You probably heard about “gendered” drinks 15 years ago. In pop culture, Don Draper was sucking down stiff Old Fashioneds and Carrie Bradshaw was sipping bubblegum pink Cosmos. That’s what it looked like for men and women to drink. In the years since most have abandoned those illogical roles, understanding men can drink out of long-stemmed glassware and women can appreciate Scotch and those acts are not a reflection of one’s manliness or femininity.
Breaking down the gendered concept of drinking has allowed the space to become more inclusive and diverse. Women have taken their seat at the bar, opening more distilleries, wineries and breweries, running world-class beverage programs, and becoming industry leaders in the world of alcohol. But as recent events have shown, there’s still progress to be made in the fight against gender discrimination in the spirits business.
Last week, English writer Jim Murray released the 2021 “Whiskey Bible,” his annual tome that rates more than 7,000 brands in the whiskey/whisky category. Now in its 17th year of printing, the book is considered gospel in this sphere; his picks can make or break a brand. And while Murray’s palate has been criticized in the past, it wasn’t until a few days ago that someone was brave enough to challenge the critic on his sexist and inarguably tasteless language in the text.
Taking to social media, writer Becky Paskin, who co-founded an organization dedicated to diversifying the whiskey space, shared passages from the book she found inappropriate or disrespectful and anti-woman. For instance, Murray writes of the products from a Welsh distillery (which employs an all-woman team of distillers and blenders): “If this was a woman, I’d want to make love to it every night. And in the morning. And afternoon, if I could find the time … and energy … This celebrates maltiness in the same way a sex addict revels in a threesome.”
He goes off on more cringey, personal tangents about his sex life, like this one on a review of a Canadian Club release: “Have I had this much fun with a sexy 41-year-old Canadian before? Well, yes I have. But it was a few years back now and it wasn’t a whisky. Was the fun we had better? Probably not.”
“Why does the whisky industry still hold Jim Murray’s ‘Whisky Bible’ in such high regard when his tasting notes are so sexist and vulgar?” Paskin said. She said she was shocked and disgusted by his words and spoke out about it now because “I don’t think we should be making excuses for people like that anymore. One person should not have so much power that they can get away with saying or doing anything they want.”
This issue is not Murray’s personal level of crudeness, but the fact that he includes this language in a book that is supposed to be a “Bible” in the industry, she argued. Readers would assume this is how whiskey should be discussed.
“The message it is sending to the whisky industry as a whole and to whisky consumers is that women don’t really matter and they are there to be objectified,” she said. “Everyone is, of course, entitled to an opinion. My opinion is the whisky industry should not support a book that objectifies some of its most talented blenders and distillers — in fact, half its workforce — in such explicit terms.”
Murray responded, through a statement to a niche spirits website (where most of this dialogue usually takes place), saying the criticism was “humorless puritanism” and “an attack on free thought and free speech.”
“I am not sexist; the ‘Whiskey Bible’ is not sexist, has never been sexist and I will not bow to this faux outrage … How, in God’s name, can, for instance, likening a whisky to an orgasm be remotely construed as sexist? … Rather than write interesting, illuminating and compelling articles about whisky, other writers would rather engage in ‘cancel culture’ to [bring] down the world’s most successful author on the subject,” he said.
Surprisingly, some major beverage companies such as William Grant & Sons, Beam Suntory and Diageo made public statements criticizing Murray’s language and vowing to eradicate this kind of outdated, male-focused marketing around their spirits. A decade ago, brands would not have weighed in on or paid attention to a controversy like this. But as Paskin pointed out and these brands have realized, excluding women from the conversation — or making them feel uncomfortable with the way they are included in it — does a disservice to the many women working in the industry, talking about spirits and buying whiskey.
Perhaps this debate will at least get more people thinking critically about the gendered lingo still taking place around drinks. To paraphrase a famous line from “Mad Men,” if we don’t like what is being said, then we need to change the conversation.
Alyson Sheppard is Lagniappe’s resident hangover specialist and Boozie’s most unreliable Midtown spy. Find her on Twitter: @amshep.
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