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Why the hell do we still think whisky is the manliest of all manly drinks?

ShortList investigates just what it is that makes a glass full of alcoholic liquid masculine

Why the hell do we still think whisky is the manliest of all manly drinks?
04 December 2018

Walk into any movie apartment inhabited by Tony Curtis, Frank Sinatra or Cary Grant and there’s the decanter of it, soon to be poured in unfeasibly large measures. Every misanthropic film noir PI has a bottle on his desk for 24-hour access. Cowboys are so butch they get to pour their own at the bar. Yes, we’re talking whisky: the manliest of manly drinks.

The heroes and anti-heroes that fill the pages of your holiday potboiler love a bourbon or scotch. The cops in The Wire routinely get super-turbo-trashed on Jameson. Songs about whisky – and there are hundreds – are invariably sung by a man, and are often about women, too.

They compare women to whisky, whisky to women, lament the way women and whisky don’t mix, wonder what it’d be like if their woman was a whisky. They do not sing about white wine spritzers.

It’s a similar, if lesser, case with beer and dark rum: the former is associated with men in pubs, the latter with pirates. But whisky wins. It is the alpha drink for alpha males. Men drink whisky to celebrate, to forget, to look cool. Why, though, in an age when gender norms are being shredded, do we still conform?

“With the drinks they select, men are usually trying to convey maturity, strength and wealth”

“What makes a drink manly is status,” says Tom Soden, co-owner of London drinking holes Nine Lives, The Lion & Lamb and The Gunmakers. “With the drinks they select, men are usually trying to convey maturity, strength and wealth. We feel that what we choose to drink has an effect on how we appear to others. This is why most men have a problem drinking out of straws or a martini glass – it’s all about conveying our perceived norms of masculinity.”

But why particular drinks?

“We mimic what’s culturally appropriate, which is dictated by what our parents did. We drink whisky and bitter because that’s what we were taught.” I can relate. My earliest memory of alcohol was as a toddler when my dad would put a drop of scotch on my tongue. I’ve drunk whisky properly since I was about 14.

(I say properly, this included several teenage nights spewing up bottles of Bell’s.) My dad and I still have a glass together at the end of an evening; a father-son ritual. I’m not averse to something fruity, but my drinks cabinet is 80 per cent whisky.

  • Check out our best whisky list to expand your drinks cabinet

Old habits

This obsession with manly drinks must have started somewhere, but it’s not primal. Whisky has only been around for 500 years. Plus, research has shown that women have superior senses, making them better at appreciating food and booze. So if it’s not nature, it must be nurture.

“Whisky has a history of being the drink of hardy men in Ireland and Scotland,” says Jane Peyton, drinks educator, writer and founder of School of Booze. “Male immigrants took their tradition to America where life was tough. With events such as the gold rushes, whisky was the drink of choice for miners. It’s easy to carry and lasts for a long time, unlike beer, cider or wine. Later, with moving pictures, the image of the lonesome macho cowboy drinking whisky in the saloon became a popular trope.”

How long has it been seen as masculine?

“It’s hard to say,” says Peyton. “The earliest documentation of whisky in Scotland is 1494. By the time of The Acts of Union with Scotland and England in 1707, there was plenty of whisky-smuggling with associated violence from male smugglers. In post-revolution America, increased tax on whisky led to mobs attacking excisemen. Whisky’s association with hard-drinking violent men was firmly established by the 18th century.”

Being labelled a man’s drink, of course, is about who drank it, but also, who didn’t.

“Brands that perpetuate that alcoholic drinks have a gender are alienating 50 per cent of the market

“Depending on the society and era, women have either been banned from drinking alcohol in general – not just whisky – or, if they did drink, they were often seen as common or alcoholic,” says Peyton. “Alcohol liberates people and reduces their inhibitions. In many societies, the men didn’t want women to [experience] that. Even in today’s Britain, women are judged by different standards.”

When the late-20th century came around, spirit manufacturers decided that whisky’s image needed a makeover. Why? Because men had had one, too. Whisky needed to keep up, to become aspirational: the drink of sophisticated, stylish, emotionally controlled men. The Don Draper type, with their slick hair and even slicker patter.

Whisky was pushed to men in two ways: this is the kind of man who drinks whisky and you want to be like him, and women find whisky-drinkers attractive. (Much the same message, when you boil it down, as was being touted beforehand: gruff gun-slingers replaced by smooth-talking execs, but very much still hard, straight-up men drinking hard, straight-up liquor.)

All this despite the potential profit hit. “Any brand owners who still perpetuate the peculiar notion that alcoholic drinks have a gender are purposely alienating 50 per cent of the market,” says Peyton. “Why would any business person want to restrict their potential customer base?”

And yet they still kind of do. David Beckham didn’t launch a prosecco with a suave, masculine ad campaign, he launched a whisky – of sorts. Christina Hendricks (her Mad Men connection surely no coincidence), promoting Johnnie Walker in 2011, explained how her affection for the drink came about. “I always thought it was sexy when [my husband] ordered scotch and I’d take little sips of his drink,” she said. There you go – drink whisky and women will think you’re hot. To an extent, we still fall for it.

“Although the context and spirit might change slightly, from whisky to mezcal and rum, what is perceived as a masculine drink won’t, as it stems from tradition,” says Soden. “I don’t think we’ll see a shift in our lifetime. Drinking is ingrained in most cultures: tradition taught from parent to child at the dinner table.”

Against the grain

One set of habits is changing: those of women drinkers. Research by The Future Laboratory found that 37 per cent of whisky customers in the US are female (up from 15 per cent in 1990), and almost a third in the UK. Women are shaking off those heavy cultural shackles and the marketing bods are getting the message.

“The whisky industry is keen to increase sales by encouraging more women to drink whisky,” says Peyton. “More women are drinking beer, largely because of the advent of craft brewing with all the flavours available and also due to the tendency of craft brewers not to market their beer exclusively at men.”

And it’s not just women who are changing. Men are also shaking off their shackles – the ones telling them how real men act, speak, dress or drink. Because these days, being a man isn’t about how many pull-ups you can do or how many women you can get off with. Kindness, compassion and sensitivity are far more aspirational qualities. Our values have changed so shouldn’t our drinks, too?

Booze is, slowly but surely, becoming a gender-neutral environment. Al Murray’s pub landlord line of “a pint for the fella, glass of white wine or fruit-based drink for the lady” has almost expired as a parody. Beer and dark spirits are still the drinks that men lean towards – for now – but as the heavily loaded labels of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ are redefined, so too will our booze of choice be.

We can all raise a strawberry daiquiri to that.