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Women and Whisky: Why Not?

A new ad promotes whisky as a holiday treat for women: a rare sight in a culture that associates the hard stuff with manliness. Marketing this type of alcohol to a female audience may be novel, but there's nothing new about ladies who like Scotch, rye, whisky, or bourbon.

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This holiday season, there are plenty of ads that play up the same old narrative we’ve come to expect about whisky as a man’s drink: guy wins over the disapproving father-in-law with Johnnie Walker, guys bond like brothers over a bottle of Bushmills. But between all of them, there’s a Christmas miracle of sorts: a whisky ad aimed at women.

Spike the Cookies, a new campaign by Jack Daniels, encourages women to host whisky-themed holiday parties that feature both baking and cocktails (the campaign provide recipes for both Jack and Ginger cookies and Jack and Ginger gimlets). It’s refreshing to see a campaign that addresses the fact that women might like whiskey, too—and it's dissapointing that it's such an anomoly. After all, women have been drinking whisky for years—and some of them even leave the kitchen to do so.

With it’s heavy, smoky flavor, and dark, heavy coloring, whisky (and related drinks, like Scotch and rye) still carries the connotations of America’s early attitudes toward liquor—mainly, that women shouldn’t have any. “The association with manliness is related to a deep cultural appreciation of alcohol's dangers; having the strength and wisdom to confront and withstand those dangers is at the root of the association with manliness and of the 'male bonding' associated with drinking together and shared intoxication,” says James S. Roberts, an associate professor of economics at Duke, in an email to NEWSWEEK.  "And all this scales with the beverage consumed, with whisky at the pinnacle.”

In other words, it's one thing to have a girly pink cosmo. Those are kind of cute. But whisky? Totes unladylike. That perception is one that women have played with over the years—witness every Gretchen Wilson song in which she proves her badass, redneck, tomboy ways by doing shots of the dark stuff. But the idea that women drink whisky only when they want to keep up with the boys is not the whole story. (Which makes the Spike the Cookies campaign almost subversive in its attempt to brand whisky as the natural choice for a domestic, girls' night in). “For years, women drank Scotch, women drank whisky, even nice, polite women in the South drank bourbon,” says Heather Greene, one of America's formost Scotch experts and a spokesperson for the Glenfiddich brand. (Those sidecars, old-fashioneds, and whisky neats thrown back by housewives and career girls alike on Mad Men are yet another of the show’s period-perfect details.) Marcy Ruderhausen, the master of whisky for Johnnie Walker brands, notes that Scotch has always been popular among women in the Latin American neighborhoods of South Florida.

Still, if it’s not pink and sugary, it’s not often considered a “girlie drink”—even if it’s imbibed by lots of girls. “It’s not that whisky isn’t thought of as a whisky drink, but that sweet drinks like cosmos are considered for women." That’s changing, too: whisky cocktails are now popular menu items in trendy urban bars. 

That's good news for whisky fans and cocktail fans, but it’s not a necessity to get women to imbibe. While “Women and Whisky” events are currently making headlines, Ruderhausen has been hosting similar events for years. Then, as now, the crowd is mixed but enthusiastic, often a hundred women strong. “You get women who have never tasted whisky before, those who have tasted it on occasion but don’t really understand it, and then those who are really passionate, who love a good Scotch.”

And that’s how it should be—gendering drinks as “male” or “female “ creates arbitrary distinctions about how people should respond to certain situations, based on stereotypes. “It’s all about people’s personal taste,” says Ruderhausen. “Just as there are men who don’t like a big, smoky whisky, there are women who do.”

Make no mistake. having hard-liquor ads targeted at women is hardly a tentpole of the feminist movement. It’s not progress, it’s marketing: a way to get more people to pay more money for a product that can be dangerous if used to excess. But still, as Christmas Day approaches, it’s useful to remember—especially for those totally panicked, last-minute shoppers out there—that the right woman in the right circumstances might enjoy a hastily purchased, wrapped-in-the-car bottle of whisky just as much as a man does.

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