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Sexism in whisky: looking beyond Mr. Murray

What a ride it has been.

For those who haven’t tuned in: renowned whisky writer, Keeper of the Quaich and Our Whisky co-founder Becky Paskin published a post about sexism in Jim Murray’s Whisky bible. This was only three days ago.

Felipe Schriebinger also wrote a post about sexism in the Whisky bible in Forbes.

Almost all of the attention thus far has been centered on Jim Murray. Paskin actually has a much wider scope in her text. The central message is not addressed to Murray or even his very obviously sexist writing, of which both Paskin and Schriebinger give ample evidence. The entity being called out by Paskin is bigger: it’s the whisky industry.

The question that she posed was ”Why does the whisky industry still hold Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible in such high regard when his reviews are so sexist and vulgar?” So the question was never one of just Murray. Also, Paskin’s conclusion was not a call to ban Murray’s annual TWB. Indeed, Paskin’s point did not pertain to Murray at all. It was directed at the whisky industry:

Any brand celebrating their placement in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible should be ashamed.

This post spread like wildfire on social media. By and large, the whisky business seemed to agree that Jim Murray’s tasting notes and overt sexism was a serious problem, and that something needed to be done. Among customers, the issue is more divisive. In whisky groups everywhere, heated debates followed. While many also support the critique, a whole lot of men cry their shaken and trembling hearts out about others being overly sensitive, using expressions like cancel culture and snowflakes. While the punters seem divided, then, the business appears to be more unified.

Becky Paskin.

Almost all of the debate thus far has focussed on Murray. Perhaps it is not surprising. The most widely knows whisky writer is being called out as sexist – it is very newsworthy, after all. Also, Murray’s own statements in the matter, way too stupid to deserve being quoted, hardly helped his case. (Apparently, there is this huge conspiracy against him which also is undermining the very fabric of society.)

Articles have been published in the dozens, on blogs and in the national press. A particularly good piece was written by the Sponge (oh how we love when he gets serious), here, and some further remarks by Paskin can be found here.

I would like for us all to follow Paskin’s intention and look beyond Murray. The issue of sexism in whisky is far from limited to his sleazy tasting notes, or the obviously deeply problematic behaviour the man has around women. If this is whisky’s me too movement, as Paskin has said, we need to see beyond the man in the fedora. It is very important that he is called out for his sexist bullshit, yes. But such a grateful object of ridicule is also, after all, a relatively easy target. Let us not have this become a mere critique of Murray, and then remain in a culture of silence.

The issue is also that of sexist ads. The issue is also that of half-clothed women being used as eye candy at international whisky shows. The issue is also that of punters at festivals not taking women in the whisky business seriously, making sexist remarks, flirting or groping. The issue is that of men in whisky everywhere mansplaining whisky to women who know ten times more about the product than they do. The issue is also that of sexual harassment in the workplace. This is a business absolutely dominated by men selling a product which many bizarrely still believe to be mainly a man’s drink. To deal with sexism in the world of whisky, we can begin with calling out Jim Murray for what he is – but the work is very, very far from done by doing so.

This is why this moment in history is so precious. The whisky business is explicitly denouncing sexism. This is totally unprecedented. The only comments from within the business that I have seen which are direcly critical of Paskin were some off-hand remarks on Facebook by Michael Tucek of the independent bottler Blackadder. Hardly a stronghold of the whisky business, then. Instead, most seem bent on fighting sexism. The question is, are they ready to take this work as seriously as it deserves?

It is vitally important that the whisky business at this precious point in time does everything to ensure that an open culture of discussion is maintained; that women’s voices are listened to; and that women are allowed to speak. This is a business, after all, and voices pointing to problems may be problematic for brands. Do not for one second think that fighting sexism in whisky will be easy. If this opportunity is treated right, we may just get to hear much more about sexism in whisky, not just the coming days, but the coming weeks and months.

This is why the industry’s recent statements are so important. These are things said that pave the way for a more open climate, in which more women’s voices can be truly heard. A climate in which all women in whisky – customers, brand ambassadors, bloggers, distillery managers and master blenders alike – can speak freely and openly. As men, we need to listen to those voices very carefully and thoughtfully.

The statements

This is why the statements made by representatives of the whisky business need to be read with care. The whisky exchange which decided to delist The whisky bible is as good as any place to start, because they were very early in their response to the rising tide of criticism:

So, a communication plainly about the book and a decision to delist it. A good decision. The focus here is plainly on Murray.

But what happened next? Glenfiddich – remember, this is the biggest single malt brand on the planetdid this on Instagram:

This goes well beyond a public message simply meaning roughly ”we won’t be sending any more samples to Mr. Murray”. The statement is much wider than that. It identifies ”sexism in whisky” as a problem and says that ”It has no place in our industry.”

The significance of this declaration is massive. Not only did it pave the way for other groups and distilleries, it goes far beyond the mere question of Jim Murray. Glenfiddich should be applauded, loudly, for doing it. As whisky consumers and lovers, we have to hold them to it. Let us hope that the statement also entails what Paskin called for, that they will not promote their whiskies with the aid of whatever arbitrary scores their whiskies have been given in TWB.

Then came Beam Suntory. This is interesting indeed, for theirs was the whisky which is said to be the best whisky in the world in one of the categories in this year’s edition of TWB. This is their statement:

Like Glenfiddich, Beam Suntory are going beyond the mere question of Murray. It is to be applauded that they are re-evaluating the planned programmes which were going to reference the award in TWB, to be sure. That particular symbolic act is extremely valuable. Perhaps unintentionally, the statement also casts a critical light on any other distillery or brand which will be using their placement in TWB for branding purposes. Whomever has gotten any kind of recognition in the book is now opened up for the critique that they are bragging over a recognition from a book where even the winner did not want to acknowledge the win.

