Cover Events like The Balvenie’s series of sensory workshops target women’s greater olfactory powers. Image courtesy of The Belvenie

Females are taking to whisky in larger numbers and ever more sophisticated ways. June Lee discovers that the long-held stereotypes no longer apply as she delves into the nuances of the dram

“I enjoyed gin before whisky,” confides celebrated pastry chef Janice Wong. Nowadays, whisky is her nightcap of choice. Wong got into whisky around six years ago through friends and after spending more time in Japan. She observes that, among her 30-something age group, there’s been a change from wines to champagne to cocktails—and that whisky has played a part in that evolution. Now she’s in high demand for collaborations with heritage brands such as The Macallan to interpret whisky  flavours for a new generation of imbibers.

With hundreds of flavour compounds from ageing in oak barrels, whisky is a matter of taste, not gender. But for decades, the remnants of the “old boys’ club” and the “bourbon summit” mentality broadly made alcohol consumption the province of men— outside of the home, that is. Scottish whisky, with its trappings of power and elitism, served to enforce the social status quo, despite a long history of women as distillers and owners.

“There have always been women who enjoyed whisky—my grandmother was a whisky drinker for many years—but there was undeniably a stereotype that whisky was more for men,” notes Matthew Fergusson- Stewart, Glenfiddich’s former regional brand ambassador for the Asia-Pacific region who is now chief marketing officer for The Whisky Store Singapore. “When I started running whisky tastings (about 11 years ago), my audience would have been 80 per cent middle-aged men,” he says. “Today, my audiences tend to be much younger—and around a third of them are women. I’m quite confident that this will continue.”

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The complexity of whisky and the experience from nose to taste are unlike any other spirit,” says Elaine Seah, who shares more than a love for a good dram with her husband Matthew Fergusson-Stewart

While local statistics are difficult to come by, Mathieu Musnier, the general manager of importer-distributor 13-year-old La Maison du Whisky, sees the times changing. “When we  first started our retail front, whisky patrons were mostly gentlemen. Now, we see a growing number of female patrons, especially at our bar, Maison du Whisky,” Musnier tells. More tellingly, when the company inaugurated Whisky Live Singapore in 2010, only a handful of female guests attended the event. “Over the years, we have seen double-digit growth in female attendees at Whisky Live Singapore," he declares, adding that the 2016 event boasted the largest number of women—an estimated 25 to 30 per cent of the guests.

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A nose for complexity

From a whisky sale last year, Diageo Singapore found that roughly 30 per cent of those in attendance were women, and among this sample, 35 per cent of them drank whisky at home at least once a month. Notes bartender extraordinaire Aubrey Sim, now the reserve brand ambassador for Diageo Southeast Asia: “It’s not so much about a particular flavour profile that women are gravitating towards nowadays. Women today are very much more adventurous about making their preferences known, and we see that in their career and lifestyle choices.”

As more innovative and experimental styles of whisky are released, there are more nuances to discover in each dram— and this has always been a strong point. “Women generally have a more discerning nose than their counterparts,” says Musnier. “The exciting part about whisky is that no two whiskies are exactly the same. The exploration intrigues.

Adds Fergusson-Stewart: “There’s a stereotype that women will prefer a more delicate whisky, like a Lowland single malt or an Irish whiskey, and that men will prefer something much bolder, like the peaty Islay style. Frankly, I think this is nonsense—and the condescension that comes with this assumption is a large part of what historically led women to avoid whisky.”

He also believes that women have greater olfactory powers than men, and one of the best female focused events William Grant and Sons had designed was a series of sensory workshops in Singapore and Malaysia for The Balvenie, for which its brand ambassador Neil Strachan worked with a perfumer to explore concepts around nosing and tasting.

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Women with taste

The wise and witty Patricia Britton, who runs wine and spirits store Le Vigne with her husband, Lewis Mitchell, remembers what it was like before the current whisky renaissance. “When I first started out in the spirits industry in the 1990s [gasps], women drinking whiskies was very rare—perhaps a whisky and soda or a whisky and Coke,” she tells. “These days, it’s fantastic to see the ladies enjoying their whiskies neat or on the rocks, and appreciating the myriad choices out there. I have certainly seen an increase in ladies who purchase whiskies for themselves.” But Britton has no plans to formally organise women-only events. “I enjoy speaking and selling to couples who appreciate each other’s selections or taste,” she says with a smile.

Trudy Tan, a certified public accountant and whisky connoisseur who discovered the beverage in 2008, has seen her passion grow in leaps and bounds. “Initially, I drank The Macallan 12 Year Old with a little water and ice, but I gradually started to take a real interest in the drink. When I tried whiskies from different distilleries with unique flavours and expressions, drinking it neat became the only way I knew to enjoy my dram.”

She’s also made it a point to travel to Japan every year to expand her knowledge on whisky. “My favourites are Bar Kitchen and Whisky Bar Leichhardt in Fukuoka, and Zoetrope in Tokyo.”  Tan concedes that some of her friends still aren’t into whisky due to the high alcohol content, but she believes that they just haven’t found the profile that suits them. Her eclectic choice sips include Caol Ila 25 Year Old, Craigellachie 31 Year Old and Nikka Single Cask Malt 20 Year Old. But if money was no object, she would be stocking up on sherry cask whisky from the Karuizawa distillery and the BenRiach Single Cask Bottling 1976 release for Shinanoya Tokyo.

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For Elaine Seah, the founder-director of public relations firm Brand Incorporated, love and whisky came hand in hand while attending a wedding in Perth. “My first taste of single malt was with Matthew [Fergusson-Stewart]. He offered me a taste of Talisker 18 Year Old and a romance,” she recounts gleefully. “The complexity of whisky and the experience from nose to taste are unlike any other spirit.

I can pick up aromas quite quickly, but it’s the reconciliation of the nose and taste that intrigues me. I thoroughly enjoy the aspect of drinking and pairing—especially how certain ingredients enhance the taste, like umami and sherry-cask whisky.”

While she is partial to Scotch single malt, she was taken with a 31-year-old blended whisky made by Euan Shand for their wedding. The couple have a five-year-old daughter named Islay (but of course) and Elaine quips, “Whisky will always be my husband’s mistress, but it was also whisky that brought us together.”