He said, she said……..

Just over a week ago the whisky industry was rocked by the highlighting of language and opinions given in a well known and dare I say, once popular, annual publication.

Before I go any further, I will just say that at times during this piece you may think I don’t agree with the general feeling many have. I do. However I also see things from a different point of view and have taken some time to get my thoughts in order, before issuing a knee jerk reaction.

I understand the “why” of the situation. Why it was highlighted and why it should be addressed. But I do have discomfort with the “how”. More on that later. First, lets talk about me (far more interesting).

My working life has been very much in male dominated industries. I studied aeronautical engineering and worked as an aircraft mechanic. I have also worked in the construction industry. I now work in the horticultural industry and sometimes get paid to work in the whisky industry. I’ve run pubs, played on boys sports teams at school and generally find men far easier to get along with than women. I am not a girl’s girl. I sometimes view myself as the world’s worst feminist, other times the best. Why? Because as far as I am concerned any person should be able to do any job, follow any dream, play any sport, drink any drink they want, without having to justify their position. That said, I know real life is far more nuanced than this.

I sometimes say I do not believe I have been subject to sexism and stereotyping and I can be flippant about it. But if I was pushed, then yes, I have, but how I handled it was purely on me.

Me in my school years:

Sir? Can I play basketball? No, only a boys’ team. Well, then I want to play on that team.

Teacher checked the rules, I could play till third year, then we got a girls’ team going.

Sir? Can I go to the RAF for work experience instead of working at the hairdressers? Don’t know, we’ll look into it. Yep, there’s a company that organises it.

I had two weeks at RAF Odiham, which helped me confirm my career choice at 15 yrs old.

Me in early work:

Apply for jobs working on aircraft. Goes to interviews. Gets jobs. Works damned hard. Learns how to handle “banter”. Isn’t quiet. Gives a good as she gets.

One of my favourite experiences was when I worked at Elstree aerodrome. I needed the toilet more often on one day in particular. The toilet for females was about half a mile away. There wasn’t one in the hangar. No females had worked on shop floor before. On my third trip of the day, the chief engineer came out and instead of just talking to me, shouted across the hangar “Oi, Vokins…where are you going?” “Toilet.” I replied. “Again?? You’re taking the piss.” Everyone had stopped to listen to the interaction. So I shouted back “I’m on my period, I need to change my tampon!!!!” Silence.

He turned on his heel and walked back to his office. The lads all cracked up and clapped. 2 weeks later a female toilet was installed in the hangar.

I’ve never really thought hard about this incident; until a situation arises some things are not seen as an issue. Was it sexist to not have a toilet for females? Or was it just something that hadn’t been deemed necessary before, because women in that industry was just not common at that time? I never worried about it. It was advantageous to some extent, I got longer breaks.

Working in construction, the only issue I ever had came from another woman. “Queen Bee” syndrome is a thing, and its evil.

But again, had I experienced stereotyping and sexism? Yes. When I walked buildings to discuss the installation of communal heating systems and other M&E projects, the visiting engineers would talk directly to the male site managers and not to me, even though the site managers were effectively my subordinates. Always amusing when after remaining quiet, I would ask technical questions and provide solutions to problems discussed.

Maybe this wasn’t the way to go about educating people that women do these jobs. But in the same vein that a black person isn’t responsible to educate a white person on how not to be racist I didn’t see it and still don’t see it as my responsibilty to educate someone on how not to be sexist. My responsibility was to do my job, on time on budget. I don’t see women working in construction as something to be highlighted, just accepted. Same for the aviation industry, same for……EVERY INDUSTRY.

So here I am again, associated loosely with another male dominated industry, watching it implode. There is a difference here though. The people working in the industry so far, in my experience are very much on board with women working in it. It’s not treated as novel, its normal. But there are some consumers who remain in the dark ages, and its those consumers who pay the money to drink the drink, so generally marketing and media plays to that audience.

The highlighting of the language within the publication will be seen as a positive move. However how it was done sits a little uncomfortably with me. One person, one publication, has been made scapegoat for an industry both by suppliers and consumers.

There is no place for sexism in any industry. In fact, there is no place for sexism.

When the original #MeToo movement had its time, there was a point where ALL industries could have and should have looked at themselves and adapted their diversity and inclusivity agendas and procedures. This movement could have been an umbrella to hide under, to change the narrative and gently ease into a more inclusive way of operating without making a big deal about it. Yes the #MeToo movement was more about actual physical harm and/or abuse of persons and of power, and the issue today is more about language, unconscious bias, micro-aggessions, but surely action could have be taken sooner.

This issue was highlighted last week. Why not last month, last year, last decade? Why does it matter now? I agree, time does need to be called on such language, and these things normally require a guarantee of support and a catalyst. So here we are.

Social media communication makes it so much easier to observe the behaviour of companies and people, and it allows the spread of ideas and collaboration in a fast paced manner. But it also has the same speed for negative news and views.

