If whisky is truly about bringing people together, it’s time that everyone was equally welcome at the table, says SMWS America ambassador Jenna Elie
Do you even drink whisky? Don’t you need ice with that? Are you sure you can handle a whisky? Oh, a woman who drinks whisky, you must be…
These are questions women on both the consumer and industry side have most likely been asked at some point in their lives. Because after all, whisky is a “man’s drink”.
Well, at least that’s what marketing has been telling us for decades. Every advertisement, panel, boardroom and movie has shown us just that. Even though I represent The Scotch Malt Whisky Society and the best single cask whiskies in the world, I am still asked almost weekly if I even drink whisky. Through my elated breaths of single malt recommendations, fermentation facts, and detailed dialect on distillation, I am still asked.
All while my heart is pounding with excitement for the chance to even share these fascinating bits of information on a spirit I literally live and breathe every single day, still I am asked. It would truly be a shame if I shared this passion so vigorously day in and day out and not even drink the stuff! But this is something women in our industry across the world experience throughout their daily lives. This is just one of the many potholes in the road, full of twists and turns that we have had to navigate. This road needs a lot of work and is one that we have taken upon ourselves to repave with kindness, inclusion and diversity.
A COMMUNITY OF BRILLIANT WOMEN
When I first set foot into the world of whisky, I was intimidated. After all, whisky was a “man’s drink”, and here I was just a blue-haired, tattooed mum who knew nothing about whisky, but wanted nothing more than to soak up every single morsel of knowledge I could about the spirit. I started my journey with late nights on Google and reading through books, but I knew there was more information out there. I knew that social media was full of communities of people who shared their passions from cars to cooking and even whisky! Prior to my whisky life, I was a treasure-hunting, old dress-soaking maniac who grew a vintage resale business through social media. There, I was embraced and taught by a community of brilliant women who showed me how to do things like pull 70 years of dust and musk from vintage garments and how to make a living in doing so. The community was inclusive and beautiful, and one I hoped to find in whisky. So I embarked on the journey through my page, Whisky A Go Girl, and set off on my quest for knowledge.
Jenna exploring the delights of rum in Barbados
In the beginning it was mostly pages run by men showing off their bourbon collections and pricy single malts. Some treated me as nothing more than a piece of meat, with sexist and lewd comments, not giving me the time of day to be looked at as someone who was passionate about learning. Luckily, many also treated me with respect and kindness, some of whom are now my mentors today. Slowly, I found more women who were sharing their passion for whisky in both their personal lives and in their work lives. I started learning from the likes of Kat Aagesen (Sespe Creek), Allison Parc (Brenne), Becky Paskin (Our Whisky), and Jennifer Wren (Whyte & Mackay). Along with them were many other women who shared their knowledge and passion and gave me the encouragement to keep on this path of learning.
I’ll never forget the night that Jennifer Wren, the Single Malt Specialist (yes, SPECIALIST!) for The Dalmore and Jura invited me out for drinks at our local whisky bar. I was so excited to meet her and she just embraced me with such love and kindness from the moment we met. She shared with me her stories, her fierce knowledge of whisky and love of this spirit, and how to navigate this industry unapologetically as a woman. Watching her dance across a stage while singing the praises of single malt, all while making you feel warm, welcomed, and powerful in your knowledge was such a gift. I was so inspired by her conviction and passion, that to this day when hosting tastings and masterclasses, I channel what she has given me over the years, which is to make sure everyone is included and to handle disrespect with finesse and grace.
I too can say the same for Becky Paskin. When I first started interviewing people within our industry, I would scour the web for her interviews, as research. She is an absolutely brilliant journalist and is so passionate about whisky that it’s infectious.
She too is a huge advocate for women in this industry and celebrates diversity and inclusion through the Our Whisky campaign which she co-founded with Georgie Bell, the global malts ambassador for Bacardi who also started out at The Scotch Malt Whisky Society.
I would need a whole 50 page spread to even touch on the number of women who are making such profound impacts on the world of whisk(e)y. From Fawn Weaver (Uncle Nearest) to Louise McGuane (JJ Corry) to Eboni Major (Bulleit) and Sona Bajaria (Pernod Ricard) to just name a few, the list is long and very powerful!
Jenna has found women willing to share their knowledge and passion from across the whisky industry
Over the years, I have worked numerous whisky shows, and hosted countless tastings where I have been treated as if I know nothing about whisky, along with the unwanted arm-touching and lewd comments that many of us have faced. I have heard many stories from women who have experienced even worse treatments, some of which have been life threatening. Being talked over, not taken seriously, or even downright ignored by some men when talking about whisky is nothing new, and it’s not until I “raise my voice” that they begin to listen and then promptly have to put their foot in their mouths because I just so happen to know what the hell I’m talking about! Sure, I am experiencing less of this as the topic is more widely spoken of, but it is far from being a thing of the past.
As the industry continues to evolve and change, I know that women will continue to make a big splash and will continue to rise while lifting others up. We will continue to call out misogynistic comments and actions, and champion diversity. For a spirit that is so diverse, and complex, so colourful in the glass, it’s still not far from just being the “man’s drink” it has been presented as. There is much work to be done and I hope to see more companies champion women and include them and their expertise in all arenas. I hope to see them in more advertisements as leaders in the industry, on more panels, and in more boardrooms. I hope to be one of them one day, sharing with the world a whisky of my own.
I too hope for a more diverse and inclusive industry where people feel welcomed, worthy, and safe. Where they are acknowledged for their contributions, and not just for white women, but for women in all communities.
Some current resources, initiatives and organizations such as Diversity Distilled, The Nearest & Jack Advancement Initiative as well as scholarships provided by The Michael Jackson Institute for Brewing and Distilling are actively implementing these changes within the industry.
This is an industry where everyone should have a seat at the table and it’s such a shame it’s taken this long to be realized. After all, this is whisky and isn’t bringing people together what it's really all about? Women have been here for centuries distilling and brewing in all corners of the globe, and we will continue to do just that. I am so proud to be a woman in this industry full of such incredible people, and look forward to being a part of the changes for a better whisk(e)y world. I hope as you read this you are inspired in some way to go out and buy a whisky made by a woman (there are many!), read up on the history of women in whisky and join us in the effort to champion and empower women not only across this industry, but across them all.
If you need a place to start, please reach out to me at email@example.com and I will be happy to point you in the right direction.
“There is much work to be done and I hope to see more companies champion women and include them and their expertise in all arenas”