In today’s more “enlightened” society, it seems old fashioned that something as simple as a drink would still fall under male or female categories. And yet, women ordering whiskey at a bar are often met with a strong reaction of either skepticism or surprise. Whiskey, like wine, is shrouded in intellectual snobbery – the difference being that with wine, as long as you know what you’re talking about, no one makes assumptions on who you are and why you’re drinking it. Whiskey, instead, has a distinctly masculine reputation. Perhaps it’s because the first sip of even a smooth whiskey feels like a punch to the throat that might put hair on your chest. Mad Men’s Don Draper embodies that masculine gentleman of the ‘60s, in his sleek suits and armchair, as he sips on a glass of brown liquor. Where does a woman fall in that mise-en-scène? Take a look back at the 2011 Johnnie Walker ads with Christina Hendricks, who plays Joan Holloway on Mad Men. It feels very male-gaze-y, as in, ‘this is the kind of woman a whiskey drinker enjoys.’
A woman drinking whiskey seems to inspire one of two reactions among traditionalists: either she is an ingénue who has no idea what she’s getting into, or she’s a cool gal with perhaps a throaty voice. Courtney Balestier discusses the latter archetype in her article, ”“Let Us Now Retire the Whiskey Woman, and how she fulfills this male fantasy of a woman who is ready but not rough – she can keep up with any man, but looks fantastically sexy while doing it. In her article for Eater, whiskey expert Heather Greene begs the question, what if men got stereotyped like women do when ordering whiskey? After her book, Whiskey Distilled, came out, rather than asking her the finer points of the spirit, she got bombarded with questions about what it was like to be a woman who drank whiskey. She then goes on to humorously stereotype men who love whiskey – my favorites being The Sentimentalist, The Whiskey Expert on Everything, and The Coolest Guy in the Bar.
Enter Women Who Whiskey, a women’s only whiskey club. Founder and whiskey enthusiast Julia Toffoli had long since been a whiskey lover when she moved to New York for a Masters in International Affairs in Human Rights Advocacy in 2010. She had been living in Rome, where there isn’t as strong of a whiskey culture as in New York. Excited to dive in, she broke the ice with new friends by finding fellow whiskey lovers.
“I would see a woman at an event drinking a Manhattan or an Old-Fashioned, and that would be our ice-breaker,” she says. “The same topic of conversation would come up over and over again about not meeting a lot of women that like whiskey. We would inevitably turn to the fact that even though it was less common, people thought it was really unusual, especially men. We started bonding over the strange things we heard from men when we were drinking whiskey.”
In grad school at Columbia University, Toffoli found fellow whiskey lovers to explore Manhattan’s whiskey scene. Through these explorative nights, the group grew organically from a group of 10 friends to 25 women from around the city. In 2011, Toffoli started a blog and an open Facebook page, Women Who Whiskey, to organize the event, and from there, a club was born.
The club doesn’t function like traditional whiskey clubs. Membership is free, and with it come a few sponsored events, a few paid ones, and the group explores different venues. “We started working with whiskey companies,” Toffoli says. “Different brands want to work with us, especially with the smaller ones — the quid pro quo worked well, we could promote them as much as they could promote us – and the social media expansion got eyes on us outside of our circle. After that, people with no connection started signing up and wanting to join.”
The group has struck a chord. More and more chapters are opening under the New York umbrella. Globally, the group now has over 6000 members and 15 chapters ranging from Geneva to Nairobi to Australia. Women in many countries are getting in touch with Toffoli to open their own chapter in their city. Some are small – whiskey drinkers getting together for a shared drink – while some are larger. The LA chapter opened with over 1000 members, and has already doubled since it opened this passed winter.
Women Who Whiskey further distinguishes itself by hosting fun events like food pairings (whiskey and popcorn), distillery tours, as well as ‘gentlemen’s editions.’ “Part of the challenge is changing the way that men see women as drinking whiskey,” Toffoli explains, “To make it a matter of taste for everyone, rather than a matter of gender, men have to see that the norms are changing. If women learn about whiskey in a vacuum, it’s not going to change anything.”
In 2014, women in the US represented 37% of whiskey drinkers, up from 15% in the 1990s. Brands are aware of this whiskey growth, and seek to capitalize on it. But once again, rather than treating women like the whiskey aficionados that they are, many create products that they feel would entice the more feminine interest – like Raven Blaze Peach Berry Whiskey. The gendered marketing doesn’t really work for Toffoli, as she pens in her blog post. “It’s almost 20 proof less than a regular bottle of whiskey, it’s fruit flavored, and the label is black lace on top of a pink bottle – it’s like a Victoria Secret whiskey. Instead of catering to the women that are coming to them of their own volition, they are trying to entice those who don’t enjoy whiskey. If women like the taste of whiskey, why are you trying to bastardize it to taste like something else? There isn’t a way to market to women. Just market to people who enjoy whiskey.”
Drinking whiskey denotes strength, resilience, power, intelligence, complexity, boldness. While women have those qualities, they are often characterized as ‘masculine’ characteristics. Toffoli recounts the various reactions when ordering whiskey from a male bartender: “Some of them were just expressions of surprise, versus the more condescending stuff, like asking if we’re sure we can handle it, or if we’d prefer to see the wine list.”
Female bartenders, on the other hand, react as they would if they were a human ordering any other drink – they simply fulfill the order. When Women Who Whiskey band in as a group into a watering hole, female bartenders have thrown in their two cents after being asked. “As a bartender, they tend to see women that aren’t as confident or are intimidated to order whiskey,” Toffoli says, adding that Women Who Whiskey is addressing this by, “creating a space for education where women can ask questions they might not ask a male bartender who might have a snarky response.” Through the shared love of whiskey, the group brings together women of different ages, cultures, neighborhoods, and career paths.
Madina Papadopoulos is a New York-based freelance writer, author, and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her adventures on Instagram and Twitter.