When the original post came out regarding the publication, I retweeted it. I agreed with it in general. What I should have done in hindsight was think about my role in that retweet. Yes, the language used was archiac, vulgar, not of this century. But the vitriol, the perceived bullying in return seems unjust to me. Within 48 hrs a number of companies in the industry issued statements in support of the post. But scroll through the Instagram posts and marketing material of these companies and you will see they are loaded with pictures of men drinking whisky and very few women. This makes the statements seem disingenuous. To me these are companies wanting to publicly fall on the right side of the issue. They felt they had to say something. Great, well done, you issued a statement. Twitter approves.

These statements quite frankly mean jack. They are a holding statement. They are the swan that looks calm and regal, while in the back-office companies are frantically reviewing posts and marketing to see if they too are complicit. Legal teams and PR are creating strategies just in case previous staff come forward with statements of negative behaviour towards them.

Social media is an uncontrollable animal and the companies who remained quiet are deemed to be on the wrong side of the argument. We don’t know that. They may just be taking a strategic look at themselves, making changes and quietly moving forward. Yet they are still judged.

Actions speak volumes, not words. Let’s see what it looks like in 6 months or in 2 yrs…will it quietly return to the status quo, or will there be change? Slow change, to me is better. We must make sure we avoid tokenism. It happens, and it can backfire.

Many have berated the author of the publication for their response, which was angry. Of course it was. This person has supported and raised awareness of whisky as a wonderful drink for many years. Many have happily accepted the awards without question, enjoying the publicity, the marketing and profit generated. The companies were complicit. We, the consumers were complicit.

Within a short period of time some companies have cut ties and stated they want nothing to do with the author. Well, that’s gratitude for you. But its also normal behaviour. It’s looking at the mirror and realising you are just as bad and no-one wants to be seen in a negative light. Social media creates a pack mentality and we’d rather be part of the pack, than be prey.

As has been mentioned a number of times, this is just the start of “the conversation” (God, I hate that phrase!!). Lets not sit around talking. Do something, but also don’t do something.

Don’t start going over marketing and behaviour from companies and people prior to this “moment”. Trust me, there will be dirt in the cleanest of houses. It wastes time. It wastes money. It can ruin lives.

Do draw a line. Accept that none of us is innocent. How many have heard stories, heard comments and NOT said anything in defence of the person to whom the comment was directed? Believe me I have judged men and women on what they look like, what they are doing in that moment of 10 mins that I met them and never saw them again. I have objectified people. I loved a “diet coke break” as much as the next person. I have drunkenly pinched the backside of a good-looking man in a bar. I am not innocent. I am human. (and yes, in true social style I expect to be “cancelled” for that admission).

Going forwards, many of us are in a position where we can instigate change, through example and education. Not calling out and humiliation (and yes I am guilty of that too).

We can show that the industry is a great place to work in. For long term change we need to show young people that the drinks industry is an inclusive industry, and that yes, you do need to have STEM subjects to be able to create great drinks, and yes you can make money from it. By showing that the industry can be welcoming both financially and personally, it will attract a broader scope of people, and a natural balance will come about. It will likely take another decade at least to see the impact so we should be careful about how we support each other in making that transition.

Anything else?

Yes. Lets consider our thoughts on those social media accounts that are basically good looking people (generally women) who are posing (generally scantily dressed) with bottles of whisky. Are we ok with that? Or should they be called out too? Frankly I really don’t care. People should be able to do what they want. But in saying I don’t care, is it a double standard then to say that it’s not acceptable within the industry either as a supplier or a consumer? Just a point to think about.

I’m not the youngest person about. Which means a few things; it means I have had to at times create my own path and not rely on the support of “social conscience, diversity and inclusivity” to help me, it wasn’t there, but I was. It means I had to grow “Claire-sized balls” and learn to hold my own. Do we really need someone to point out the use of language, to point out issues of diversity…or should we learn to be more assertive in our own way?

It means too, that I have come to the point where I see that sometimes, by trying to be so inclusive, we can sometimes create further division and alienate people. It means that to me, the world is pretty much divided into two; those who are arseholes, and those who are not.

Even when someone is perceived as doing wrong, I feel there are ways to deal with it using education, empathy and compassion. We should try consider the effect of our actions on others in all situations.

Final thought: We don’t raise ourselves by pushing others down.

Feeling a little blue….

Welcome to my first blog!! Bit scary to be honest, and as with the horticulture and the whisky scene, it’s a pretty saturated arena. So why bother? Well, I generally have an opinion on most things, and clearly it’s always the right opinion and the world should know this. I’ve been thinking about a blogging for a while. I have a whole list of subjects to write about, but so does everyone else. However, an experience endured yesterday gave me the push I probably didn’t need. Waterford. There I said it. Waterford gave me the push.

I have sat on the side lines and watched whisky social media tear itself into pieces over what has been viewed as likely one of the most controversial approaches to whisky there has been for a while, and it amuses me. I have a curious mind. I enjoy science. I work in horticulture. So to see a brand experimenting and seemingly setting out to confirm the existence and effect of “Terroir” on the flavour of whisky is interesting to say the least. I am not going to write about the experiment. It’s all available on the Waterford webpages, and it’s pretty nerdy. You can see which farm has which soils and which Barley has been grown in it and the whisky that barley has gone into. I like that *idea*. I’m not really going to speak about the samples I tried last night too much. They’ve all been covered in more depth by other bloggers and Vloggers. But I will write my first hand experience of a *tasting* of Waterford whiskies, with Mark Reynier.

