Finding The Glass Ceiling at The Bottom of a Tumbler
And the women revolutionizing how we tell stories in the world of whiskey.
October 29, 2018 ● 5 min read
By Ashtin Berry | Photo by Sarah Baumberger
Whiskey, like everything else, is tied to the land.
It’s one of the first things Heather Greene said to me. She meant the physical land, yes, but also the emotional terrain of the drink, memories of the people and their relationship to something that brings so many of us solace, or inspiration.
“There are human and earthly resources behind what we drink,” she explains. “It’s our responsibility to think about what we buy, support, and put into our bodies. Spirits are a lens into much bigger topics, and those are what interest me.”
If it takes 10,000 hours of study to become an expert in something, consider Greene an expert twice over—she’s a distillery consultant, author, the former director of The Whiskey School at the Flatiron Room in Manhattan, and the founder of her own TV production company, slated to debut next year. Greene, like most of the female pioneers in our industry, isn’t necessarily someone you would know. Her name isn’t plastered everywhere—and she’s humble enough to know it doesn’t need to be in order to effect change.
Greene wants to transform the way we consider the narratives around women in whiskey, precisely because it doesn’t stop in the glass; economics, politics, culture, business, and gender all come into play. How we drink, and what we drink, matters.
“I did not devote my life to whiskey. I’ve devoted my life to being curious and following where curiosity takes me,” she explains. “Right now, whiskey and spirits, in general, have exposed to me a very rich world, a lens through which to explore elements of life. Once I reach a moment where I stop being curious or feel I have exhausted that, I wouldn’t fight it. But that hasn’t happened yet.”
I grew up in a household where women could drink as many fingers of whiskey as the men. I can vividly replay scenes of spades being played, my aunt with a cigarette in her hand, my uncle’s deep chuckle. My grandfather drank Johnny Walker, my grandmother religiously took her Jack “wit a splash Coke.” Whiskey was universal. It was only once I entered the hospitality industry that I understood: whiskey was supposed to be some type of private club, one mostly for men.
Once you see it, you can’t stop: It plays out in every commercial, is ferried by every white, male, heterosexual brand ambassador who pitches me in the bars where I work. And the branding of whiskey isn’t just reinforced by the brand ambassadors, who could perhaps be forgiven for promoting a story with one tired note, but by the guests that sat across from me, too. How could I, as a young woman, understand whiskey or truly enjoy it?
As one of the world’s most popular beverages, whiskey is currently a near $30 billion business, employing hundreds of thousand people on the distillery and operational sides worldwide. The nostalgic realm of whiskey is filled with stories of men and their families. Rugged, historic, men with simple truths to tell. When men drink whiskey, they’re your everyday man. When women do, they’re brassy tomboys brimming with sex appeal. (Pauses to sip Beam— I mean, tea.) But who exactly are these tropes trying to convince here?
The glaring contradistinction is that men aren’t monolith and women are. Women have been drinking whiskey just as long as anyone else. “The way the media covers whiskey, you’d think women were brand spanking new at this. We’ve been around. We’re here,” Greene says. “When I started, women just were not given much [of an opportunity], especially if you weren’t white. But we all kept pushing.”
Women like Rachel Barrie, the Master Blender of Morrison Bowmore and the former Blender at Glenmorangie. Like Robin Nance, who reared the brand of Auchentoshan from little-known brand to a cult favorite. Lynn House, the National Brand Educator for Heaven Hill, one of the most respected whiskey legacies in our country. They’re all still pushing.
Representation matters, and visibility is one way that marginalized cohorts gain access to communities that were once exclusionary. But when does visibility become one dimensional? What happens when it begins to feel redundant, and when does that mutate into tokenizing?
Take the Johnny Walker Campaign that debuted this past February. Just in time for Women’s Month, the brand’s iconic Striding Man logo, top hat bent to the wind, was given flowing locks and a fuller chest. World, meet Jane Walker. The initiative, according to JW Vice President Stephanie Jacoby, was to “invite” women to a brand and category that has previously been perceived as intimidating. It was intended, they said, as a stand for gender equality.
Still, it was met with backlash from consumers and industry professionals alike. This new attempt to reach women—as if they’re all stranded on some island chugging Pinot Grigio and spritzers—seemed to only mimic a kind of performative allyship. Many of Johnny Walker’s avid female drinkers weren’t looking for an invitation, just inclusion.
So what would happen if the numerous dollars Diageo spent on that campaign had instead gone to a feature on all the women in their company that make the product so many women love possible? Or led a sponsored leadership seminar? I ask these questions not to suggest what Diageo should have done, but more to present ideas that are beyond marketing campaigns and charitable endeavors.
What really, does it look like to be seen and respected? Is it possible without othering? What does a backlash teach a brand who believed they were on the right side of the debate? For Greene, it’s not the highlighting of the women who land on those yearly listicles of “Best New Women in [Insert Field Here]” that’s the problem—it’s the novelty that underlies the list itself. We’ve allowed ourselves, in our rush to appear supportive, to write about women because of their gender. It’s the same quicksand that surrounds the “Best Female Chef” debate. (Sidebar: Why are we still using the term female? Y’all, it’s 2018. Gender and sex are not synonymous! If you want to honor women, start by not referencing their genitalia. Transwomen are women too. Jussayin’.)
“If every year it’s ‘yeah, this is new!’ we don’t get to move the conversation forward to the actual cool things women have been doing for a long time,” Greene says. “Women and women of color are just as capable, they just have not had [the] opportunities. They don’t need to hear it’s possible; they need to see the stories of those who share similar identities thriving and succeeding in all their glory.”
Pinkifying labels isn’t representation—it’s a form of tokenizing that replaces the real women, the vast non-monolith women who truly make up our industry, with marketing fabrications.
And as my grandmother would say: She ain’t booboo the fool, and neither are the rest of us.
Ashtin Berry is a hospitality activist, beverage consultant, and writer. She enjoys gas station fried chicken, grower champagne, and perfectly cooked eggs (not in any type of order). When she is not traveling she enjoys reading, shopping for shoes, and explaining to people why intersectionality will save the world. If she believed in online dating this would be her profile. Find her in Nola or on Instagram, @thecollectress.