The Vagenda

The Taste of Bullshit

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.
- MJ

28 thoughts on “The Taste of Bullshit

  1. This is a brilliant post – thorough, interesting and illuminating. Thanks for writing!

    I am a die-hard G&T drinker and got told recently that it’s a man’s drink by someone whose granddad drinks them; the first man I’ve ever heard of to drink them. S’all conditioning. The only people I’ve ever seen drink whiskey/whisky are my own granddad and the cast of Mad Men, and the only people I’ve ever seen drink G&T are my mum and her female friends, but it’s just a matter of taste. I’ll enjoy whatever I want, including good cheese and fine wine, because my dad AND mum taught me to have good taste. And because good cheese is GOOD.

  2. Awesomely written. I enjoyed the style as much as the content.

    Everything you say is basically true, but here’s an anecdotal thought: most of the women I know have a sweeter tooth than most of the men I know. That may or may not be a representative sample but, if it is, perhaps you’re putting the cart before the chicken’s egg.

    The alcohol industry exists to make money, so it’s not much of a leap to posit that they exist to sell people the drinks they want to buy. Perhaps, on average, sweet drinks sell very well to the female market, and savoury (peaty, musty, oaky, etc) drinks sell very well to the male market.

    That’s not to say all women hate whisky, but it IS to say that there is enough of a demographic bias for all the marketing money to be focused on the audience where it’s going to have the most impact.

    Sure, it’s a stereotype, but perhaps there’s no peatsmoke without charcoal fire?

    • Thanks! Glad you liked it. My opinion is that food is as laden with meaning as any other part of culture, and if women do like sweet things more, that doesn’t necessarily mean this is ‘natural’ or biologically determined. Biology may be a part of it, of course, and I’m looking into the science of taste preference now to see if I can find any answers – but it’s not the whole story.

    • OK I just wrote a comment and I’ve only just noticed how ridiculously long it is so apologies for hijacking your post like this – seriously though I liked the article and found it rather thought-provoking. Here’s a ramble about it:

      I have 3 friends who are big whisky enthusiasts and one of the 3 is female, but personally I can’t stand the stuff. I’ve had a few sips of it and in a tiny amount it’s sort of pleasing in an intense way, but I’d never want to actually buy a bottle of the stuff. but that might be because I’d rather buy cheaper alcohol and I can’t get excited about the prospect of something more expensive (Similar to my attitude to my rich friend who keeps insisting I try going skiing one day).

      The whole cutesy cupcakes-as-lifestyle-philosophy trend is annoying and needs to stop, but I question whether this actually like you say “the symbol of modern womanhood” – I mean it’s basically a relatively niche thing that is best ignored. What would the symbol of manhood be? Football? Cars?

      Back to the issue of tastes, I don’t think eating really dark chocolate is ever seen as some sort of masculine endeavour. Women buy chocolates and watch rom-coms, so the stereotype goes. Men don’t buy expensive chocolates, but might get a marsbar, or a snickers, or a twix. But it isn’t some sort of tantric masturbatory experience for men, it’s something you’ll have after a sandwich.

      With drinks, there’s definitely a tendency for people to assign gender. I remember being a child and watching the title sequence of blind date, and there was this bit where a man and a woman are served a pint of beer and a glass of red wine, and then shock horror, the man picks up the wine and the woman has the pint. My mother basically only drinks wine and my dad used to drink cans of beer, so I totally thought that this was how all adults drank.

      But with alcohol, you sort of have to learn how to like things. I’m 20 and now enjoy the taste of alcohol but aged 13 and drinking whatever I could get my hands on there were definitely a few things that took a while to adjust to. For example, I haven’t (maybe for lack of trying) developed an enthusiasm for whisky. And it’s not something that a huge number of people do, and due to what we feel is normal, maybe women are less likely to try and like something that’s seen as a man’s drink.

      I’m going to be a little bit contrarian here – do you think it’s possible that part of your enthusiasm for whisky comes from the fact that you like the fact you’re not expected to like it? Was part of the enjoyment from the fact that you’re not just having a drink and that you’re smashing gender stereotypes and keeping up with the boys?

    • “What would the symbol of manhood be? Football? Cars?”

      this is stultifyingly stereotypical of men too. I execrate footy and cars, which are typical of passive consumption culture.

