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Not Just A Man's Drink: Ladies Lead The Whiskey Renaissance

Dec 29, 2014
Originally published on February 8, 2016 2:19 pm

What do Lady Gaga and Rihanna have in common with Founding Father George Washington? Whiskey.

Yes, our first commander in chief distilled the popular spirit. And these pop icons are helping to fuel a new female-driven whiskey renaissance.

Lady Gaga, according to the Irish Mirror, has described Jameson whiskey as a love interest. Rihanna sings about the spirit. Actress Christina Hendricks is featured in an ad for Johnnie Walker Black Label. And check out the bravado of the gun-toting, whiskey-drinking female bot in the posters for Samuel L. Jackson's forthcoming spy thriller Kingsman: The Secret Service.

"When it comes to whiskey, it seems like nobody can quite get enough of it," says Becky Paskin, editor of The Spirits Business magazine in London.

Worldwide sales of American-made whiskey, Paskin says, grew faster than any other distilled spirit in the past year, at a rate of about 7 percent. "That's a huge amount," she says.

Americans are snapping it up, too: According to IWSR (International Wine & Spirit Research), Americans drank 24 million cases of domestically produced whiskey last year — nearly a 30 percent increase from a decade ago.

And, Paskin says, "women are finding there's a lot going on with whiskey for them; it's not just a man's drink."

Back in the 1990s, only about 15 percent of whiskey drinkers were female. Now, according to Fred Minnick, author of Whiskey Women, women represent 37 percent of whiskey imbibers in the U.S.

So, what is it that women want in on? Taste is likely part of it.

Bourbons tend to have a nice, sweet streak of corn that can be pleasing to the palate. And grain-to-bottle distillers are upping the ante in creating all sorts of complex, flavorful spirits.

But taste isn't the whole story. The history of whiskey — with its connections to both power and temptation — seems to have whetted our appetite for it, too.

Whiskey has always been a part of the wheeling and dealing of power brokers, says Minnick.

He points to 19th-century statesman Henry Clay, who famously quipped that he used bourbon to "lubricate the wheels of justice." And, Minnick says, look at the talk of a "bourbon summit" between President Obama and incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

To get a sense of the "old boys club" that once defined the ranks of whiskey-drinking power brokers, I ducked into the bar at the Willard Hotel, which is a stone's throw from the White House in Washington, D.C.

Henry Clay was known to have had a few drinks here, "right in this spot," says bartender Jim Hewes. The dark wood walls are still covered in old portraits of statesmen and other luminaries.

"It's not that women weren't allowed in here," Hewes says. "It's just that back then a lady wouldn't be seen in a gentleman's parlor, where men were drinking whiskey, smoking cigars and talking politics."

Now, clearly, today women have joined the ranks of power, be it in politics or business. But why has it taken women so long to warm up to whiskey?

It could be the remnants of a cultural taboo. If you go back to the decades after Prohibition, many women in the South had no compunction about spiking the punch bowl with bourbon. Drinking alcohol in private homes — as part of entertaining — was acceptable.

But in many places, women were not made to feel welcome in bars. That's because there was a strong association between women drinking, or serving, whiskey in a bar and prostitution. (In some places, women weren't even allowed to drink liquor at the bar.) Though most women today are not aware of this association, it could help explain how the cultural unease lingered.

Also, as Minnick points out in his book, decades after Prohibition, in the 1960s, many states had laws that restricted women from serving liquor behind the bar.

"There's a lot of intimidation and mystery around whiskey," says Heather Greene, author of Whiskey Distilled: A Populist Guide to the Water of Life.

She teaches Whiskey School 101 at The Flatiron Room, a hip, fine spirits parlor in New York City. And she sometimes hears the equivocations of women who are new to whiskey.

"Is it OK to drink whiskey in a bar? Am I going to look assertive or aggressive? These are the questions" women may ask, Greene says.

But as more women are exposed to whiskey, attitudes are shifting, and these hangups are fading away.

I sat down with a group of women to learn some of Greene's tasting tips. As she poured a single-malt Scotch, she told us to "nose" the whiskey — give it a good whiff.

"Try to get the perfumes coming off the rim of the glass," she says. The notes of spice and nuts and vanilla — "those beautiful flavors are delivered into the whiskey" as it ages in the cask, she says.

One woman in our group, Lauren Brown, had never tasted whiskey but was intrigued. "Once you learn the lingo, it's kind of like wine tasting," Brown says.

