I recently took a trip to Scotland to do a whisky-tasting tour of the distilleries on the island of Islay. If you like whisky, Islay is Kind Of A Big Deal. It is to whisky what Parma is to ham. What Greggs is to sausage rolls, if you will. And surprisingly, despite the image of whisky, not everyone there was an old man.
There were also some young men there. What was weird was that there were no women. ‘The mens, they come without the wives’, was how our delightful Lithuanian distillery guide put it. ‘The mens on their own.’ Occasionally ‘the wives’ come as designated drivers. They drink tea while the mens are merrily sloshing down drams of top-notch 18-year-old. Such fun! I hear you cry. Let’s all go!
Why is this? Even setting aside the point that it’s pretty shit to bring your wife on a holiday in which she has no interest, just so she can cart your pissed self around like some sort of servant, scientific research has shown that women generally have a better sense of taste than men (it’s not clear how much of this is down to our having more taste buds, and how much is to do with how our brains process the information we get from them). Many wine critics, a career that requires a finely tuned palate, are women. This would seem to make it a good idea for women to stay away from truly horrendous, Tesco Value whisky, but not to avoid a lovely peaty dram. But whisky, like red meat, cars and pornography, is assumed to be Mens’ Business.
Even when I was at school, the mens drank whisky and the women didn’t. (I didn’t go to some weirdo school, by the way, the kind where you get port after dinner. When I say they drank whisky, I meant they nicked it from their parents’ booze cupboards, like normal people. Then they topped up the bottles with water and hoped no-one would notice.) If you said, ‘can I have a bit?’, they would all watch you when you drank it, expecting you to do something girly like faint or flutter your eyelashes and go, ‘ooh, it’s a bit strong for me’.
Reader, I did not flutter my eyelashes. Good whisky is awesome. It is strong but subtle. It tastes of smoke and salt and honey and flowers. But somehow drinking whisky unsexed me. Even now, people (both men and women) remark on it when I drink it in public. Even – especially – bartenders! Who watch people drink all the time!
This is grade-A bullshit. It is part of the narrative that says that women are weaker than men. This theory of our essential crapness is so pervasive that it’s even found its way into the culture surrounding food. The foods associated with us as a gender – cake, biscuits, milk, those yoghurts that make Martine McCutcheon poo – are bland and sugary. Sugar is inoffensive. It isn’t even really a flavour. The cupcake, which has somehow become the symbol of modern womanhood (though None Of Us Voted For It), is essentially a pretty pile of sugary cotton-wool. Even chocolate – the butt of a million cringeworthy ‘I luv chocolate more than sex LOLZ!’ jokes on mugs and calendars – is womanly when it’s all pretty on a cake or a nice bar of Dairy Milk. Or substituting for a disappointing sex life. It’s only the strong stuff – the 80% cocoa solid stuff, with the bitter taste that our excellent palates can truly appreciate – that is considered manly. This goes back years. The Sachertorte, a dark chocolate cake without much in the way of decoration, was invented in the nineteenth century by the chef of a Mitteleuropean prince who had asked for a more ‘masculine’ cake than the fluffy confections he was used to. Maybe they should have just have piped a penis on it in icing.
The last time I looked, no-one ever had to lie down for a bit after eating something too strongly flavoured. (My friend Huw once went a bit mental after eating a load of cheese powder that was in a faulty packet of off-brand Doritos, but that’s not really the same thing.) The identification of ‘strong’ flavour with physical strength is something of a linguistic error. Yet whisky, which has a powerful flavour that’s not to everyone’s liking, is drunk by alpha males – like Don Draper or, er, Ron Burgundy – not females. Why, if a woman on film or in public office orders a rare steak or a whisky, does it mean she’s a ballbusting bitch, one of the boys, a man in woman’s clothing? Margaret Thatcher drank it. I bet she wasn’t unaware of the message she was sending.
There are two clues. One comes from the foods that are associated with us as a gender. By no coincidence, sweet foods and dairy products are also associated with children. Drinks marketed to women – the Cosmopolitan, the Sex on the Beach, rosé wine – are often brightly coloured, much like those aimed at kids. What is a cocktail parasol but a toy? The other clue is the age of those famous alpha-male whisky drinkers: whisky is associated with maturity and wisdom. Inspector Morse doesn’t drink Bacardi Breezers. Even on a dare. Imagine Winston Churchill drinking a squash cocktail, made of equal parts vodka and neat orange squash. (Not that I have anything against the squash cocktail – a fine beverage guaranteed to give you a sugar buzz – but it’s not the only game in town. And I wouldn’t drink it after a nice dinner.)
This division of foodstuffs by gender is another instance of the infantilisation of women. Our taste buds are considered not just weak but immature; our palates like those of children. This is what they used to say about our minds. Think about that next time someone offers you a Cadbury’s Mini Roll. And if you’re in a bar, think about trying a single-malt Scotch. Don’t let Mrs Thatcher put you off. After all, you might like it. And it’s only a drink. It’s not a dick.