    • Modern marketing is built on freudian notions of hidden desires and emotions. They focus on a target group and attempt to decipher the deal-set longings of this group. They are thus likely to reproduce and strengthen already existing stereotypes. They might think, while choosing women as a target, that women want to feel soft, sweet, and feminine, and so the product is advertised along those lines. There is marketing sense in choosing sex as a basis for targeted marketing, as you reach 50 % of the population. It would, I am sure, also take much more time, research and imagination (and money?) To think outside the box and target interests, tastes, or personality types. Mich easier then, to follow the beaten track and make women who see an ad think themselves less feminine if they were to reject the product and buy something marketed for men instead. And so it goes. For men, too, definitely.

  3. I am also into Whiskey, all variations of G&T (ok, not all, 10 year old Tanqueray will serve me fine)as well as stronger drinks such as the lovely Oldfashioned. Even highly intelligent bartenders in really good bars feel the urge to comment on my choice (it would be ridiculous if they patted a guy on the sholder for ordering a Whiskey). Once I wasn’t served in a Whiskey shop because the owner obviously couldn’t imagine that a young woman could buy anything without his advice. I, too, think that it has to do with conditioning. If young girls were told that Whiskey is the choice of the educated woman drinker, they’d probaly try it.

  4. Having spend 6 years living with 13 other students, 7 of each gender, were whiskey was a stable, the only difference I noticed was that the guys tended to like the smokey kinds better than we did.
    Whitout falling in to “biology-determinism”, I once heard that hormones has an effect on your taste buds (explaining why pregnant women experience changes in food-preferences), so is it completely unthinkable that there would be some foods/drinks that on the larger scale would be favored by men more than women and vice versa?
    NOT trying to sentence anyone to a lifetime of sweetly flavored, odd colored atrocities, I’ll take the whiskey any day (or night or anytime).

  5. Wow, that sounds like a distillery tour I want to avoid. I’ve been a whisky drinker for about a decade and I’m the one who taught my husband how to drink it (though I will admit that it was guy friends who taught me in the first place). I know plenty of women who like scotch and men who like alcopops (don’t WKD adverts mostly feature men these days?) I agree that women generally aren’t the target market for whisky advertising, which seems short-sighted on the part of the big brands. You do have to cultivate a taste for it and develop your palate, which is not something that marketing in the drinks industry tends to push. If I get odd looks for drinking whisky, well, that’s their problem, not mine. I took a friend by surprise for drinking Newcastle Brown back in my student days FFS.

    We went to Skye for a joint birthday trip and took the special tasting tour at Talisker’s distillery. Our guide was a woman and we were part of a 50/50 male/female group. Most of the women had at least some interest in whisky, not just there as designated drivers. It was a great experience and absolutely worth it for whisky fans.

    And correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t Peggy Olsen know her way around a bottle of scotch?

  6. I have a deep hatred for lady-yoghurt. It’s corporate marketing bullshit. Cheap, artificial pap dressed up in pots that promise miracles. Go for the real deal every time – the more packaged-up the food is, the less taste and enjoyment is within the wrapper. Eat what you love and not what you ‘should’.

    PS: haha Huw!

  7. Yes yes! Wow… I went out with drinks with some male colleagues the other day, ordered a double whiskey, with water and ice. (Been out the previous eve, had plans that night and it was really cheap…) Anyway in my mind mixing it with water and ice completely negates the “manliness” of it. I mean when is making something weaker “manly”. The whole table commented! And they are used to me drinking beer, drafts in fact…

    Most girls just don’t give beer a chance, and it’s no wonder, because if you do you have a bunch of folks gaping at you. My guy friends prefer strawberry milkshakes to chocolate – should I gape at them for enjoying such a girly drink? No. They just like strawberries!

  8. I like me some good whiskey, as well as rum. Always get the wtf faces for drinking these. But then, I also get them for smoking cigars.
    Gratefully, I got into the phase when I give them “wtf are you looking at” back.
    Limiting for choice of men, liberating for life.

  9. I am a huge fan of port. My friends have accepted this (actually I find my male friends accept it far more than my female friends), but everyone else (from the stranger next to me to the bar man serving) stares at me suspiciously (I actually think they’d feel better if I pulled off a mask and turned out to me an old man). Port, whisky, and beer all the way.

