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Women, Whisky and its emergence

22/04/2016 Martine St-Victor

“You drink Scotch?” asked the President of the United States Fitzgerald Grant to Abby Whelan, his Press Secretary. “Yes, I do”, she answered. POTUS goes on to pouring two glasses of Scotch and hands one to Abby. She didn’t only drink Scotch but she knew about it, evident by the anecdote she then recounted about the “best Scotch in the world”. The scene is from ABC’s popular politico-drama “Scandal” and it was a departure from what viewers are used to seeing on television: lead characters playing influential women who often pick wine as their drink-of-choice. Think of Scandal’s main character Olivia Pope played by Kerry Washington of Julianna Margulies who plays lead character Alicia Florrick, in CBS’ “The Good Wife”. In 2014, the New York Times’ Erik Asimov mentioned in an article that red wine, was the choice of powerful women on television. Is Abby Whelan’s character sign of a new time? Au revoir, Chardonnay. Ciao Chianti. Hello, Cragganmore 21.

As often, television reflects pop culture’s trends. In this case: women drinking Whisky. Whisky Clubs for women are burgeoning in various big cities. For example, Women Who Whisky, which was founded in New York in 2011, now has chapters in Washington, Minneapolis–Saint Paul, Boston and in Portland with international chapters in Toronto, Nairobi and in Geneva and with more chapters in the works. The club, like others with the same mission, gathers women with various professional backgrounds to discuss, discover and taste Whiskies.

The phenomenon is not foreign to Montréal. Patricia Fourcand, a partner at Miller Thomson law firm, is in the midst of opening such a club in the city. She started hosting tastings at her house one evening, after purchasing a set a different kinds of Whiskies, for girlfriends, just to learn about the spirit. “I just felt like I wanted to know what it was all about”, she says. She became a fan immediately. “Whisky has a very distinctive taste, more earthy and complex than most hard liquors. It has a particular sense of warmth”, says Fourcand. She admits that drinking Whisky at her firm’s partners’ retreats, for example, is a way of being part of the Boys’ Club. “It gives you gravitas but is also breaks barriers”, she says. “My male counterparts see me even more as an equal when we are sharing ideas and are debriefing over a glass of Whisky”. “It’s the same way as smoking cigars which I started doing when I became a lawyer”. 

Whisky for taste and for purpose? Not so for Isabelle Hudon, Executive Chair for Sun Life Financial in Québec and one of Canada’s most influential woman. Contrary to Patricia Fourcand, drinking and loving Whisky isn’t for the purpose of accessing any Boys’ Club, for Hudon. It’s solely for taste. Initiated to Whisky 20 years ago, she’s always curious about discovering new Whisky aromas and does so at home. Is Whisky Hudon’s go-to drink? “I still prefer the elegance and purity of a martini with one olive”, she confessed. 

The girlfriends lawyer Patricia Fourcand hosts at her house during her Whisky tastings hail from the business world, academia and the Arts. “We all have very strong personalities.”, she says. A trait bartender Patrice S.César, of The Emerald bar, has noticed of women ordering Whisky at the ultra-cool spot. When asked if he’s noticed an increase in the number of women ordering Whisky, César responded affirmatively, with much enthusiasm. “Regardless of their profession, my clients who order Whisky are respectively on top of their game. They’re assertive, confident, successful”, said Patrice S. César. “But as much as taste, what patrons are looking for is an experience”, chimes-in Joseph Heskia, owner of The Emerald. To those seeking a distinguished experience, perhaps reminiscent of one watching their fathers and grandfathers, Heskia recommends Whisky. “It’s different from those seeking the“Mad Men” experience to whom we recommend an “Old Fashioned” or for those who after watching 2012’s James Bond franchise Skyfall, ask for a Vespar Martini, adds César.

