”
While whiskey has been long considered a man’s drink, from the days of cowboys in saloons to gangsters during Prohibition, the stigma has changed. The whiskey category, particularly American, Irish and single malt Scotch, is experiencing rapid growth due to innovation and the induction of new drinkers—and they’re not just men.
A confluence of events has given rise to women and whiskey: the return to classic cocktail culture (Old Fashioneds, Manhattans, Sazeracs); an increase in higher quality; better-tasting whiskies in the market; the popularity of TV shows like Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire; and the power of the purse. More and more women hold positions of power in the workplace, and many either out-earn their husbands or remain single with disposable income. Studies have shown that women make up 65-70% of alcohol-purchasing decisions for at-home consumption.
Rachel Barrie, master blender for Morrison Bowmore Distillers, has spent 22 years teaching people about Scotch whisky. She says that women have been conditioned to believe they don’t/won’t/can’t like whisky, but she sees a growing number discover they really enjoy it. Barrie feels that women are still a virtually untapped market in the whiskey industry. “I believe the industry should be far more bilingual in its communication to take full advantage of the growth opportunity. At 50% of the population, women are likely to provide a substantial increase in incremental sales volume for brand owners. The brand owners that speak to women as well as men will be the ones that reap the benefits!”
In general, women are considered better listeners than men, and more adventurous when it comes to trying new things. This makes them logical targets for bartenders suggesting brands and sharing knowledge. Women also tend to be more vocal when it comes to expressing what they like (or don’t like). With media influence also high among females, marketing can have a big impact on the bottom line.
THE FEMALE TOUCH
In 2010, Jack Daniel’s began advertising to women across various forms of media, most notably the “Not Your Mama’s Cookie Swap” print ads which appeared in women’s magazines around the holidays. The brand recognized the highest level of female drinkers in the franchise in years and decided to invest behind the rising demographic. And though Jim Beam’s Red Stag (launched in 2009) focuses its marketing efforts evenly between males and females, approximately 45% of Red Stag drinkers are female, which skews significantly higher than any other whiskey in the portfolio according to Dan Cohen, senior public relations manager for Beam.
But there’s always been a little touch of lady in some iconic whiskey brands. For instance, the design and shape of the Maker’s Mark bottle—the label, font and famous red wax seal—was the handiwork of Marjorie Samuels, the wife of founder Bill Samuels Sr. Today, Maker’s Mark is the only bourbon company to have a female VP of operations, Victoria MacRae-Samuels.
Since 2006, Stephanie Macleod has been the master blender for Dewar’s, the first woman to hold that position and only the seventh master blender in the brand’s 160-year history. Kay Fleming is the master blender for Glenkinchie. Gillian Macdonald is the distiller at Penderyn. And the ranks of female brand ambassadors include Karen Fullerton of Glenmorangie, Hollis Bulleit from Bulleit and Heather Greene from Glenfiddich, among others.
LADIES ONLY: EVENTS AND EDUCATION
For Stephanie Ridgway, brand manager and ambassador for Highland Park Whisky, it’s no surprise that groups of like-minded women are joining together to enlighten one another about whiskey. “Overall, I feel like women are more at ease with another women leading the show,” she reasons.
Lauren Shayne Mayer and Gabby Shayne—co-managing directors of their family business, the Scotch Malt Whisky Society of America—also recently created the Whisky Sisters, a consulting and education business. They have seen increased female attendance over the years at the 13-city tour of the prestigious Single Malt & Scotch Whisky Extravaganza. Says Mayer: “I think many women are tired of tasteless vodkas and ‘she-she’ drinks. They are interested in expanding their palates, much like one would do with wines, developing an appreciation, which is exactly how we treat our whiskies.”
“One thing is for sure: women are becoming very educated on the subject of whiskies,” notes Randal Stewart, public relations and events manager for Campari America. “Women want to know just as much about the process and source of whiskies as their male counterpart. We’ve found that women aren’t looking for that trophy bottle, but rather are more interested in discovering the diverse flavors of many different bottles.”
Stewart has overseen the company’s successful “Women & Whiskies” program, introduced in November of 2010, which was developed to spark conversation and trial of the Campari portfolio of whiskies (Wild Turkey, Yamazaki, Glen Grant and several other single malts and blends). The program’s Facebook page has doubled in followers from last year (now topping 4,200). In 2012, eight regional events were held across the country, and a signature event in New York City attracted over 100 women.
Rachel Barrie of Morrison Bowmore Distilleries presented Auchentoshan, Bowmore and Glen Garioch single malts in a “Tale of Three Single Malt Sisters,” which involved storytelling, an interactive sensory testing and food pairing. In addition, these events have taught women how whiskey is produced, the differences between whiskey categories, how to speak the whiskey language and how to order whiskey.
