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What We Ignore When We Toast the ‘Top Five’ Women in Whiskey


Heather Greene needs another article about women in whiskey like she needs a raging suit of shingles.

“’Top Women You Should Know in This Industry.’’ Top Five Women Who Are Busting It Up.’ It drives me nuts, ” says Greene, the author of” Whiskey Distilled: A Populist Guide to the Water of Life” and all-around whiskey expert. “Are girls supposed to be inspired merely because another woman is in the job? That doesn’t mean got anything to me. I’m not interested in women for women’s sake.”

By highlighting the success of women in whiskey, tech, politics, or other male-dominated industries, Greene says, these breathless headlines danger devaluing individual achievements. Besides, Greene has dedicated her professional life to rigorous study of whiskey and is currently writing her second volume on the topic. Should she be featured next to a semi-professional Instagrammer only because they’re both women?

Greene’s arguments are valid. Still, it’s somewhat awkward because I am, indeed, interviewing her for an article about men and whiskey — specifically, the chain of mentorship and influence among women in the industry.

Young Kim, liquor director of NYC’s Flatiron Room, was a bartender when she fulfilled whiskey educator Heather Greene. Credit: TheFlatironRoom.com

My conversations with Greene and other women in the field disclose exceedingly modern truths. Instead of promoting tokens, or feigning gender doesn’t exist, we need to talk more of the reasons why having women and other minorities in visible leadership stances is important.

Recognizing the accomplishments of women and other minorities should be our first step , not our finish line. We need to explore the politics of being first, and the intense scrutiny that accompanies every freshman class, from distilleries to the U.S. Congress.

I can’t wait until the day when gender doesn’t matter. For now, it does.

An Highly Short History of Women in Whiskey

Whiskey and all spirit distilling is male-dominated because, historically, the only routes in were via trades occupied by men.

“You might have worked your route up from a warehouseman to a mashman and so on, ” Dr. Rachel Barrie, master blender at Glendronach, BenRiach, and Glenglassaugh, says. “There were very few if any women who got in. That route was closed.”

Only within the last few decades, as global appetite for single malted exploded and legacy brands were acquired by large multinationals, have there been more ways to get a job in whiskey.

“People are entering the industry who never would have had a chance before. You might have someone who has a history degree or a science background becoming a blender, ” Barrie says. Her own career in chemistry put her on a track to become the first female master blender of Scotch whisky.

Heather Greene first gratified Barrie 15 decades ago while attending a sensory perception training at Glenmorangie. Barrie led the workshop, teaching the participants the science behind what they were reeking and tasting.

“I was in awe of her, ” Greene says, “Not because she was a woman but because what came out of her mouth was fascinating. She made whiskey voice so seducing and wonderful.”

Barrie went on to mentor Greene, and the two observed they had much in common beyond a shared passion for whiskey.

“Dr. Barrie sees the world as a poet does, ” says Greene, who was a musician before making the leap to spirits. “The vocabulary she employs — I relate to that. I felt an affinity with her and the route she sees life. It’s not just whiskey; it’s beauty, it’s history, it’s how she views the world.”

Best Overall, or Best Woman?

When Greene talks about Barrie, the respect she has for her is clear. So is her posture that prioritizing Barrie’s gender over her run does a disservice to her accomplishments. When Barrie received an honorary doctorate from her alma mater, the BBC reported that she was “the first female master blender” to be so recognized.

Greene responded with her own article in the Daily Beast in October 2018. She clarified that Barrie was, in fact, the first master blender — male or female — to receive that honor from the University of Edinburgh. It was important to her to remove the metaphorical asterisk next to “female.”

“It bothers me, ” she says. “The asterisk is crap. Let’s not reduce this woman’s career to’ she’s achieved this among 50 percent of the population.’ She’s achieved this among 100 percent of the population. It’s not about who she is, it’s about what she accomplished.”

As Greene’s career in whiskey flourished, she became the director of whiskey education at the Flatiron Room in New York, where she briefly overlapped with a woman just starting behind the bar, Young Kim.

“I was wowed by Heather, ” Kim says of Greene. “She was very knowledgeable and passionate. I wanted to be like that.” But, she is quick to add, “it wasn’t because Heather was a woman.”