"Women are absolutely the future of whiskey," Minnick says. And it turns out, women are a big part of whiskey's past, too.

In fact, an Egyptian woman who lived in the 2nd or 3rd century, Maria Hebrea, is credited with devising an early version of a still, a piece of machinery that likely paved the way for the development of modern-day stills used to produce distilled spirits.

And in the 18th century, women were producing most of the whiskey.

"In the early colonial days," Minnick explains, before industrial distilleries were popular, "women were the first distillers."

Back then, it was out of necessity. Women distilled in their kitchens, and whiskey was used as medicine. "If you had a scratch or a sore ear or a headache," Minnick says, a woman would give you whiskey. "It was the Tylenol, the ibuprofen of the day."

In fact, the skill of making whiskey was so coveted that men in the 1700s took out classified ads in gazettes looking for women who were good at distilling. "It's hilarious," Minnick says. "It was the Match.com" of the day. Men would ask women to marry them based on their distilling talents.

So, all this time, we've been shying away from whiskey, it's really been our spirit to own?

Well, now history is coming full circle. There's a vanguard of new female distillers, blenders and tasters.

From Becky Harris, co-founder of Catoctin Creek distillery in Virginia, to Meredity Grelli of Wigle Whiskey in Pittsburgh, these women are finding success as grain-to-bottle distillers.

Harris says the demand for her organic, rye whiskey is so strong, she's selling every drop she can produce.

Big spirits companies are also filling top spots with women. For instance, Marianne Barnes, who is a chemical engineer by training, is a master taster for Brown-Forman's bourbon whiskey brands.

And as the industry grows, Nicole Austin has found her niche as a whiskey consultant. She's also the master blender at Kings County Distillery in Brooklyn.

So, step aside gentlemen. Women are rediscovering whiskey, a pleasure we didn't even realize we'd lost.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

There's a great drinking song from the 1950s recorded by George Thorogood and others. It's called "One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer." It's about a guy who for too many reasons to mention feels in desperate need of a few. A few reasons, though, that song doesn't fit in today's world. For one, scotch and bourbon are no longer known as cheap fixes. They're highly respected and growing in popularity. Sales of scotch, bourbons and rye whiskeys are booming in the U.S. and around the globe. And the image of the person drinking it - not necessarily a guy. Many whiskey drinkers are women. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports on the latest chapter in the history of what's been called the water of life.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Whiskey has long been considered a man's drink. And to get a sense of what that means I slipped out of the office early one night and ducked into the bar at The Willard Hotel, which is a stone's throw from the White House. This place has dark, mahogany panels lined with old portraits of statesmen. It's drenched in history. And tonight it's packed.

JIM HEWES: Allison, very nice to see you again.

AUBREY: That's bartender Jim Hewes. He's the unofficial historian here. He says back in the day this was of course a gentleman's parlor.

HEWES: Now it's not that women weren't allowed in here. It's just that a lady wouldn't be seen in a gentleman's parlor where men are drinking whiskey, and smoking cigars and talking politics.

AUBREY: Whiskey historian Fred Minnick says from the founding fathers onwards, whiskey has always been a part of power broking.

FRED MINNICK: I mean, if you look at the great Kentucky statesman, Henry Clay, he said he used bourbon to, quote, "lubricate the wheels of justice." And even more recently take a look at what we're seeing with the, quote, "bourbon summit" between President Obama and Senator McConnell.

AUBREY: Now it's not news that women have joined the ranks of power. There are plenty of ladies here at The Willard tonight. But it's taken women much longer to join in the whiskey drinking.

HEATHER GREENE: There's a lot of intimidation when it comes to whiskey. There's a lot of mystery I think.

AUBREY: That's whiskey expert Heather Greene. She's the person I actually came here to see tonight. She heads up a whiskey school, and she packs the house, teaching newbies, including lots of women, how to order whiskey, taste it, talk about it. She says women have a lot of hang-ups about whiskey.

HEATHER GREENE: Is it OK to drink whiskey at a bar? Is it feminine? Am I going to look assertive? Am I going to look aggressive? These are questions women are actually asking themselves when they drink whiskey.

AUBREY: And there's something else about whiskey - the combination of whiskey and women in bars used to signal a very different kind of power, think brothels and prostitution. Even decades after prohibition, laws in many states restricted women from serving liquor behind the bar. But as these cultural throwbacks fade away more women are giving whiskey a try. Tonight I sat down with five women.