“I have women that tell me they attended one of our events last year and now feel comfortable sitting at a bar and talking to the bartender about whisky. Women leave the events and feel like they have learned something and can take action,” says Stewart. This year, the program is expanding to include an at-home mixology component and advice on how to purchase whiskey at retail, something the women have said they find intimidating.
A MATTER OF TASTE
According to experts, many women bring wine knowledge to the table when they taste whiskey for the first time. By no means is that a barrier to their whisky appreciation, however. Ridgway says that once you take away the preconceived notions of whisky “rules” and take a fun approach when talking to women about the spirit, there’s a connection: “One of the coolest things about tasting a group of women is seeing that, ‘Aha!’ moment when somebody realizes how amazing a dram of whisky can taste when you take time to appreciate it.”
And let’s not discount flavor. Sweet-profile brands like Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey, Firefly Sweet Tea Bourbon, Jim Beam Red Stag, Evan Williams Cherry Reserve and Wild Turkey American Honey have been a runaway success among female drinkers. Though Maker’s Mark does not make a flavored whiskey, Brand Director Jason Dolenga sees women leaning toward Maker’s 46 “because it retains that front of the tongue flavor of Maker’s Mark while delivering even more caramel and vanilla notes to the taste.”
New York City mixologist Carmen Operetta believes, “A woman is more likely to go for a Scotch, for example, from East Scotland that is lighter, younger, and sweeter, versus a Scotch from the West Scotland that’s smokier.”
But not all female tastes are equal. Just ask Peggy Noe Stevens, the world’s first female Master Bourbon Taster, who hails from one of the famous Kentucky bourbon families (Jim Beam). In 2011, she founded Bourbon Women, a group of 500 professional women who celebrate the history and appreciation of our nation’s official spirit. Among her members, Noe has seen “gravitation to spicy, high proof bourbons. Not what you would traditionally think would appeal to women. Lighter and sweet is not what they are asking for during our events.”
All things considered, divergence of opinions on what women want from whiskies can only be seen as evidence that this relationship has evolved beyond the point of assuming anything. And as the sight of ladies sipping brown spirits becomes more common, men will have to evolve, too.
Or will they? Emily Duffy, who crisscrosses the country as the Irish whiskey ambassador for Beam brands Kilbeggan, Tyrconnell, Greenore and Connemara, says “When I order a Connemara on the rocks at a bar, I sometimes notice that males in close vicinity to me feel a little obliged to order something along a similar vein if not a little more daring. I would be lying if I said I didn’t find it mildly amusing.”
If there is any doubt at all as to women’s rising profile as whiskey aficionados, it may be dispelled by the newest brand ambassador for Johnnie Walker: Christina Hendricks. Upon hearing of the Emmy-nominated Mad Men star’s passion for Scotch in 2010, she was contacted by brand representatives, and the conversation revealed that Black Label was already her (and her husband’s) whisky of choice. Her desire to learn more about what she enjoyed in a glass of Scotch and the art of blending at Johnnie Walker led to the new position, and she has become an active participant in education-driven events globally.
Of course, whiskey suppliers aren’t the only ones chasing women’s wallets. In the case of wine, efforts have mostly involved feminine-minded names and labels. Some are self-consciously cheeky (Mommy’s Time Out, Middle Sister). Some wear their gender message more subtly but still recognizably (Girl Go Lightly, Once Upon A Vine, Butterfly Kiss, Be.). Skinnygirl and The Skinny Vine believe the way to a woman’s pocketbook starts with her waistline.
Taking a less direct route, Cheryl Indelicato, third generation vintner at California’s Delicato Family Vineyards, developed HandCraft, a line of easy-drinking, everyday varietal wines (the Petite Sirah is especially tasty). But she also tied it in, via the HandCraft website, to both women’s interests and charitable efforts. “I created a collection of approachable and distinctive wines that have a larger purpose,” says Indelicato. “Under the umbrella ‘Inspired 365’, we engage with women about healthy lifestyles, and in 2012 as part of our Handcraft Cares initiative, we raised $100K to support breast cancer research and prevention programs, a cause I have been involved with since my days as a registered nurse.”
Vodka, on the other hand, has long been saddled by reputation as a girlish spirit, even without marketing spin. But can a vodka brand benefit from a sexy twist? Conceived by three friends—LeeAnn Maxwell, Jenny Policky and Carrie King—after a 2010 girls’ getaway, Vixen Vodka features women’s silhouetted legs on the bottle and a healthy dose of sexy innuendo on its website. The unflavored spirit itself is smooth, crisp and gluten-free, crafted in Colorado using corn and Rocky Mountain spring water, distilled five times in one of only a few glass stills in the world. King, the brand’s marketing director, notes that Vixen’s most successful promotions have been small “female-centric” events. She explains, “Women support women-owned businesses, and the fact that our brand stands for strength and empowerment results in brand evangelists.”