As Greene did when speaking about Barrie, Kim have emphasized that Greene’s gender is not the phase. To express her admiration, Kim use careful statements like, “she’s an individual person who worked very hard for her goal.”

“’Top Women You Should Know in This Industry.’’ Top Five Women Who Are Busting It Up.’ It drives me nuts, ” Heather Greene says. Credit: Instagram.com/ thewhiskeyauthority

It stimulates sense that these achieved “individual people” would bristle at being view as most notable for their gender. Doubtless, they have butted up against the case of an tokenism or have had people presume that their career accomplishments are attributable to the trendiness of diversity , not because they’re the best at what they do.

Such qualifiers are devastatingly pervasive. In May 2018, when tennis’s Roger Federer told WSJ. Magazine he believed Serena Williams was the sport’s best player, novelist Jason Gay requested clarification: “I have to ask: Did Federer, considered by some to be the tennis GOAT( Greatest Of All Time ), merely suggest Serena was the GOAT? Did he entail GOAT on the women’s side — or overall? ”

( Federer, who has 20 Grand Slams to Williams’ 23, did, in fact, mean that Serena is the GOAT. Full stop .)

It’s worth mentioning that Barrie, who entered the whiskey industry a decade or so before Greene and Kim, seems less bothered by that persistent asterisk. This might be because Barrie came of age at a time when the idea that she might have risen in the ranks because of her gender, rather than despite it, would have been laughable.


Kim tells a narrative about a previous position she held, working in a Michelin-starred sushi restaurant where the chefs only spoke Japanese. The specials had to be translated to her by other servers, which vexed the hell out of her. What if she was missing some nuance? So she taught herself Japanese, and two months later was reading the specials herself.

“You do have to hit the ball harder, ” Greene says. “I knew that I had to be better. It’s just one of the purposes of the game.” It’s a sentiment shared by minorities everywhere.

“You have to be excellent, ” Barrie says. “Women don’t tend to be invited to the golf club — there’s not so much of that now, but there used to be — so you have to be extremely hardworking because you can’t rely on that.” Barrie recollects doing distillery trials in the middle of the night, staying up three nights in a row to take samples off the stills. “It’s just who I am, ” she explains. “I always push myself.”

To have all that dedication and grit reduced to a novelty headline — “Whiskey: Now for Girls! ” — must be tremendously frustrating.

Golf And Unconscious Biases

Last year, Greene led a session at the Women’s Media Summit in Provincetown, Mass ., teaching a roomful of female filmmakers some basic whiskey vocabulary.

“Getting a movie financed sounds like a nightmare, and it’s so hard for women, ” Greene says. “What I was doing was teaching girls the language of whiskey so that when they’re in sessions with humen, they have a voice. Even if they detest whiskey, they need to know how to talk about it, just like females had to know about athletics and golf.”

Perhaps Greene wasn’t drawn to Barrie because she was a woman. Maybe she was drawn to her because she saw a fellow traveler, someone with a similarly outrageous run ethic and a voice that resonated with her. As she says, they have a shared way of looking at the world.

And perhaps this is the same route humen are drawn to one another — not because of conscious sexism or primal maleness but because of a common vocabulary, parallel life experiences, and kindred route of being. Because of golf.

When someone in a leadership role insures a glimmer of themselves in a plucky up-and-comer or when a bright young thing recognizes that they have something in common with a person in a powerful posture, it can impact her career in both subtle and explicit routes. It would be foolish to think that gender — or race or sexual orientation or any of the other innate traits that impact how humans are socialized — plays no role in the forging of relationships.

Young Kim went on to become the Flatiron Room’s beverage director and a respected whiskey expert in her own right. Kim tells me that she delights in subverting customers’ expectations. “I don’t look like a boss, ” she says. “It’s is not merely because I’m a woman; I only don’t look like somebody who knows a lot.” What does a boss look like then? “The tall male faculty look — I don’t know, higher in rank? ”

But Kim is a boss. And because of her — and Greene, and Barrie — maybe some young women just starting out in the world of whiskey will suppose a boss looks precisely like someone like Young Kim.

The article What We Dismiss When We Toast the’ Top Five’ Girls in Whiskey appeared first on VinePair.

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