HEATHER GREENE: I want to start you all off on a single malt scotch.

AUBREY: Greene tells us to nose the whiskey, give it a good whiff.

HEATHER GREENE: Try to just get the beautiful perfumes coming off the rim of the glass.

AUBREY: Now we're told to swirl it around, give it a good taste.

HEATHER GREENE: Don't be shy. I see somebody not doing it, come on.

AUBREY: This particular scotch, Greene tells us, has been barrel-aged in a cask for 12 years.

HEATHER GREENE: Giving it beautiful flavors of, you know, nuts and spice. So we're going to start looking for notes of that as we start exploring our whiskeys. Taster Lauren Brown, who's never tried whiskey before, soon gets the hang of it.

LAUREN BROWN: Vanilla, wood tones. You know, once you learn the lingo it's kind of like wine-tasting.

AUBREY: Do you think you might be confident to sidle up to the bar and order a whiskey?

BROWN: I think so, yes. Now, definitely.

AUBREY: Fred Minnick, who's published a recent book on whiskey and women, says more and more women are making it their drink.

MINNICK: Women are absolutely the future of whiskey.

AUBREY: He says, 20 years ago, women made up maybe 15 percent of whiskey drinkers. Today, that number is close to 40 percent.

MINNICK: You know, it's amazing how women are taking to the spirit, it really is.

AUBREY: But is it really so amazing? As Fred Minnick points out in his book, if you go back - way back, we're talking to the third century - it's a female chemist who was credited with designing a prototype of the first still. That's that piece of equipment used to make distilled spirits. And before industrial distilleries, who was making most of the whiskey in the U.S.?

MINNICK: In the early colonial days, women were the first distillers.

AUBREY: Back then, it was out of necessity. Women distilled in their kitchens and whiskey was also used as a medicine. So if you had a scratch or a sore eye, you'd put whiskey on it.

MINNICK: If you had a headache, women would give you whiskey. I mean whiskey was the Tylenol, the ibuprofen of the day.

AUBREY: Minnick says the skill of making whiskey was so coveted that men in the late 1700s took out classified ads in Virginia gazettes looking for women who were good at it.

MINNICK: It's kind of - it's hilarious, you know? It was match.com. Men would put ads in newspapers requesting women who could make alcohol and they would ask them to marry them based on the premise that they could distill at home.

AUBREY: (Laughter).When you stumbled upon this fact, do you think, whoa?

MINNICK: Well, whiskey's always had power in men's lives, but when I stumbled upon the fact that men were actually seeking women who could make whiskey at home, that's when I knew that women were far more important to the history of whiskey than we ever even imagined.

AUBREY: And now it seems history is coming full circle.

(MACHINE GURGLING)

AUBREY: Do you hear that gurgling? That's the sound from Becky Harris's distillery.

BECKY HARRIS: Well, this morning we're in the middle of making whiskey.

AUBREY: Becky is the co-founder of a thriving craft distillery in Virginia called Catoctin Creek. She trained as a chemical engineer and now she's among the vanguard of female distillers.

HARRIS: There are a lot of women getting back into the business.

AUBREY: And as she's about to show us, it's not for the faint of heart. That gurgling we hear? That's hundreds of pounds of rye grain and water that's cooking away in a giant mash tank.

HARRIS: It's almost like a big Crock-Pot with a cooling jacket around it.

AUBREY: I climb up on a ladder and she opens the top for me to peek in.

HARRIS: When you lean over you can see it's bubbling.

AUBREY: Oh, whoa. So it's just spinning around in here, gurgling.

HARRIS: And so it looks like a batter, really.

AUBREY: From here, the mash will be pumped into big fermenting tanks.

HARRIS: It usually takes us about five minutes to pump out.

AUBREY: I guess you have to be strong to do this job?

HARRIS: You get used to it.

AUBREY: You need all the muscles to open up this fermenting tank.

HARRIS: Yes, it is physical work.

AUBREY: The next step is to distill the fermented mash in a huge copper still, which looks like something out of the Middle Ages.

Can I give it a taste?

HARRIS: Yeah, absolutely.

AUBREY: Ah. (Laughter).

HARRIS: Pretty strong.

AUBREY: (Laughter) That's whiskey.

HARRIS: Yes. It's just got some really nice flavor and I think it's going to be a gorgeous whiskey.

AUBREY: And if this whiskey is aged in a cask for the next 10 years, by the time the bottle's opened in 2024, it's likely many more women will have re-discovered whiskey.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

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