Cocktails and Spirits with Paul Clarke: Women and Whiskey


[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

This Friday is Whiskyfest in San Francisco, the annual event (it also takes place in Chicago and New York) that's part collector's geek-out and part Detroit Auto Show for booze, where distillers reintroduce thousands of enthusiasts, media, and industry colleagues to their standard selections, as well as debut unique and rare bottlings and special editions. I'll no doubt have some interesting whisk(e)y-related news in the coming weeks, but as I prepare for my visit to Whiskyfest, there's one question in particular that'll be on my mind: how many women are going to be there?

No, it's not what you think—rather, I'm heading to Whiskyfest thinking about the changing world of whiskey consumers. As recently noted by spirits industry expert and educator Paul Pacult and reinforced by recent Nielsen surveys, while whiskey buyers have historically been overwhelmingly male, women are a fast-growing segment of the whiskey world. Earlier this year, the Guardian noted that the UK-based Scotch Malt Whisky Society had almost doubled its female membership over the course of three years (to a total of around 15 percent of its membership), and that an estimated 25 percent of all scotch drinkers in the UK were female, an increase from around 10 percent only a few years ago. Earlier this week, while speaking at a BarSmarts certification course in San Francisco that I attended, Pacult pointed out that Irish whiskey is the fastest growing segment of the whiskey market in the United States, and noted that this may in part be related to the growing number of women purchasing whiskey in this market, as well.

In my line of work I meet no shortage of female bartenders and drinks aficionados who are big fans of whiskey, whether it's something as mild as an Irish blended whiskey or something big and robust like a cask-strength bourbon or an Islay single malt. (And my good friend Lenell Smothers—former liquor store owner and self-styled "Bourbon Bitch"—counts as at least four male whiskey consumers any day based on her passion for the spirit alone.)

It wasn't until I saw these numbers that I realized how lopsided the gender gap is when it comes to the world of whiskey, or how that world seems to be changing. But while it's changing, that change is still slow; recent Whiskyfest events have attracted audiences that are between 83 and 91 percent male, and even if there's a significant shift for this season's events, the line at the men's room is still going to dwarf that for the ladies.

What's it look like from your perspective? Do you know of more women who are getting into whiskey, or are you a recent (or longtime, for that matter) devotee of bourbon, scotch or other whiskies who also happens to be female? And while we're at it, what kinds of whiskies are being poured into women's glasses? Let's hear it from your side.

About the author: Paul Clarke blogs about cocktails at The Cocktail Chronicles and writes regularly on spirits and cocktails for Imbibe magazine. He lives in Seattle, where he works as a writer and magazine editor.


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