Breaking The Barriers For Women in Whisky Marketing

As we commemorate International Women’s Day dedicated to championing women’s achievements and advocating for gender equality, we’re prompted to question the whisky industry’s stance—one where progress and tradition collide, often leaving a bitter aftertaste of gender stereotypes. Despite strides toward equality, the whisky industry finds itself grappling with an age-old dilemma: does it continue to cater to its traditional male audience, or does it embrace the full spectrum of potential enthusiasts, women included?

The notorious ‘Meet the Baron’ advert from Dewar’s, a decade ago, stands as a stark reminder of the industry’s flirtation with outright sexism. There was a campaign that objectified women but seemingly wrote them off as peripheral figures in the whisky narrative, save for when they adorned scenes like ornaments. The backlash it received was a clear signal: times were changing, and whisky marketing needed to evolve. But has it?

Indeed, the backlash against such blatant sexism marked a pivotal moment, signaling a societal shift towards demanding more inclusivity and respect in advertising. However, the evolution of whisky marketing since then has been a mixed bag, revealing both progress and persistent shortcomings. Several examples highlight the ongoing challenges and areas where the industry continues to falter in fully embracing and representing women.

  • Stereotypical Packaging: The aesthetic appeal of whisky packaging hasn’t diversified much beyond its traditional, masculine roots. Dark colors, angular designs, and imagery that exude male-oriented symbolism remain prevalent. This design philosophy inadvertently communicates to women shoppers that these products aren’t meant for them, creating a barrier to entry based on appearance alone.
  • Event Sponsorship Choices: The pattern of aligning whisky brands with events traditionally dominated by male audiences—like golf tournaments and car races—further cement the perception of whisky as a man’s domain. This lack of diversity in event sponsorships unwittingly sidelines women, perpetuating the idea that whisky culture is exclusive to men.
  • Limited Editions Named After Men: The tradition of commemorating historic male figures in the whisky industry through limited edition releases is another practice that reinforces gender disparities. While honoring heritage is vital, the absence of editions celebrating women’s contributions to whisky history contributes to the narrative that whisky’s legacy is predominantly male.
  • Tasting Events in Male-Dominated Venues: The choice of venues for whisky tastings and launch events often leans towards environments that might not be as welcoming to women, such as cigar lounges and male-centric social clubs. This not only deters women from attending but also from fully engaging with and enjoying whisky culture.
  • Assumptions in Service: An outdated yet persistent belief among some service professionals is that women prefer sweeter, less alcoholic beverages. Such assumptions can lead to patronizing interactions for women who enjoy and order whisky, making their experiences less enjoyable and sometimes uncomfortable.
  • Lack of Female Representation in Advertising: Marketing continues to fall short in portraying women in authoritative or expert roles within the whisky world. The rarity of seeing women depicted as distillers, connoisseurs, or educators in whisky ads is a glaring omission that maintains the gender gap in perception and engagement with the spirit.

Recent years have seen brands like Johnnie Walker, Glenmorangie, and The Glenlivet striving for inclusivity, crafting adverts that welcome all, irrespective of gender. Yet, the shadow of past missteps looms large, a specter questioning whether surface-level changes are enough to dismantle decades of ingrained perceptions. Annabel Thomas, of Nc’nean, points out the rarity of overt sexism in today’s marketing. However, the subtler, more insidious form of bias—underrepresentation—still pervades.

The Struggle for Gender Inclusivity in Whisky Imagery

According to the OurWhisky Foundation’s 2020 survey there was a glaring disparity: an overwhelming majority of whisky-related social media content featured men, overshadowing women significantly.

Yet, the issue extends beyond mere numbers. The representation—or lack thereof—of women in whisky-related imagery speaks volumes about the industry’s view of its audience. Instagram’s portrayal of whisky enthusiasts further cements this divide, with female-identifying individuals markedly absent from the picture. This silent narrative fosters a space that feels exclusive rather than welcoming, perpetuating the myth that whisky is a man’s domain.

Brands need to weave inclusivity into the very fabric of their identity, showcasing a diverse array of enthusiasts in their imagery, not as a token gesture, but as a reflection of reality. Nc’nean exemplifies this approach, maintaining a gender-balanced team and inviting women to explore the distilling process, demonstrating unequivocally that whisky welcomes everyone.

Women’s Role in Whisky’s Heritage

The truth is, that women have always been integral to the whisky world, though their contributions have often been overlooked. From pioneering distillers to master blenders and industry leaders, women have shaped the whisky we love in countless ways. Consider Elizabeth Cumming, who in the late 19th century transformed Cardhu from a small farmhouse distillery into a thriving business, or Bessie Williamson, the formidable force behind Laphroaig for several decades. These women, and many like them, played crucial roles in whisky’s history, a fact that modern narratives are only beginning to acknowledge fully.

The challenge of gender imbalance in whisky marketing is but a facet of a broader issue: the industry’s failure to represent a diverse array of demographics. This lack of diversity alienates potential enthusiasts and narrows the narrative around whisky, confining it to outdated stereotypes. If the imagery we consume fails to reflect the diversity of those who enjoy whisky, it perpetuates a cycle of exclusion.

How You Can Support Women In The Industry

Find Women-Owned Distilleries and Brands

Seek out and purchase whiskies produced by women-owned distilleries or brands with women in key leadership or distilling roles. By consciously choosing these products, you not only enjoy quality spirits but also directly support women’s contributions to the industry. Resources like the Women’s Distillery Guild offer directories of women-owned and operated spirits businesses.

Attend and Promote Events Highlighting Women in Whiskey

Look for whisky tastings, festivals, and educational seminars that feature women distillers, blenders, and industry experts. Attending these events not only enriches your understanding of whisky from diverse perspectives but also visibly supports the women leading these discussions. Platforms like Eventbrite or local whisky clubs often list such events.

Educate Yourself and Others

Use books, podcasts, and documentaries that focus on women’s roles in whisky history and the modern industry. Sharing this knowledge with your network can help challenge stereotypes and spread awareness. Books like “Whiskey Women: The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch, and Irish Whiskey” by Fred Minnick are great starting points.

Amplify Women’s Voices on Social Media

Follow and engage with social media accounts, blogs, and YouTube channels created by women whisky enthusiasts and professionals. Share their content, participate in their discussions, and recommend their platforms to others. This amplifies their voices and helps build a more inclusive whisky community online.

Advocate for Inclusive Marketing

When you see whisky marketing that fails to include or respectfully represent women, don’t be silent. Use your voice on social media, customer feedback forms, and direct communications with brands to advocate for more inclusive marketing practices. Commend brands that are doing it right and constructively critique those that are not. Your feedback as a consumer can influence change within the industry.