Photography by Curtis Comeau; hair and makeup by Nicola Gavins
The tasting invitation started with a feminist call:
Ladies, ladies, ladies.Whisky seems to be one of the last bastions of hardy, stoic masculinity. Join me in embracing this lovely, rich amber beverage as our own. No, it’s not oven cleaner. It’s not teething medicine. It is a sipping, dipping, lounging drink to be enjoyed by all.
On the night of the private tasting, the music of Feist and Cat Power serenades us from the stereo. My dining room table has been transformed – the usual blanket of Cheerios and peanut butter replaced with old cheese, dark chocolate and fruit. In the low light, J. Wheelock of Calgary’s Authentic Wine and Spirits Merchants stands before 15 women, who stare apprehensively at six imposing looking bottles of Scotch. Wheelock appears a little uncertain too. As a whisky educator, he’s accustomed to groups much larger than this; however, in 13 years, this is only his second tasting for just ladies.
Women who like whisky get tired of the presumption that it’s a man’s drink. “I take offense that people think whisky is only for men. I mean, I’ve never even thought of it as a man’s drink,” says Beverly Higgins, who drinks whisky in the winter and wine in the summer. However, women still represent only 26 per cent of North American whiskey drinkers, according to Wheelock. Some companies appear intent on maintaining the stereotypes. Take the Canadian Club ads featuring the Chairman: “Every man remembers his first chest hair – and his first whisky …”he says. “I enjoy CC to this day and now sport an abundance of chest hair,” he looks to the camera on his left with an eyebrow cocked. “At this point, you’d need a WeedWacker to find my nipples.” Good God, I never considered this serious liability before sending out the tasting invite to 30 of my lady friends.
These women come from all walks of life, representing every decade from those in their 20s to 50s. Only four of the women drink whisky regularly: As in, they’d order it from a long drinks menu in a bar. The rest of us are potential new customers.
While he has no information about the chest-hair thing, Wheelock confirms whisky’s male mystique; however, this is changing. “More gals are interested and the market is getting younger: This is a good thing. In some markets, the sales numbers suddenly drop right off. You ask why and – there is no delicate way to say it – our traditional customers are dying.”
The room is full of non-traditional customers and one of our first questions is basic: “What’s the difference between whisky and Scotch?” Clarification: Whiskey is traditionally Irish or American and is any booze distilled from grain mash. Single malt Scotch (made from barley), bourbon (mostly made of corn), and rye (not always made from rye) are whiskies (the singular is spelled “whisky” rather than “whiskey”). They are traditionally thought to be Scottish and Canadian. They are generally specific to geographical areas. Wheelock pours our first drinks.
When it comes to tasting, Wheelock walks us through the Scotch whiskies from light to dark. The first is “the most feminine;” a light, delicate single malt, it’s sweet with shades of licorice. The bottle is all curves and glass. I fear we may lose a couple of people with that first sip but instead, everyone says, “I like this, yeah?”
“There’s no fire at the back of my throat,” I say and the room agrees as they finish their glasses.
Next comes a Scotch the colour of straw, in a bottle that you might mistake for wine. From the creative Compass Box Whisky Co., the Scotch is an establishment buster: At approximately six years old, it is neither single malt nor blend but made from a single batch of grain. Its whiskymaker, John Glaser, is an American in Scotland who studied literature in school.
We move down the row of Scotches that have become less formidable; our sipping, analyzing, and querying eventually dissolves into giggling. (To our credit, Wheelock confirms that rooms full of men devolve into silliness much earlier than we do.) We drink Scotch from bourbon casks, sherry casks and we compare casks made of American versus European Oak. “If you take new whisky and put it into cheap casks, it doesn’t matter how good the whisky started off as, or how long you age it,” Wheelock says. “It’s still going to taste like whisky from cheap casks.”
Some of the questions from the women expose their professions: Sarah Halton (my sister-in-law) is a dietician and can’t get enough information about the impact of the casks on flavour profiles. Finally she promises, “I won’t ask any more about the wood!” Many of the artists in the room keep wanting to discuss the influence of beautiful packaging on their perception of the drink.
We finish with a heavy peat whisky. Moving in for the smell, I am overwhelmed with the heavy scent of a Sharpie marker. Another woman thinks she smells adhesive and maybe even Band-Aids. Whatever the smell, it tastes incredible with smoked gouda, but the peat flavor is invasive, like garlic. I later tentatively sniff the air around me – is it possible to sweat the peat out? Surprising to me, four of the women claim it as their favourite. Rebecca Pickard, an art teacher, says, “It’s a surprising burst in my mouth, then you have to savour it.”
We raise our Glencairn glasses to each other. The vessel is nothing like the crystal tumbler I bought last year at great expense. This one is delicate-shaped, like a blooming tulip set on a flared, half-inch base. It inspires a gentle touch, low light and contemplative sipping.
As I clean up, personally draining the leftovers (waste not, want not), I realize I’ve learned something surprising: I like whisky, neat and sipped from a glass shaped like a flower.
Wheelock’s main advice: Drink what you like.
Becoming a more informed consumer requires us to challenge our assumptions at the liquor store.
1. Price often doesn’t matter: It may reflect how long it’s aged and/or how available it is. Wheelock drank an ounce from a $17,500 bottle of Scotch. “The drink cost more than my first car! I liked it, it’s a good story, but it didn’t blow me away.”
2. Age often doesn’t matter: While you might like a 10-year old Macallan, the 18-year may taste terrible to your palate. Often different casks are used at different points in the aging process, which completely changes the flavour profiles.
3. Appearance often doesn’t matter: Colour can be added, and a pretty bottle with a nicely designed box can still hold cheap Scotch.
Wheelock says, “Buy it because you like it – and drink it however you want. If I want to mix my whisky with Clamato juice, with water, with ice, I will.” Bottom line: “If it tastes good, price, age and packaging shouldn’t matter.”