Whisky has long held the image of being for those who enjoy a fireside dram, potentially wearing slippers, perhaps smoking a pipe. Rustic Scotland, rolling hills, men back from the shoot – all of these images have held strong despite a shifting demographic of whisky drinkers globally.
And it’s not that there is anything particularly wrong with any of those scenes – after all, whisky made in the heartland of Scotland, or Ireland or the US (three dominant production markets) is frequently crafted amongst geography that matches this aesthetic. The challenge, however, is that it doesn’t paint a whole – or even terribly accurate – picture if that’s the singular thing that is portrayed.
In reality, whisky has been going through a dynamic shift over the past decade. Drinkers are getting younger and more diverse from both a gender and ethnicity perspective; the product is made in virtually every country imaginable; and, the people who are making it are, themselves, far more diverse than the advertising landscape might have you imagine. A report commissioned by Distell Ventures in 2020 entitled The New World of New World Whisky showed that nearly 50% of consumers surveyed who drank whisky were between the ages of 24 and 44, with a 64% to 36% split of male versus female consumers. They’re engaging in a digital environment, making buying decisions by researching on the internet and getting recommendations via social media, are less brand loyal and happy to explore whiskies from a wider geographical area.
But there is still a long way to go in how whisky is both portrayed and how many of those working in it are from a non-white background. OurWhisky, which works to promote diversity and inclusion in the whisky industry and raise important questions around it, undertook analysis of the social media accounts of the 150 largest whisky brands globally in March in the lead up to International Women’s Day. The investigation found that men outnumber women by 228% in images featuring people, with women only featuring in 36% of brands’ content. Meanwhile, posts featuring non-white ethnicities only comprised 17.9% of content. The challenge with something like this is that it risks showcasing to the next generation of whisky consumer an outdated stereotype, while simultaneously making it seem like an industry which is not open to participation by a wider demographic, thereby discouraging a more diverse audience to become interested in working in the field in the first place.
So how do companies begin to shift this narrative?
“I believe the current challenge is top down management. Senior positions such as on-boards, in the c-suites, as presidents and VP positions are still mostly filled by one type of person. We can do a lot of work on the ground up but also need to have greater diversity at the top impacting change, vision, messaging, and growth,” says Allison Parc, founder of Brenne Whisky, a French single malt whisky finished in Cognac casks. Parc set up her whisky company in 2012, and has been a leading voice in the whisky industry as a female founder and whisky heavyweight since, winning numerous accolades for her whisky.
While she says that the conversation around diversity and inclusion has increased and become more widespread in the past decade, she says she would like to see more emphasis on giving a wider group a voice not just because of their gender or ethnicity, but because of the work they’re doing – to shift the narrative from appearance to what’s actually being achieved.
“It’s important to give more women and minority groups a voice and equally important to let them share about what they’re passionate about, not only ask them about what it is like to be different,” she explains.
As Paskin, and many others will point out, the whisky industry – once you’re in it – is generally very welcoming and open.
At Cardrona Distillery in New Zealand, founder Desiree Whitaker agrees, saying she met numerous people on the way to setting up the distillery which were nothing but supportive. “I found neither glass ceilings nor favouritism on my journey. What I found is that people, male and female, are captured by passion and dreams, and the human spirit will bond together in the pursuit of excellence.”
Desiree set up the distillery in 2015 after four years traveling the world researching the global whisky market, finding a site and gaining government approval for the build. By 2020, she had been crowned the best New Zealand Single Malt under 12 years at the World Whisky Awards, and begun international exports.
But how you get a wider group of people interested in working in whisky in the first place starts from the top-down and it’s something that more foundations, schools and advisory boards are recognising.
In late 2020, the Scotch Whisky Association created is Diversity and Inclusivity Charter, which sets out its goals around these areas in the Scotch Whisky industry. It includes an aspiration to have a gender balance of 50/50 males to females in the workplace and acknowledges the fact there are barriers to entry into the industry for different under-represented groups.
Companies who sign it will need to commit to a number of things including having one member of their senior executive team responsible and accountable for diversity and inclusion, and ensuring transparency and fairness within the recruitment process amongst other things. The SWA built on this in March 2021, announcing it had created a Focus Group around to support the delivery of an industry-wide work plan to boost equality, diversity and inclusion with the Scotch Whisky Industry.
Meanwhile, at the start of this year, the Worshipful Company of Distillers in London announced a new programme of bursaries and scholarships for more than 100 students who undertake qualifications and training in the spirits industry – through bodies such as WSET, Heriot Watt University and the Institute of Brewing & Distilling – with a greater focus on awarding those to less advantaged students from a diverse range of backgrounds.
Across the pond in the heartland of Bourbon making, the University of Kentucky is also realising the importance for facilitating education to a wider range of pupils in its distilling programme. Launched in 2020, its new scholarship initiative will fund four students to attend the university’s distillation, wine and brewing programme with a focus on the distilling side.
The school recognised there is a lack of diversity of voices in the United States, where only a small handful of whisky distilleries – like leading light Uncle Nearest and newcomer Brough Brothers – are owned by ethnic minorities.
“The University of Kentucky KDA scholars seeks to broaden diversity and inclusion by a mixture of scholarships to attract the best and brightest and highlighting the many career options available in this space via internships. The program is action based and will attract diverse talent into the industry,” says Seth DeBolt, Director of the James B. Beam Institute for Kentucky Spirits and Professor at the University. “More work will be needed, but this is definitely a step in the right direction.”
DeBolt adds that the creation of their scholarships is already encouraging other universities and educational institutions to follow suit.
Looking to the future, Parc hopes that a more diverse representation of people making whisky, will help build trust from the new generation of whisky drinkers.
“My hope is to have a healthy showing of women and minorities in the most senior positions throughout our industry. This is critical for the future successes of our brands to make sure we’re communicating, appealing, innovating for, and considering all of the wonderful groups of humans out there who love a good dram,” she concludes.