But look again at the announcement from Beam Suntory: there is more. This is no small recognition (emphasis added):

Language and behavior of this kind have been condoned for too long in the spirits industry, and we agree that it must stop.

So now we are beyond only words and have entered the realm of acts, of behaviour. Beam Suntory are saying that this is indeed something which is happening, and that it must be stopped. Again, this is from a huge corporation in the whisky business.

Let us move on. Pernod Ricard is another giant in ownership in Scotch, through Chivas Brothers. Here is their statement:

This is good. It is, however, no way near as strong as the declarations made by Beam Suntory and by Glenfiddich. We are back to the problem being ”sexist comments” only.

Then there is the Scotch whisky association. Remember, this is a body made up of its members, and the members are those who own distilleries and produce Scotch whisky. It is very much the voice of the whisky business. Here is the statement issued by its CEO, Karen Betts:

This one is very much directed explicitly against Murray and TWB. But there is more: ”sexism and the objectification of women have no place in our industry”. We are very happy with this proclamation, SWA, and will hold you to it.

And then, a little late into the game, this tweet by Diageo today. It hasn’t been published on other social media yet, as far as I can see.

This, in relation to statements by other groups, must be described as at best lukewarm. It talks of sexism and sexist language ”in society” rather than within the whisky business. ”Disappointed” is hardly a very strong word. The sexist language is not new to this year’s Whisky bible. There is no real commitment made in this statement: not with regards to collaborations, and not concerning the promotion of whiskies. The issue here is not with sexism as such, it’s plainly with Jim Murray. It is a declaration so bland it thoroughly disappoints.

Edrington has not, as far as I can see, made a separate statement, but refer to the statement by the Scotch whisky association. Bacardi however broke silence just two hours ago. And oh man did they make a statement:

This is a far cry from the mincing of words by Diageo. Sexist and objectifying language are taken up and a strong commitment to fight sexism in whisky pervades the communiqué. This is excellent. It is also a relief to see since so many of the early declarations (Glenfiddich, Beam Suntory) were strongly worded, whereas some of the later ones were more watered-down.

From what I can tell, some corporations have not yet issued such statements. I may be wrong as the large corporations tend to have so many different channels. But it would seem that Burn Stewart Distillers, Inver House Distillers, Brown-Forman and LVMH have not made any statements yet.  LVMH are especially interesting, being responsible for Ardbeg which at least until a few years ago have run some terribly sexist ads and ploys.

But what an outcome. All of the big corporations in the Scotch whisky industry has within days cried out, in different forms, against sexism.

When The whisky exchange very quickly came out in support of Paskin, not a few men in the Facebook group Malt maniacs & friends said that they would now never buy from The whisky exchange again. Three days later, and those same men now have almost nowhere to turn if they want to taste a drop of Scotch.

Meanwhile and during the course of these days, many smaller players in the Scotch whisky business have expressed their support of Paskin and against sexism in whisky: Dornoch distillery did it very quickly, and so did independent bottlers Douglas Laing. I have also seen that Dramfool and North Star spirits have said that they will not have anything to do with TWB, Lalique (the new owners of Glenturret) were also quick in expressing support. Gordon & MacPhail have now also issued a statement. There are certainly many more: this is just from what I have glimpsed when rather maniacally scrolling social media these last few days. Even while I have been writing this piece, the Scotch malt whisky society who have received some rightful criticism over sexism in their tasting notes has issued this statement:

This is, again, a good statement. They have received criticism and are eager to rethink and not least to learn. Cudos to the SMWS for doing this.

Conlcuding remarks

In debates on social media, many men (always and only men) are saying that declarations such as the ones shown above as well as the whole matter is just empty political correctness, and that Jim Murray’s freedom of speech is being curtailed here. This is obviously outrageous: no one is trying to hinder Jim Murray from writing whatever he wants to write. He is absolutely free to continue being the sexist douchebag that he is. There is zero censorship going on here.

But are the large statements regarding sexism empty? Absolutely not. They may become empty, if this moment is not followed up. If what is happening now boils down to that ratings from The Whisky Bible are removed from webpages and that fewer or no distilleries collaborate with Murray, then Paskin’s text and actions certainly stirred the pot and caused a major change.

However, if what the big companies are saying in their statements is indeed something that they continue to be held accountable for, something much bigger is happening. Then this is nothing short of the beginning of a revolution.

If we are to recognise the extent of sexism in whisky; if we are to really make a difference and make the world of whisky a more inclusive community; if we are to fight the rampant sexism that women in whisky encounter on all levels; then we must hold on to this moment, the massive momentum gathered these last few days. To do that, we must look way beyond Mr. Murray.

*

And thus with my long text completed, I see that Becky Paskin has published this. As always, crystal clear and wiser than I would ever hope to be:

[…] there is obviously an underlying issue that has come to the fore in the last few days – one that runs deeper than the remarks made in a whisky review guide. […] Eradicating sexism and the objectification of women is the responsibility of every person working in whisky […] This is not the end of the conversation. It’s just the beginning.

YES. YES. YES.


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2 Kommentarer

  1. Per 24 september 2020

    Tack gör att du tog dig tid att skriva detta.

  2. Tore Vikeby 26 september 2020

    Bra skrevet David.

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