A whiskey tasting menu sat at each place setting in the second-floor room of the NoMad Hotel in New York City, with six mini-sifters filled with whiskies and single malts surrounded by bowls of cheese and chocolate. The group sat attentively listening to a representative explain the history of bourbon, Scotch whisky, and Tennessee whiskey. And sure enough, the questions kept rolling in: how to order a whiskey with water at the bar (answer: whiskey with a water back), where whiskeys were made, where the best whiskey bar in New York is.
But the event wasn’t filled with a group of men wanting to learn about the brown liquor — it was all women. In fact, the only men in the room were the waiters. As boots and heels clacked, phone cameras went off, Twitter blew up with #notjust4men and #whiskeybrigade, and whiskey cocktails (made with Auchentoshan Three Wood whisky, sherry, vermouth, and crème de cacao) were passed to women filing in, master blender of whiskey Rachel Barrie smiled — this was her kind of group.
The whiskey tasting event was put on by Campari’s women-only group, Women & Whiskies. The group (hosted by Campari America) began in 2010, when PR manager Randal Stewart began noticing more and more women at the company’s tastings, because men would bring their girlfriends. But there was no outlet for women to voice their drink choices, or to learn about the whiskies they were trying; from there, the group grew naturally. Now, Women & Whiskies hosts whiskey tastings and events for women (usually for free; the NoMad event asked for a $20 donation to Dress for Success in lieu of payment). They even held an event during the Manhattan Cocktail Classic, the "cocktail party" of the year, just for women.
They have inspired more female-only whiskey enthusiasts groups over time; in 2011, Glenfiddich whisky also introduced a Women and Whiskey group. And worldwide, more female groups have opened to explore whiskies, including groups in India and — you guessed it — Scotland.
Barrie, one of the few women distillers in Scotland and the head distiller for Morrison Bowmore Distillers, grew up knowing whiskey. Her grandmother would give her a hot toddy when she was sick from age seven on; after studying chemistry in school, she considered going into the perfume business — but she couldn’t stray away from whiskey. She spent 16 years at Glenmorangie before moving to Morrison Bowmore in 2011. Barrie knows all too well that the whiskey business is a man’s world. But as she relaxed with a cocktail in hand (she prefers her whiskey neat, though), she said she was happy to see women taking the liquor by the horns. Over the 17 years Barrie's been in the industry, she’s noticed her own tastings have become populated by half men and half women.
"There’s something about whiskey that brings people together," she said. "And it brings up something so much more emotional than other spirits — the aroma, the taste, it brings up memories and feelings. You don’t get that from every drink."