But where to start for fellow complete Whisky novices, like I? To hold my hand through my introduction to all-things Whisky, I met with Toby Lyle, co-owner of the Burgundy Lion pub. Located in the Griffintown district since it opened in 2008, Burgundy Lion is a must-stop when it comes to Whisky. It carries the largest whisky collection in Québec. When famed Montréal restaurant Les Chênets closed its doors in 2009, Burgundy Lion purchased its impressive Whisky inventory. The pub also sells the most single malt in Canada.

We started with the basics. Wet the tip of your pencil, get a notepad and write this down: Scotch, is Whisky from Scotland. It is also where it is spelled Whisky whereas the Irish spell it Whiskey, with an e. Whisky is made out of barley and other grain. Bourbon, which has to be made in the USA to carry the name, is most often made out of corn. As for Canadian Whisky, besides obviously being made in Canada, differs in that it is made of rye. A Whisky has to age at least 3 years. The number, next to the Whisky’s name on the bottle, is the number of years it has been aged. Got that?

When asked if more women drank Whisky, Toby Lyle said yes but refuses to put them in a specific “Whisky-drinking category”. “It’s misogynistic, he says. “Plus, a lot of women have been drinking Whisky for a very long time.”, he adds. “I have however noticed more women than before interested in discovering Whisky”. The Burgundy Lion Pub hosts monthly Whisky tastings, open to the public. Years ago, when the tastings started, they were mostly made of men with the occasional woman, as someone’s “ + 1”. Over the years, wives and girlfriends started to join. Today, Lyle sees groups of women attending the tastings and some months, there is parity in the guests. Burgundy Lion also holds private tastings where Lyle has been host to all-women groups.

Toby Lyle believes the phenomenon of more women fancying Whisky isn’t just about taste profile but rather a a reaction to the contrast off both a long standing tradition and prejudice of Whisky being an old man’s drink. And the Whisky industry is not only attracting more women, it’s also finding new fans in younger consumers. That’s reflected in various derivatives: the Burgundy Lion has seen a continued increase of his clientele and the SAQ today carries a much better and diverse selection of Whiskies, for example. The marketing of Whisky has changed which can explain the diversification of its consumers. The production of Whisky has also changed to cater to more diverse pallets. For the past 5-10 years, instructs Toby Lyle, distilleries have been using different barrels to finish their Whiskies, given them various kicks. In the past, Whiskies were aged in Bourbon and in sherry casks. Today, there are Whiskies matured in Porto, tequilla and rum barrels, which bring sweetness to the Whiskies.

But the increase in Whisky consumption isn’t unique to Québec: it is worldwide. Whisky stocks are depleted in Scotland mostly because of the Indian and Chinese markets, which are now important consumers. Consequently, prices have gone up. Supply and demand, folks.

The Burgundy Lion caters to both connoisseurs and novices. For the latter, the pub has a tasting menu of 3 Whiskys, that changes every week. Toby Lyle suggests starting with lighter, fruitier Whiskies. Ones without peat (which is a smokey taste). “You don’t want to get into a heavy peat in the beginning. It’s an acquired taste that develops with time”, he warns.

Ice, ice baby or no ice in Whisky? Lyle says it is the root of discord in the Whisky world and that he often gets asked on whether it is a faux-pas. “If you put ice in your Whisky, it will melt as you drink it. As a consequence, your first taste and your last taste won’t be the same.” said Lyle. “I would never put ice in my Whisky unless it’s a very warm day and I’m drinking a blended Whisky”, only then would Toby Lyle stray from his no-ice policy. But for those who prefer cold Whisky, Toby Lyle recommends putting the bottle in the refrigerator. “A cold Whisky pairs very well with dark chocolates”. OK, sold.

While on the 2008 campaign trail, Hillary Rodham Clinton was filmed knocking-back a shooter of Whisky. At the time, it made headlines and the image shocked many. Would it today? Hardly.

The Emerald
5295 Av du Parc, Montréal, QC H2V 4G9
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The Burgundy Lion
2496 Rue Notre-Dame O, Montréal, QC H3J 1N5

Martine St-Victor 

This article originally appeared in the Montreal Gazette and on