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A trend has been barrel-aging over the past few years, and we need to talk about it. Because, honestly, I thought I was the only one, but there are so many of us. It’s time to put on our cool chunky glasses and give each other the raised-eyebrow nod.
I’m talking, of course, about women who drink whiskey. We’ve always been here. I mean literally, we really have: Whiskey Women: The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch, and Irish Whiskey details how women pretty much invented fermented drinks, were barred from them at regular intervals (by the Greeks, the Romans, some Medieval dudes…), and used booze as part of medicinal treatments (like to relieve the pain of labor contractions). Ultimately women are the righteous heiresses of the rich history of—very specifically—whiskey, rye, scotch, and all the various incarnations held therein.
Women are the righteous heiresses of the rich history of whiskey, rye, scotch, and all the various incarnations held therein.
You can dive into that history if you like, but what’s more interesting to me is us, in the here and now. I thought proper ladies drank vodka—that was my mom’s choice, because of the calories, don’tcha know. Or gin, if you’re preppy: Juniper does smell nice. But with the upswing of international organizations like Women Who Whiskey, not to mention scads of women-owned distilleries creating artisan-hipster-fancy versions for sipping from Pinterest-y Mason jars, it’s becoming clear that what we want when we get what we want is warm, brown, and sweet—liquid versions of Idris Elba’s eyes.
The stats bear out this trend: The percentage of whiskey drinkers who are female has more than doubled since the 90s. Today, 40 percent of whiskey drinkers in North America are women, according to Johanne McInnis, a whiskey judge and connoisseur who writes a blog called Whisky Lassie. “Back in the 40s and 50s, women whiskey drinkers were thought of as bad girls who ended up passed out with their wahoos hanging out,” she says. Currently the core age group of women whiskey drinkers is 37 to 52, Johanne reports, and women whiskey lovers can get really serious about it. “I have a collection that would put liquor stores to shame,” says Johanne, who says she right now has 400 bottles of the good stuff–from all over the world.
Whiskey: What’s to Love
“I’m a Jameson’s girl all the way,” says Debbie of New Jersey. “I pour it in my coffee. I just love the warm buzz it gives, without the random side effects of other types of alcoholic beverages Wine gives me a stuffy nose, beer makes me gassy, vodka gives me a headache, gin tastes like Christmas trees.”
In fact, one of the reasons many women like whiskey is that they don’t like to drink all that much. “I just don’t like red wine,” says Julie from San Francisco. “I’ll have white wine on a hot day. Beer is bitter. Whiskey is literally the only alcohol I love the taste of, and I can have just a little and get the perfect buzz. Boom. Done.”
Speaking of wine, that’s part of the conversation here. Because nobody expresses surprise that someone likes wine the way they do when a woman opts for a tumbler of the brown stuff. Wine is, like, everywhere, and people don’t just say “I like wine,” because there are too many kinds. Rather, we tend to say what variants we like, what years, from where, and up in Napa, people will come to blows over Riesling v. Gewurztraminer. (Dear God, I spelled that correctly on my first try.)
But the same holds true with whiskey: It’s a many splendored thing. Some women want that thick, peaty smell and taste. I once went to distillery in Edinburgh, Scotland where I got to taste a kind of whiskey they aren’t allowed to export to the U.S., and I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Others want the single, bright, soprano solo that is single-malt scotch.
One reason many women like whiskey: just a little can give the perfect buzz.
Molly, who hails from Colorado, prefers the lowbrow classic: Jack Daniels. “I’ve tried lots of more and less civilized brands,” she says, “but I like the combination of flavor, burn, and linger of Jack more than others. I’m not big on sweet—like Maker’s—or long finish—like Beam—or the Irish variants. I don’t like the flavor of rye. Red Breast is probably the only other whisky I’d order, and then because I’d be trying to fit in with snootier folks.”
A Show of Strength
There’s also a rebellious vibe to whiskey. It’s light years away from a fruity cocktail and says you can handle the hard stuff. Many of us were introduced to whiskey by an early boyfriend—or by the perception that men would like us if we drank something badass.
Katherine from Austin was always a wine-drinker. But then, “I got started when I was singing backup in a band (in my 40s!) We play a lot of dive bars where they look at you blankly if you ask for wine, so I get Jack and Diet Coke, the most backup-singer drink in the galaxy.”
For Kelley from Kentucky, bourbon is a matter of home-state pride. “You have to tour the distilleries on the Bourbon Trail,” she says. “Frankly, I like Four Roses the best. But my house brand is Dewar’s, which whiskey snobs around here raise their brows at because it’s blended—but you just can’t beat it for its drinkability, its fruity nose, and how it holds up well over ice. And I love a good Old Fashioned!”
It’s becoming clear that what we want is warm, brown, and sweet—liquid versions of Idris Elba’s eyes.
For some women, whiskey is only for very particular situations. “I hate whiskey—except when I have a bad cold,” says Deirdre of Nyack, New York. “Then, I love it like my grandmother would recommend: Equal parts hot tea, lemon, honey, and Old Bushmills. Better than any Robitussin!” I can vouch for this medicinal use personally. Years ago, I was out at a bar with a bad cold (as you do, and you know you do), and the bartender made me one of these. It fixed everything. And as Minnick points out in his fine tome, “Aqua vitae,” shorthand for any alcoholic drink, “was the aspirin of the Middle Ages.”
A Bold Drink
But the final word comes from Diana of Portland, Oregon. “In my experience,” which is considerable, as she’s been a bartender for 25 years, often at fine establishments that favor longshoremen, “younger women often drink it because they think it’s badass to say ‘Jack and coke,’ but they don’t love what they’re tasting. Older women order exactly what they want, and love it a particular way—like an old fashioned with three cherries, or a Maker’s Mark Manhattan.” Diana’s drink of choice? “It’s always been Jack. I hate anything sweet. I love the taste, the label. You can’t go wrong.”
Diana also has an interesting anthropological observation: “No matter who I’m out with—my husband, my friends, on my own—when I order a Jack on the rocks, maybe 80 percent of the time, they bring me a Jack and Coke. And if they bring the straight Jack, they set it in front of my husband, every time. Every time! Straight Jack is just not associated with a woman.”
Well, that’s about to change.