The power of books to force change in society has been well-documented. But there are occasions when a book finds itself in the middle of a storm of its own making.
One of the latest in this list is Whisky Bible 2021 by Jim Murray, whose reviews have been known to make or break whiskies around the world. In 2010, when Amrut won third place in the Whisky Bible’s list of best whiskies in the world, the accolade put Indian whisky on the world map.
But it seems the book itself is broken in its descriptions. As whisky writer Becky Paskin discovered, these descriptions come couched in references that are overtly sexist—and called it out in an Instagram post. “I was travelling from Scotland back to my home town in Brighton and saw these appalling lines that crudely compared drinking whisky to having sex with women. I did a quick search and found 34 such examples of sexist writing,” Paskin says, in a Zoom call.
THE ‘WHISKY BIBLE’ VS WHISKY COMPANIES
Published since 2003, the Whisky Bible is an annual guide to every new whisky in the world. Close to 20,000 whiskies have been tasted and one million copies of the Bible sold worldwide. There have been rumblings about the sexual content in the Whisky Bible earlier, but these have never bubbled over into anything serious. Until now.
This time around, retribution has been swift. Ever since Paskin’s post, major whisky-producing companies such as Diageo, Beam Suntory and Pernod Ricard have distanced themselves from the publication. Murray has decided to stand firm. In a statement, he claimed: “I am not sexist; the Whisky Bible is not sexist, has never been sexist and I will not bow to this faux outrage. Frankly, these people appal me because what they are doing is undermining society itself.”
THE INDIAN (DIS)CONNECT
After 2010, this is the first time that another Indian whisky took the exact same third spot in the Whisky Bible, with Paul John’s Mithuna referred to in the publication as “a whisky to be devoured.. while it devours you”.
The Goa-based distillery is not distancing itself from the accolade. Asa Abraham, corporate PR and communications spokesperson at parent company John Distilleries Pvt. Ltd, says: “We believe that writers and critics have voiced their opinions. At Paul John, we are more focused on being Indian first than being gender-focused. We are focused on our quality and we believe that is what matters to the consumer.”
While there are no statistics, professionals we spoke to for this story agreed that the number of women working in India’s bar industry would be in single digits out of 100. Uday Balaji, founder of The Whisky Advisor, which offers a Scotch whisky training course called The Whisky Ambassador Programme in India and curates whisky experiences, says: “There’s a long way to go before we see smaller bars being gender-sensitive in India. Even the current controversy will only be known to those who follow the handful of people covering it. There has been hardly any noise in Coimbatore, where I live, for example.”
TAKING THE LEAD
The industry itself has begun to see change, however. The numbers may be small but women are today more visible.
Vinayak Singh and Swati Sharma, founders of a Mumbai-based whisky club, The Dram Club, say they have seen a gradual rise in the number of women attending their whisky events, from 40-50% of the mix two years ago to 60-70% currently. Their last event was a local adaptation of the Scotland-based Speyside Whisky Festival, held on 15 February, with women from cities such as Vadodara and Ahmedabad attending the event.
“Spirits are not gender-specific and our intention at The Dram Club has been to democratize and break down whisky for everyone. With more women earning for themselves, it’s all the more important for people in the industry to not alienate women any longer,” says Sharma.
At their sessions, they have found women to be more experimental in their choice of whiskies than men, who only talk about the whiskies they love. “Some women who have seen their grandfathers and fathers enjoy whisky but never dared to taste it in the house come to these events and understand what whisky is all about,” Singh adds.
According to people in the industry, the number of female bartenders too has been growing steadily. During the pandemic, Diageo started an initiative called The Hive, allowing female bartenders to learn more about their craft through regular sessions online. The Dram Club also offers Whisky Wednesday sessions targeted solely at women—they can join and be part of the whisky journey.
“This association of whisky as an old boys’ club is a dated attitude that has no place in today’s world. It’s also clear that Murray is a dinosaur who belongs to that type of culture,” Balaji says firmly. “But the backlash from brands, which themselves perpetuated the stereotype for so many decades, shows that people have become more sensitive over time. It’s time to move on from Murray and make this a broader topic about inclusion of women in the bar industry.”
Singh agrees, adding that there should be more female brand ambassadors for whisky brands as well as women conducting distillery tours. “The more people see women doing these things, the more normal it becomes,” she says.
Paskin says she believes the industry will improve at the end of all this. “Look at craft beer (in the West), for example. Until a few years ago, these beers had such objectionable names but now women drink these beers and the industry has matured so much. I feel whisky will go the same way too.”
Until then, her journey, as well as that of others fighting sexism in the industry, continues.
Priyanko Sarkar is a Mumbai-based journalist and writer covering the beverage industry.