Why Not Whiskey?
I recently had the pleasure of sitting down for drinks with Market Media's Ripsy Arora at Ink 48's rooftop bar. It was windy and a little overcast, but that didn't stop us from become fast friends and talking about everything from dating in New York, our favorite colors (coral and mint for both of us!), to whiskey.
But mostly we talked about Women Who Whiskey, and what it's been like to to grow from a club of fewer than ten people to almost ten chapters, all around the world.
I'll share some highlights from my interview with Ripsy below, but you can read the full article here!
Why Not Whiskey?
Markets Media Lifestyle (MML): What do women like about this club (aside from the obvious)?
Julia Ritz Toffoli (JRT): I think that Women Who Whiskey is attractive for a couple of reasons. Firstly, and most obviously, it gives our members the opportunity to learn about whiskey and cocktail culture, which is increasingly popular—especially among millennials, but really across the board. But being a women’s whiskey club, we give women a space to explore something that has traditionally been somewhat unavailable or inhospitable to them. It only takes one snarky bartender who asks “if you wouldn’t like to see the wine list instead” to discourage a novice whiskey drinker from asking questions. We want to make sure that members not only get to ask their questions, but also get some answers, and have fun doing while doing it!
The social aspect of the club is something else that our members love. Most of our chapters are in big cosmopolitan cities where there’s always something to do, but where everyone is so busy all the time, so it’s actually not that easy to make new friends. They say that the key to making new friends is repeated, unplanned interactions. For women that are new to the city, or just looking to expand their social circle, Women Who Whiskey offers just that. Our events are frequent enough that members can see each other on a regular basis, but not so often that it feels like an obligation, and we take all the work out of planning, so it’s a fun, easy way to meet and get to know new friends with similar interests. As one recently joined member said, “Ladies who drink are my kind of ladies—I’d love to meet more of them!”
MML: Are men allowed?
JRT: Yes! Not every event, but on occasion. One of the things that makes Women Who Whiskey unique is that although it is a club for women, and most of our events are women only, we do have events a few times a year to which the ladies can invite gentlemen friends and significant others. Not only does this inject a little variety into our events, but I think it works toward growing the space for women in the “man’s world” of whiskey. By socializing and drinking whiskey together with men, we’re normalizing it as something that’s a matter of taste more than a matter of gender.
MML: I’m seeing a major explosion around Whiskey over the past few years. Are you?
JRT: Broadly speaking, there are two big changes contributing to a shifting world of whiskey, one on the consumer side and one on the industry side. While they strongly influence each other, it’s hard to say which came first.
On the consumer side, not only are more people drinking whiskey in general, but women are making up an increasingly significant percentage of the whiskey market’s audience. This is due to a number of factors. Women’s false modesty toward dark spirits has faded. It’s been socially acceptable for women to drink in bars for decades, but an invisible line was always drawn somewhere around clear liquors. In the booze-soaked days portrayed by Mad Men, for example, women were daintily sipping Gimlets, Martinis, and Brandy Alexanders, while men poured themselves generous tumblers of Canadian Club, neat. Alcohol is alcohol, but as long as it was happening with ladylike drinks, no one had to acknowledge that women were getting as drunk as men.
The rising popularity of club cocktails like B52s, Cosmopolitans, and Kamikazes in the 1980s and 1990s relegated whiskey to the smoking rooms of stuffy old men. Eventually, these candy-like cocktails became passé, and whiskey came back into favor. But this time whiskey wasn’t just for men; women were drinking it too. Women’s relationship with society had changed. The sexual revolution, the influx of women into the workforce, and decades of evolving gender norms had erased many of the traditional barriers between the sexes—including the invisible line around whiskey.
On the industry side, whiskey’s ascendant popularity coincided with a growing desire for quality over quantity in general. Small-batch distilleries and the farm-to-table movement all reject the commercial convenience of the 1980s and 1990s in favor of a return to the authenticity of our roots. And our roots grew in whiskey. When you factor in the recent speakeasy revival trend–where bars like The Orient Express and Employees Only transport customers back to the flapper days of the roaring twenties, romanticizing Prohibition and the illicit feeling of doing something taboo–it’s easy to see how this trend not only appeals to women, but invites them to participate.
This resurgence of whiskey wasn’t what led directly to the creation of Women Who Whiskey, but it has certainly contributed to our growth, especially given the consumer side shifts that are taking place.
MML: How do you use social media?
JRT: Without social media we’d still be a group of fewer than 20 women in New York, meeting up for cocktails every few weeks without anyone knowing we were even coming to the bar. Social media not only grew the founding New York chapter to more than ten times what it used to be, but it allowed us to gain a national and international following, and eventually expand to start chapters in other cities. Beyond just membership, social media allows us to engage with other similar groups—The Whiskey Women and Whersky, to name a couple—and to connect with venues and spirit companies, without whom we wouldn’t be able to have events. We’re on a number of different social media platforms—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Ello, and Kite—each of which we use for different purposes, like sharing events, photos, industry news and other media, whiskey favorites, cocktails, venues, and connecting people. Social media has been absolutely essential to helping Women Who Whiskey become what it is today, and I’m certain it will continue to contribute to our future growth.
We just officially launched the wWw Boston Chapter this week, at Saloon in Davis Square, Somerville. The event was in collaboration with Whistlepig Rye, and was one of our most successful launches to date! We had over sixty women attend, all of whom were so enthusiastic at the prospect of having a group of ladies to explore the Boston whiskey scene with. And most of them had heard about the launch through social media.
MML: What are your future plans?
JRT: Ambitiously? I’d love to see Women Who Whiskey expand all over the world. If we’re still trying to normalize the idea of women drinking whiskey in America—the birthplace of rye and bourbon—imagine how much work we have to do in places where the very idea of women drinking anything is still taboo! More short-term, I’d love to deepen our engagement with the industry in the cities where we already have chapters. We do a lot of events that introduce our members to new products, but I’d love to start working more closely with industry experts on events for those members who are interested in learning more about rare products, the distillation process, the nuts and bolts of mixology, or gastronomy pairings, for example. I’d also like to start organizing more distillery tours, so that we can see where the whiskey comes from, and not just where it ends up (in our glasses!)
MML: Your message to Markets Media readers?
JRT: If you’re a woman who’s interested in, or even just curious about whiskey, please join our club! We love meeting new whiskey-loving ladies over drinks, and we promise that you’ll have a great time! And if you’re a man, try not to let the idea of women drinking whiskey surprise you.
MML: I always like to ask, what sets you apart? Your differentiator? Your “je ne sais quoi”?
JRT: We take something that has been traditionally seen as exclusive, esoteric, and a little bit snobby and make it accessible, social, and fun. And, because we try to pick a different venue for every event, our events are a great way to get to know your city.
MML: I’d be remiss if I didn’t inquire as to your favorite whisky?
JRT: I’ve always had a lot of trouble choosing favorites, so it’s an exercise I generally try to avoid. That said, I’m somewhat partial to Rye—I like its spiciness and bite. On the more high-end side, Whistlepig Rye is an all-time favorite; at 100% rye it’s very spice forward. Redemption Rye also has a high rye mash bill (at 95%), but available at a much lower price point, so it’s a great value. And Michter’s and Rittenhouse Ryes are both classics, delicious enough to sip on their own, but just fabulous stirred into a Manhattan or an Old Fashioned.
A version of this article originally appeared on Markets Media on July 7, 2015