A while ago, a bomb exploded in the whisky world when journalist, former editor, whisky specialist, writer, consultant and co-founder of #OurWhisky Becky Paskin dared to say out loud what many already knew: that some parts of the whisky industry are quite old-fashioned and unwelcoming towards women and non-binary people, and that some role models should not be allowed to remain on their swaying pedestals. What happened after that? Nothing. Sure, a bunch of big names and companies in the industry went out of their way to hold her back, which of course they should, and then everything went back to normal for the consumer. I was silent. Many other women in the industry were silent. Many men too, for that matter. Why is that?
For me personally, it was because of cynicism. I applaud Paskin, and the companies that support her, as she is a very knowledgeable and competent whisky connoisseur, writer and industry representative. She has done her reading, worked hard, kept track of things. She knows. Unfortunately, however, I myself do not believe that the re-establishment of the whisky world as an inclusive and equal industry will be driven by people who have important messages to tell, even though I’m sure it helps. The reason why it will take many years before it even starts to happen in earnest is that the whisky industry is a snake that lives on eating its own tail, and it is only when it gets to the neck and the food starts to run out that something will be done on a broad front and in earnest. Let me explain what I mean.
In all industries where goods or services are sold, marketing is the house god you turn to for answers to your questions. Sell more? Marketing. Higher status of the brand? Marketing. New target groups? Marketing. Although whisky has historically been drunk by both women and men (especially hundreds of years ago – just look at Queen Victoria who is said to have loved the drink!), during the 20th century, efforts were made to market whisky against the concept of “successful / masculine/ tough / intelligent / intellectual men ”, and with great success as well! Personally, I strongly doubt that there is any biological reason why men would appreciate whisky more than women, partly because you do not drink with the genitals (no one I know does it anyway – at least not in the company of others) and partly because taste is a culturally conditioned experience. What we think is delicious in Sweden (caviar and salt licorice) is disgusting to someone from the UK (I myself have performed smaller, empirical field experiments on the subject), and thus this also applies to whisky. And culture can always be influenced by successful advertising.
The result is that we today see whisky as a normatively accepted drink for men to drink, while women in most contexts encounter a certain opposition when they sip on a dram. “Opposition – why I’d never! I love women who drink whisky! ” you may argue with a trembling upper lip, but all apposition is not necessarily meant as something negative from the sender’s point of view. Even seemingly happy shouts and reactions such as “Wow, do you like whisky ?! And peated ones too! How come you like whisky ?! ” is a form of opposition, when all the other whisky drinkers in the room are met by a “Cheers!”. This, and many more similar situations, affect those who deviate from the norm – and the norm created by very successful marketers is that whisky is for masculine men. Men who are a little more manly than other men, and definitely more manly than women and non-binary people.
When you have succeeded in creating a clear norm linked to a drink, you instill added value in the customer. You let the customer believe that he, she or they is so or so if they drink / eat / wear just this, quite simply. And if there is a status or identity bonus to gain if the customer drinks / eats / wears just this, they will continue to buy the product, because they either want to take part in the status it gives or be such a type of person as the product signals that you are then.
So to whisky. Thus the whisky industry not only sells good drams to people who have enough financial means to buy them, but also status and – to use a really nice word – identity markers. If the customer feels a little more successful / masculine / tough / intelligent / intellectual from buying Glen Yummuyum, they will continue to buy Glen Yummuyum, and also encourage others from the same target group around them to do the same – more advertising for Glen Yummuyum! But why shouldn’t the owners of Glen Yummuyum want women non-binary people to buy their whisky, then? Well, well, it probably has nothing to do with women or being non-binary per se and technically they would probably want as many people as possible to buy their whisky, regardless of gender. BUT – and here’s a big but – if this additional sale lowers the status or changes the image of the identity that comes with buying a bottle of Glen Yummuyum and also changes it to the “worse” (read: worse status, worse opportunity to identify with the product for the customer, less sales), then they prefer not to sell to that target group – at least not in the first place. Status works like a ladder: if you have a high status in society, the broad masses will automatically always want to strive to be part of the group that has this status. In terms of marketing, this means that you can be content with marketing yourself to the group “successful / masculine/ tough / intelligent / intellectual men” because people who do not belong to that group will still want to be part of it (or at least take part of the same benefits that the group enjoys) and therefore also be positive about buying the product.
“But isn’t this taking things a bit too far, really?” you might think, and absolutely, my harsh theories might make your pink fluffy whisky cloud disappear, I understand that. But consider this: How many times have you not heard the term “ladies’ whisky” or similar mentioned in the context of whisky drinkers? Of course, you have never said it yourself, because no one has, but almost everyone has heard phrases or words like these used over a glass here and there. For the uninitiated, the epithet “ladiess whisky” (“kärringwhisky” in Swedish) is a nickname for soft, often non-smoky, fruity or malt sweet whisky that slides gently down the throat without creating disorder or upset feelings. The interesting thing is that the same whisky is often referred to as elegant and a proof of skilled craftsmanship in circles where such a dram is socially accepted to like, including in Scotland. And what if there was a way to market this and all other whiskeys because of taste benefits and then equally to non-binaries, women and men – without losing sales figures but on the contrary maybe even gaining new, loyal followers? Is this possible or just a bizarre, futuristic utopia as inaccessible as putting a man on the moon?
So what does this have to do with Becky Paskin, then? Well, actually not that much since these are my own thoughts on the matter, but on the other hand very much to the point. Her aim is to make the whisky world more inclusive so that more people can unconditionally enjoy this fantastically wonderful, fun, exciting, delicious drink on their own terms without being treated differently. That’s my purpose too, because I really love whisky. Personally, however, I only think that this will happen when the big companies that control the marketing trends in the industry see enough profit from marketing their products toowards women and non-binary to the same extent as towards men. At present, most of the brands’ Instagram accounts and advertising campaigns contain pictures of men, where women mainly appear in order to in a sexy way demonstrate a bottle or hand over a bottle of whisky to A Man on Father’s Day or similar. Some companies are better than others, though, but I do not intend to pat any company on the head just because 4 out of 20 pictures happen to have a woman in them in some way. It’s not enough.
This Christmas, and all the following Christmases, I wish myself not only liquid gifts under the Christmas tree, but also 100% inclusion in all marketing contexts in the whisky industry. I wish the industry dares to trust their products as much as I do, that they actually market their whisky without bulging biceps, oiled tattoos, well-dressed suits and roaring Vikings. I want these companies together to set a consistent and constant agenda to strive together towards the same goal – to make the whisky world welcoming for everyone on equal terms. I want the industry to dare to trust that the customer can choose their products because of the taste, and not because of how much they inflate the customer’s ego. I wish the companies would dare to believe that the customer loves good whisky as much as the producers themselves probably do. I think this is a new foundation on which we, producers and consumers, can build an even more beautiful whisky future.