The Future of Whisk(e)y is Female

9/12/2017

Photos of Jennifer Wren, Jane Maher, Gemma Paterson, Tracie Franklin

At this year’s Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans, Jennifer Wren of Glenfiddich had a striking realization.

There’s now a full generation of female ambassadors leading the top spirits brands.

That revelation is a big deal, considering less than a decade ago, there was only a small handful of female brand ambassadors – think five or six compared to nearly 50 now.

“When I started, I was one of hardly any,” Wren said. “Now there’s literally a generation of us. That’s incredible!”

That shift is happening across the industry, but when it comes to brown spirits in particular, there’s also been a noteworthy change in who’s drinking it, too.

We were thrilled to talk with several of the women leading today’s top brown spirits brands, including Tracie Franklin of Glenfiddich, Jane Maher of Tullamore DEW, Gemma Paterson of The Balvenie, and of course, Wren as well.

While these women’s backgrounds are as diverse as the scotch and whiskey brands they represent, they all share a deep knowledge of whisk(e)y – and an equally deep passion for making sure that everyone is welcome to join them in the fun.

 

DROPPING KNOWLEDGE BOMBS

Both Jane Maher of Tullamore D.E.W. and Gemma Paterson of The Balvenie are quick to note that back in Ireland and Scotland, where they’re originally from, respectively, being a woman in the industry isn’t exactly noteworthy. Especially given that all the women there are in the business of actually producing the spirits, not just representing them. 

“It’s not a point of conversation anymore – it’s totally the norm,” said Maher.

However, working in guest-facing roles traveling across the U.S., sometimes the perception of what a scotch or whiskey expert looks like can be a bit skewed. As Paterson said, “I do hear occasionally, ‘Oh, whisky isn’t really a woman’s drink.’ And something I hear a lot: ‘Do you like whisky?’

I know for a fact that if I was a man, that question wouldn’t be asked, so that can be a little frustrating. I do think we have to work a bit harder to prove our credibility and knowledge, but then once we do, and get past that initial reaction – it doesn’t make a difference.”

Both Paterson and Maher also agree that it’s not an intentional slight – it’s merely a misperception, and one that both men and women are guilty of at times.

“But it does work in your favor then, when you drop the knowledge bombs, show how much you know,” Maher said. “Knowledge is power, as they say. Just start the conversation.”

  

CREATING AN INCLUSIVE & INVITING CULTURE

Starting a conversation was exactly what Jennifer Wren and Tracie Franklin did in 2012 with Whersky, an organization dedicated to creating a more inclusive and diverse whisky culture.

As Franklin first started immersing herself in the world of whisky, she became increasingly eager to share what she learned.

“I knew how many people – and not just women; minorities, LGBT communities – were missing out because they felt it wasn’t a safe space for them or that they didn’t belong. I wanted to share that with them and get them as excited about it as I was,” said Franklin.

So she and Wren developed Whersky, and in turn, spaces to drink and learn about whisky that were open, inclusive and inviting.

“Our focus was education, not just, let’s get together and drink,” Franklin said. “So you’d leave feeling excited and empowered, because you knew everything to order your drinks – and talk to your friends about it.”

“It was about creating events where people felt absolutely welcome. No judgement,” Wren added. “It didn’t matter if your knowledge was zero – you were welcome and there were no dumb questions. And I think we successfully did that, and it was wildly fun. It was an incredible adventure, and I’m very proud and humbled to have been part of the conversation that helped change the industry.”

 

A NEW GENERATION OF BRAND AMBASSADORS

When Paterson joined The Balvenie in her current role last May, she was the only female ambassador on a team of 11 people globally. But already, there are now 3 female ambassadors – a shift that’s aligned with the demographic of people drinking whisk(e)y, too.

Maher notes that when you look at the trends at cocktail bars, more and more women are getting into ordering whiskey than ever before. 

“Given that brown spirits are so hot right now, everybody wants to be doing what’s cool, and what’s trending,” said Maher.

Having a wider industry shift that matches this changing drinking demographic is important on several levels. Wren, who remembers the lack of diversity in the industry as recently as 2008, loves seeing all the talented young women coming up at a time when their talents and skills are already welcome.

“If I leave no other legacy, I’ve left one where the path is open for young women to pursue this as a true viable career and they’re not only welcome, but they are celebrated by those of us who came before,” said Wren. “Not only can you drink what you want – and no one has an opinion about it – you can be what you want. Look at the simple rebellious act of drinking something that at one point would have raised eyebrows, but now is the norm, and now people can be who they are and what they want to be.”

That’s a sentiment shared by all of these brand ambassadors.

“Glenfiddich is a wonderful, family-owned company who really cares about the spirit they’re putting out,” said Franklin. “I want to use that platform to break open the doors to everyone in the whisky world. I want to say, ‘Come on in. This is fun.’”

 
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