By Rachel Friedman, Bon Appétit
Heather Greene, whiskey sommelier (Credit: Frank Wu)
In the world of whiskey, Heather Greene has some significant firsts: first American woman to serve on the Scotch Malt Whisky Society Tasting Panel in Scotland; first woman to win Whisky Magazine's American Young Ambassador of the Year award. And now she's added another: the first female whiskey sommelier at the recently opened Flatiron Room in Manhattan.
Greene may be first, but she's not alone. Women all over the world are increasingly involved in the making and marketing of whiskey, not to mention the drinking of it. She gave BA an inside look at what that's meant for how she drinks and what she serves.
How did you get into whiskey?
Heather Greene: I am a professional keyboard player and singer/songwriter, and while on tour in Scotland I just fell in love with that whole beautiful world of whiskey. I started working at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in Edinburgh. I just went and asked for a job. For me, whiskey making, and the passion and the sensuality that go into it, comes from that same place of creation that music does.
Do you need particularly good tasting abilities in order to become a whiskey expert?
HG: I was really insecure when I first started serving on the Scotch Malt Whiskey Society tasting panel. They asked me to pass a nosing and tasting exam. I was really nervous, but I passed it in a very high percentile. That gave me the courage to go back into tasting panels where it's predominantly men. That was a big moment for me because then I felt armed to talk about it. It is intimidating when you're around men. It's still intimidating. The other day I was talking to this guy about bourbon. He said: Bourbon can only be made in one region in Kentucky. I said: Actually, it can be made in more than one region. He said: Are you sure about that? I said: Yeah, I'm pretty sure about that. So he has to get up and fact-check on his phone in front of me. I thought: Would this happen with a guy? I don't think so.
I've heard that women have more discerning palates. True?
HG: It goes back to reasons of biology. Smell was the way women would identify appropriate mates. Right now we go into a supermarket and everything is packaged and we don't nose, like, rotten meat the way we used to. We don't rely on our nosing ability the way we used to when we used it for mating and survival. But when you coax it out of women, they will rise to the occasion. Anecdotally, for me, women outperform men.
Do you think women have to be buoyed before they feel confident enough to express their whiskey opinion?
HG: 100 percent. I've seen men discuss whiskey as a badge of honor. There is a feel of exclusivity to it, and they want to be in the know--just like everybody does. I think women tend to back down the way I did until I was lucky enough to take that test. Sometimes they have a great time at the tasting, but they aren't ready to make the next step to actually order it. They haven't been taught that this is acceptable. I had one woman ask if I thought ordering whiskey was an aggressive act.
I always think it's really badass to see a woman ordering whiskey.
HG: I do, too. But maybe it's like someone who wore like a really nice sheer lipstick and then you put red on her. She looks really good in it and she loves it, but she might not be ready to go out on the town wearing it. I don't think it will be like that for a long time, but right now we're in a transition.
Why are women more involved in whiskey than ever before?
HG: Like we've talked about, women do really well with nosing and whiskey. Then there's Mad Men and the advent of nostalgia in pop culture, and this return to sophistication and entertaining at home. More and more women are also writing at influential publications. Women are tastemakers and influencers and they are curious about this. There's the mixology craze. Now you have mixologists very attuned to different notes and aromas that come out of whiskey and use those notes to create beautiful cocktails. Finally, in the 1970s, women started to become included in the wine world, and now there is a huge market. You get to the point where you ask: What's next? This is the new frontier.
Do you still get the whole "Wow, you're a woman who likes whiskey!"? And are you totally sick of it?
HG: Yeah, I am. Yes, I get it every night. It depends on who is asking. I think I'm more tired of it when it's before the benefit of the doubt. It's fine if it's after because there really aren't that many women in whiskey.
Here's the question that really annoys me. After a whole tasting with me, a man will then ask: Do you really drink this stuff? I want to poke my eyes out with the nearest sharp object. I have gone through a lecture in front of 90 people where they ask me very detailed questions about how you cask a whiskey or aroma properties or production methods, and then we'll do a blind tasting and evaluate and someone will come up and say: Do you really drink this? It's infuriating... I fear that I'm always going to be a woman in whiskey. I just want to be a whiskey person, but it's not that way yet.
There's this assumption that women need lighter whiskeys and men go for heavier ones. Do you feel that, on the flip side, men ignore some of the lighter, softer whiskeys?
HG: All the time. It's funny how gender plays into whiskey. I love smoky, peaty whiskeys. I have a great private collection, and they are in there. But it's almost like having a spice cabinet with all different versions of peppers. You kind of want some of the other stuff, too, to add variety.
Can you recommend three whiskeys men overlook that they shouldn't?
HG: Highland and Japanese ones--and bourbons made outside of Kentucky.
This story originally appeared on Bon Appétit's website.