How a Scotch Whisky Expert Deals with Comments Like, 'You're a Woman?!'
At a recent event in Sweden, Georgie Bell walked into a room to lead a whisky-tasting master class, and an older man couldn’t conceal his surprise. “What’s your whisky credentials?” he asked, as though she were lost.
Bell, the 29-year-old ambassador for Craigellachie Scotch whisky, tries to be empathetic in these situations.
“He probably didn’t realize that the world has changed,” she says, so she listed off her credentials—they’re extensive—and mentioned Stephanie Macleod, the master blender for Dewar’s Scotch whisky. “Another woman?” the man said, still scandalized.
Bell's credentials are actually quite solid. At university, Bell wrote her dissertation on whiskey and regional identity, then sought a second degree in distillation, with a focus on biochemistry and chemical engineering. The youngest woman welcomed into London’s Worshipful Company of Distillers, an esteemed distilling guild, Bell now travels the world leading tastings and seminars for Craigellachie.
Despite her experience and expertise, Bell is well-acquainted with the disbelief (and muted surprise) that whisky-loving women can face. “You see a lot of double takes,” she says.
Once Bell saw her friend order a whisky cocktail for herself and a vodka cocktail for her boyfriend. The bartender asked her, “You know there’s whisky in there, right?” These types of encounters—condescending, albeit well-meaning—are not uncommon. At events, people will ask Bell, “Wait, do you actually drink the whisky?”
Fortunately, she says this type of “accidental sexism” is rare within the whisky industry itself, where women have long played an integral role.
“There have always been women involved in the Scotch-whisky industry,” Bell says, mentioning pivotal players like Elizabeth Cumming, Rachel Barrie and Maureen Robinson. “I just think now more than ever we’re starting to shout about it a little bit more.”
So, Bell’s response to what she calls the “oh-isn’t-she-cute look” from men is to simply list off a slew of incredibly detailed facts. “It’s a bit cheeky,” she says.
Yet no amount of expertise or education could protect her from one of the creepiest comments she’s ever received at a whisky event; a man looked at her legs and said, “You’re ravishing; I bet you wake up like that.”
She refuses to let those incidents discourage her, though, having witnessed the massive changes perceptions surrounding whisky have made in the past few years, let alone the past few decades. Bell points to the whisky ads of yore as a metric of how far we’ve come.
“Whisky marketing in the 1980s was one of two things; either ‘drink this and you’ll become successful,’ or ‘drink this and you’ll have a pin-up model on your arm,’” she says. “Even in the 1990s, too. If you look at whisky advertising today, it’s not really like that.”
One of her biggest pet peeves is whiskys marketed explicitly to women, as though they require softer or more muted flavors than men. For women and men, whisky is an acquired taste, and beginners should start the same way—with whisky cocktails that incorporate familiar flavors, like ginger ale and citrus.
“If you want to get started, start with cocktails,” Bell says. “They don’t have to be pink and frilly. Please don’t make them pink and frilly.”