  10. The darker the rum the better, no mixer! Funnily enough, I can think of more men who have disgustingly sweet tooths than I know women. My dad can get through a bag of Crunchies fun size in about five minutes flat, where mum and I will be chucking down French cheeses and olives.
    Oh those yoghurts really, really anger me. Marketing ploys that are mostly placebo. Grr.

  11. I’m a G&Ts woman, although rum does it neatly too on the odd occasion. And I’ve lost count of the number of times eyebrows have been raised purely because I asked for a G&T (although it’s been pleasant surprise rather than disapproval … not that that would put me off).

    I also have the distinction of having gone and bought £100 pounds worth Scotch all on my own (I was going back home and wanted to take presents for the men in the family that they’d actually use/appreciate as opposed to something like cufflinks or ties or something). The shop guy didn’t pay much heed at first but I did notice him looking at my retreating form with some sort of awe mingled with respect.

    Lastly, I really cannot remember the last time I had anything milk-chocolate. Dark chocolate or nothing for me, thank you. So out go the mini Cadbury rolls or whatever and certainly no cupcakes.

    I don’t know about ballbuster but I’m all for gender-based stereotyping bullshit buster.

  12. I’m surprised. Young women drink whisky in my bits of Glasgow. Maybe the negative attitude is an english thing? I do hear you about the infantilisation of women though. It winds me up that so many of my female friends have soft toys.

    • “It winds me up that so many of my female friends have soft toys.”

      but I’m not aware of any pressure to have them, so perhaps it’s just what they like to have in the privacy of their bedrooms ? I suppose they might be conforming to some unspoken expectation, but who’s going to be checking up on them ? I have a soft toy on my desk at work (a Fimble) because I like it :)

    • I still own every teddy I was given as a child. Granted, most of them are packed safely away in a cupboard and I only have one out in my bedroom. I still remember the name of every single one of them and how they came to be mine- they are of immense sentimental value to me. Does that make me ‘infantile’? Do I have to burn them, cut their heads off or nail them to a tree daubed in chicken’s blood to be considered a liberated adult woman?

  13. I find it fascinating that this topic drew so many comments so quickly, with people keen to identify their favourite drink. It seems to me that alcohol is the most dangerous drug, and all the more so for being arbitrarily legal as that makes it more readily accessible – because it typically relaxes inhibitions and all too easily allows behaviour that would otherwise be restrained, where most other drugs tend to make people withdraw within themselves. Need I even mention alcohol-related domestic violence ?

    I don’t think alcohol is inherently evil, any more than heroin or cocaine or whatever, but I do wonder why a dangerous drug of any kind is so central to our culture. Are our lives so awful they need to be medicated ? To me the problem of alcohol utterly dwarfs any discrimination over the particular types consumed!

    • I hear you. Alcohol just has more sophisticated marketing than the colon soothing yogurts – marketing that invites the drinker to define themselves as hip/mainstream/traditional/rediscovering/avant garde (delete as appropriate) according to their tipple but ultimately it’s still just marketing (marketing probably done by the bod at the desk who sits next to the bod at the desk who does the colon soothing yogurt marketing project). Is it just me or does anyone else struggle with the complexity of the ‘prove you’re not a robot by copying down these words’ bit to get a comment published?

  14. I worked for a time as a tour guide in a distillery, and my experience was much the same. I’m still treated like I’m looking for something for my dad when I go into a specialist shop, even though I can usually tell them more about their whiskies than they know (we had very specialist training – it was a small distillery that was the flagship for the brand). When they realise how much I know about it, it suddenly becomes something sexy.

    As for taste – yes, women do tend to go for the lighter, more honey flavoured types (Glenkinchie etc), but I’ve met so many people (male and female) who think they don’t like whisky because their (male) friends gave them Lagavulin or Laphroaig to prove how manly they were that they could drink such a strong drink. Since the really heavy, peaty whiskies are rarely the type that first-time drinkers like and many never grow to like them (I never did), they think that’s what whisky tastes like. If people actually wanted to introduce their friends to the very wide range of whiskies out there rather than trying to impress them in a show of masculinity, they’d give them one of the milder ones to try first and then see how they like it. There are *so* many different flavours available that most people can find one that they like.

    I rarely drink at all these days, but on special occasions I like my lighter peaty whiskies – Talisker for normal drinking, Glenkinchie when I’m wanting something that goes down easier and Caol Ila is my favourite.

