American Women, American Whiskey

As Pedro Shanahan sees it, women always have had an affinity for whiskey, as far back as the birth of the United States. They ran the farms that made the grain that made the mash that made the whiskey — often owning, operating and trading American whiskey as a commodity while their husbands were off at war. In fact, Kentucky, the birthplace of bourbon, has record of several woman-owned distilleries from 1812. Shanahan is the Spirit Guide at Seven Grand, a whiskey bar in downtown Los Angeles with an “old-boys’-club” vibe, leather couches, a cigar patio and taxidermy adorning the walls. Despite the male-infused atmosphere, nearly half of the venue’s Whiskey Society membership is female.

American Whiskey

Jenni Pittman helms the bar at Louisville’s Proof on Main.

The rise in women drinking whiskey largely can be attributed to the classic cocktail renaissance, which includes a wide range of bourbon and rye recipes popular before and after Prohibition. The evolution of the typical bar menu is opening the minds of female consumers, encouraging them to ask more questions and be adventurous. So it should be no surprise that women across the country are starting to reclaim their palates, eschewing the past decades of sweet vodka-fueled drinks and exploring the bold flavors of American whiskey.

“Women often have a more articulated palate than men (in my experience), and value the nuanced complexity that barrel wood brings to whiskey,” Shanahan says.

American whiskey suppliers now are taking notice and investing in marketing programs and products that speak to women. Beam launched black-cherry-infused Red Stag in summer 2009; the whiskey plays off of the flavors of the Manhattan and appeals to patrons new to whiskey. In February of 2010, Jack Daniel’s introduced a national drink strategy and subsequent holiday advertising campaign targeting women. This spring, the brand launched Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey (technically a 70 proof liqueur), a move to attract the novice whiskey drinker. With approximately 20% of the brand’s consumer base already female, Jack Daniel’s Senior Brand Manager Jennifer Powell says their research is showing a growing number of women both drinking whiskey and choosing the Jack Daniel’s brand.

Skyy Spirits took a different approach with the October 2011 launch of an interactive ”Women & Whiskeys” community on Facebook. With a portfolio that includes American whiskeys such as Wild Turkey Bourbon, American Honey and Russell’s Reserve, Public Relations and Events Manager for Skyy Spirits Randal Stewart says the decision to focus on women was the result of a decade of consumer whiskey events that saw an astounding growth of females positioning themselves front and center at tasting tables.

“Women engage with the spirit differently than men. They aren’t looking to have the biggest collection or the most expensive bottle, but instead, they are looking for information and to socialize with each other,” Stewart says.

Bar operators looking capitalize on this brand attention to women can drive whiskey sales at their establishments by implementing a few strategic moves of their own.

Conversation and Information

It’s crucial to have educated bar staff who can spend time talking to female customers. Most of the women who come to your bar or restaurant have never tasted whiskey, but with the prevalence of “bartender’s choice” establishments across the nation, the stage is set for conversation.

“Every day we have women walk in and say, ‘I’m not really a whiskey drinker,’ and we’ll turn them on to an Old Fashioned, Whiskey Sour or Rye Manhattan made with American whiskey,” Shanahan says.

Both Powell and Stewart are careful to point out that efforts to reach more women are about communicating a brand’s authenticity and substance, not just aesthetics.

Bartenders and marketers agree that from a psychological perspective, drinking whiskey makes a woman feel empowered. With groups of women, the experience of trying whiskeys together takes on a social element. The days of gossiping over Cosmopolitans is being replaced by lively discussions about grains and barrel aging. Women by nature are more likely to recommend brands and experiences to their friends, especially when it comes to “discovering” bourbons and ryes.

Joy Richard, bar and beverage manager of Boston’s Citizen Public House and Oyster Bar, says that most women are open to trying one or more of the nearly 60 American whiskeys on the menu. She has instituted whiskey flights, complete with tasting profiles and information on cards guests can keep, noting that women are more inclined to ask about obscure brands and the details behind production and provenance.

Angus McShane, general manager at Seven Grand, says he uses food terminology to describe whiskeys to women. He also asks what they like to drink and finds a relevant whiskey profile to match. For example, red wine drinkers often love the oak notes from casks, and with a batch of new experimental American whiskeys like Maker’s 46 (which uses French oak staves to soften a finished barrel of Maker’s Mark), there are a range of options from which to choose. Think about adding detailed descriptions to your whiskey menu, much like your wine list. Words such as “caramel,” “butterscotch,” “spice,” “vanilla” and “oak” all are appealing to the female palate and adequately describe most bourbons and ryes.

Duck Hunter

At Seven Grand in Los Angeles, Eagle Rare bourbon is used in the Duck Hunter.

Classic and Creative Cocktails

Often the entry point for women and American whiskey, cocktails are must-have elements on every bar menu. The popularity of classic drinks is a perfect opportunity to appeal to females with everything from Mint Juleps to Whiskey Sours. Seven Grand serves more than 500 Old Fashioned bourbon or rye cocktails a week, and women enjoy the drink as much as the male patrons. Encourage your female bartenders to be as inventive as Richard: “I create cocktails for our menu that I personally find interesting, complex and tasty, and maybe, just by nature of me being a woman, other women are drawn to the same flavor combinations that I am.”

In the heart of bourbon country, Louisville’s Proof on Main offers more than 50 bourbons and Jenni Pittman, who helms the bar, creates seasonally inspired cocktails with ingredients from the restaurant’s own garden. General Manager Rachel Cutler explains that wheated bourbons, such as Old Rip Van Winkle Handmade Bourbon, are in some of their most popular cocktails because “women love the caramel and vanilla on the nose, and it doesn’t drown out the other flavors of the cocktail.”

Events and Promotions

Proof on Main holds quarterly “Bourbon and the Girls” events where they partner with a distillery to taste bourbon on its own, in cocktails and paired with food. Each event has a different theme, such as Bourbon and Chocolate or Bourbon and Bacon, to pique consumers’ interest. The Whiskey Society at Seven Grand has tastings the first Tuesday of each month that draw businesswomen and fashion students; the bar’s management team also creates fun events like a Kentucky Derby party that encourages women to wear outlandish hats and enjoy Juleps while watching the race.

Richard also has developed a Whiskey Club Card program to expose her customers to the wide variety of whiskeys on the menu, over half of which are lesser known bourbons and ryes. Once a card is full, the guest receives a personalized whiskey glass kept at the bar for future visits, a bottle of Citizen’s own Four Roses Single Barrel selection and free ice balls (the bar usually charges extra). She thinks women in particular will partake in the Club Card program for both the educational and social elements.

Programs like this capitalize on the growing American whiskey and women trend by supplying brand information that encourages broader consumption and higher profits. As more and more excellent small labels line your shelves, it’s imperative to know what women want when it comes to whiskey. They’re curious to try, so make sure your menu has adequate descriptions of brand flavors (like a wine list) and an array of palate-pleasing cocktails. Promotions that feel genuine and combine learning with tasting are the best way to make women feel comfortable exploring what often is seen as a male-dominated category. Whiskey is no longer just for the boys. NCB

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