Sussex Whisky Appreciation Group (SWAG @WhiskySussex) had kindly let me take the last space on a Zoom tasting and given the buzz about Waterford I was keen to witness for myself the man leading the “Terroir” project. When I joined Mark Reynier (MR) was holding court, and I did wonder if I was late to the party (obviously not, I’m never late). However it wasn’t clear if this was a general chat, lecture, tasting or what really. A few people tried to ask if there was an order for the whiskies. Most of us who see the “tasting” word assume we will sample the drams in a particular order so we can understand the development of the liquid while take note of the nose, the palate, the finish…but no. Just drink it. In fact drink it, add water to it and throw all the samples into one glass and mix them together (MR’s instructions, not mine).

However I did ignore this to start with as I wanted to try these samples as I would with any other whisky. The Ballykilaven and Bannow Island were quite similar to me. Grassy on nose with with a chemically undertone which I can only liken to a diluted version of the Buttercup medicine I had as a child. Palate is biscuity, sweet with a short finish. The Ratheadon for me is a far more balanced and enjoyable dram. I added a little water to all three…for me it neither improved or made worse the palate. However, MR was right, mixing all three together is a significant improvement….which as we discovered is the ultimate aim; a blended whisky.

As the talk went on, MR’s passion for the project became more and more apparent, however, so did the contempt and disdain for anyone who had a question. I am all up for debate and learning, however for people who genuinely want to ask questions, to be shot down, over talked and not allowed to finish their questions is just plain disrespectful. But I digress…

A number of claims (lets call them soundbites) were made during the talk;

“Waterford will NOT give you a hangover”

“No fixed recipe, it’s a floating margin” when asked about production process to maintain the barley/terroir flavour profile.

“Don’t open it (sic), it will make a lot of money one day” when speaking about Pilgrimage.

I found MR contrary, circular, and at times downright frustrating, but only from the point of view that he contradicts himself regularly. We were told that wood is not important, but minutes later we’re told that only the best French oak from the best Chateau’s will do and that “Every whisky benefits from it’s time in oak” (MR) … From a basic scientific point of view we know that wood has a number of properties and effects on a spirit most notably, flavour. It’s why certain woods, treatments and dare I say “finishes”* are employed by a a distiller. (*MR doesn’t agree with finishing casks either).

Back to the geekiness; my ears pricked up when MR noted that coming up for Waterford will be the development, growth and use of 3 Heritage barley varieties; Hunter (last used 1979), Goldthorpe (c1900) and Old Irish (Bere). (NB all these were noted by MR so he is the source here, not research on T’interweb). I asked MR “How” these varieties will be developed to maintain true seed, and vigour, given that Waterford, right now is “Terroir” driven and if terroir has an impact on flavour, then surely maintaining the health of the grains, chosen for flavour is of paramount importance. The response was somewhat vague, so I assume it will be done within controlled conditions, though MR was clear it wouldn’t be in a covered, “clean” area, but with use of contamination barriers. I will watch the recording and see if I can glean anymore (whisky was being consumed by all of us at this stage).

Winding up. Towards the end of the meeting, more questions were asked, more opinions and comments given, and woe betide anyone who tried to push the Terroir/flavour/production process. A generalised question, which I know many people are asking is ” If you are going to tell us to mix the whiskies, if you’re going to blend them altogether…what’s the point of *proving* Terroir exists in the first place?” The response, no surprise was (pp) “If you haven’t been listening to me then why i have I been here for the last 1 1/2 hours? Maybe its not for you, go back to drinking any other whisky, Waterford isn’t for YOU”. (This is my polite version).

As someone who works in horticulture, I am on board with “Terroir”, otherwise known as environmental factors. Reports and studies abound show that environmental factors affect growth, and flavour of everything. MR doesn’t believe any reports into the existence of “Terroir” exist. A shallow dive into any search engine provider will bring up various studies and articles. I will of course send him some links, just to help out.

To conclude, I got what I was expecting from the experience. I already agree that “terroir” is a thing. I don’t need convincing of that. It was made pretty clear that this is just the beginning of the Waterford journey and that ultimately the goal is a blended whisky, where in essence whether you can taste “terroir” or not, it makes no difference. Drink it or don’t. Like it or don’t. MR doesn’t care what you think, it’s his project, his baby and he’s playing with it. I look forward to trying more whisky from Waterford, to see how it develops. The story is interesting, we’re all talking about it. And thats the thing isn’t it? We’re all talking about it. It’s all that is needed to sell a Whisky.

I’ll leave you with Mark’s final comment (after he told us he’s had enough and is going for his tea and bailing from the meeting)..

“Terroir will not be mentioned after the end of this year” (MR)