  15. y’know, maybe I’m a bit sensitive, and you probably weren’t doing this, but I personally get tired of being accused of being a slave of the patriarchy because I don’t break down stereotypes by doing things I don’t enjoy. I don’t know anything about whisky – I know I don’t even like to sit by someone drinking Jack Daniels – but I don’t drink beer, either – I am all about the mixed drinks. Amaretto stone sour, cosmo, Tom Collins, lemon drop. Yes. And that should be OK too! I know that it makes me fit in with the popular stereotype, but it makes me feel like a bad person and that by drinking what I like, I’m contributing to a sexist culture. But I’m not about to choke down drinks I have to hold my breath to even get near my mouth just so I can be a good feminist. Argh!

    It’s like the women who say that “only sexually immature girls like girly boys, real women like chesthaired rugged types” – at 30 years old, I’d like to think my tastes have matured as much as they’re going to as far as this kind of thing goes, and give me a man who can’t grow a beard over a Burt Reynolds type any day. Why does it make me immature if I like metrosexuals and androgynous boys? And why are we still judging each other according to standards we had no say in?!

    (However, I do like dark chocolate. So I guess I’ve done one thing right in my job as a ball-buster, right?)

    • I totally agree that you should be able to order whatever you like without anyone saying you’re a bad feminist. My point was that anyone should be able to eat and drink the things they like, avoid the things they don’t, or try new things, without getting weird looks and comments because they’re being ‘unwomanly’, or ‘unmanly’. I find it crazy that something as seemingly neutral as choosing off a menu is laden with all these cultural pressures, when it should be as simple as ‘I like this, so I’m going to order it.’ Basically I’m really sick of having to explain myself in bars. Yes, it is for me. Yes, I do like it. Some of my women friends also drink whisky but most don’t. Yes, that does make me weird. Etc. etc.

  16. I love whiskey, rum and tequila (not all at the same time mind), my favourite cocktail is an Old Fashioned (my favourite whiskey’s are smokey, mmm). Every time my beau and I go out for drinks or a meal and we order, the waiter ALWAYS comes back to put my bf’s wine in front of me and my whiskey in front of him. Even if they took the order, they have somehow forgotten who ordered what in the space of about 3 minutes and allowed their pre-conceived ideas of what men and women drink take over. Gender stereotyping! Bah!

  17. “Good whisky is awesome. It is strong but subtle. It tastes of smoke and salt and honey and flowers.”

    What a spot-on, brilliant way of describing good whiskey. It is fabulous, indeed.

    @ Miss Honey Bear, oh, I hear ya! When my husband and myself go out for a drink together, he generally orders something non-alcoholic or at the most a glass of wine or beer. Sometimes a half pint, as he really doesn’t drink much (he’s Italian). Much like myself, he likes to savour what he’s drinking, and will be even more likely to order an ale if it’s a little bit special or gourmet-ish. I on the other hand I’ll usually order something stronger, such as a liqueur or a whiskey.

    Infuriatingly enough, I count on the fingers of one hand the times we didn’t get a second take from a baffled waiter or bar-tender as I asked for a strong liqueur and my husband asked for a beer or even something non-alcoholic. Sometimes, while passing us the drinks, the bar-tender will literally hand the whiskey over to my hubby and the lighter stuff over to me, even though I may have LITERALLY JUST VERY CLEARLY said that I want the whiskey and he wants the half pint. As if an irresistible, otherworldly force were guiding their hands to “put things right” (according to their own view of how the universe should function, obviously).

  18. I want to add that when my husband and I go out for a drink and the bar staff see me ordering a whiskey while he sips on something much lighter, they will usually target him – such as “jokingly” coax him into having something as strong as his wife, OR ELSE run the risk of coming across as a eunuch, a pansy – essentially, the quintessence of unmanliness. I abhor this, simply detest it, and feel just as insulted as when someone is sexist against me or women in general. Thankfully, my husband just shrugs it off…

  19. I think in the US it’s less of an issue. I used to be a bartender in a swanky hotel Champagne Bar, and many of our female American patrons often ordered single malts and Manhattan cocktails, and nobody batted an eyelid. However, in British company, when I drink scotch or whisky cocktails, people seem shocked, how could such a little teeny girlie drink something so manly!

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