Women in Irish Whiskey #GirlGang

We hit a pretty big milestone last week. We welcomed our first team member ‘Blaise Kelly’ on board. Blaise is headed to the U.S.A. shortly to represent us over there. With the addition of Blaise to the team, we are now to the best of my knowledge, the only All-Female Irish Whiskey Company. I do not for a single second hold sway with the idea that women approach whiskey any differently than men. Neither do I think we should be pandered to with pink bottles or pared back tasting notes so that our poor feeble ‘female’ noses can grasp complexity of flavours. Being an All-Female team does NOT mean you’ll be seeing that kind of stuff from us. As an All-Female team, we’ll behave and do business no differently than any other Irish Whiskey Business. Yet inherently,  I have a feeling our organisation will be perceived as being different.


Photo Credit John Kelly

I will say in the past few years of working in Irish Whiskey, I’ve encountered some pretty spectacular gender bias. On reflection though it was ever thus though in my career. Once on assignment to France when I was 28 I was introduced as a ‘Belle Fille’ literally ‘pretty girl’ in front of the entire management organisation (mostly guys) there was whistling and clapping. I was standing up to give a presentation on a strategy I had spent 6 months developing for the brand…Look l know how to accept and appreciate a compliment, but the context was wrong,  the Pretty Girl thing got the biggest round of applause. .….I remember being on a business trip in my early 30’s  and meeting the 50+ year old Country Director of Marketing for a well-known multinational. We went out to a working dinner to a key account with a group. He proceeded to drink far too much, and then later after I had gone to bed back in the hotel he showed up at my door trying to come in. I politely and laughingly pushed him away he called the phone in my room so many times spouting nonsense that I eventually unplugged the phone, when he came knocking again, I just ignored him until he went away. It was never spoken of again.

Then there was the time I was on an overnight business trip at a food and wine festival with a sales rep. After another working dinner, where he proceeded to drink too much, he climbed from his hotel room window ledge to my hotel room window ledge two stories up. He rapped on my window pane and I was faced with the choice of letting him in, in his bathrobe, or pushing him to his death. Thinking fast, I jammed my hotel room door open with a chair let him in off the window ledge and kicked him out of the hotel room door with one swift movement.

Now that Blaise has joined the business at almost the same age as I was when I started working in the drinks industry, it puts those memories in a very different light. I’m a pretty tough character, but looking back at those times and me in my 20’s and early 30’s I have recently reflected as to why I didn’t report any of those idiots for that nonsense. The answer is really simple, back then if I had it would have hurt my career. The most important thing to me back then was my career, and I would not have jeopardised it for ANYTHING. Who would I have reported it to? Who would have listened to me over a senior executive? I choose to not say anything and to rise above it, and to attempt to show that I could take the flack that was simply a part of the job. I should not have been presented with that choice in the first place.

If you think I’m coming over all militant feminist, just imagine your 20 something daughter or sister in any of those situations……

Times have changed and I believe that the drinks industry has in the most part radically changed its institutional behaviour towards the young women who work in it. Much of that older guard who tolerated and engaged in that behaviour are gone now and good riddance, I have a bag of other stories that would curl your toes…… By the time I left the cocoon of drinks multinationals there were strict policies and reporting structures in place to safeguard from this kind of thing. Let me be clear though that there are still plenty of industry shows and in-house events with girls in skimpy outfits giving out shots, that will never go away……

Gender diversity in Irish Whiskey is, how should I put this, not the greatest. Granted industry bodies like IBEC make an effort as do the multinationals as part of policy. However, every single person I deal with in the old and newish guard Irish Whiskey industry currently is a dude.  Blenders, coopers, Warehouse keepers, wholesalers, brand owners, Bottlers, potential Investors, the list goes on. The Irish Whiskey Association meetings are a bone fide SAUSAGE-FEST folks. There are of course some Husband & Wife teams that are coming on strong and my hat goes off to them, women’s presence in the industry is increasing slightly, but next time you open a weekend paper to read about the surge of the Irish Whiskey industry Count the quotes from the dudes vs the ladies, you’ll see what I mean.

I’m not entirely sure why this is the case, why there is an imbalance there. The drinks industry is a fantastic rewarding and fun industry to work in. Contrary to popular belief in Ireland a job in the industry is NOT about ‘drinking.’ It’s about whiskey or product/category knowledge, understanding production & flavours, marketing & sales skills, negotiation skills, logistics, finance, branding, Communications and relationship development to name but a few skills. Your gender is irrelevant as far as I am concerned, you just need the focus and the drive to work on those skills to be a success.

I don’t think Blaise will face the kind of intolerable behaviour and overtly sexist attitudes to women that I once did in the industry. For one thing, I would not tolerate a single sniff of that around her by any customer or distributor or anyone for that matter. When I started in the industry you just had to go along with misogynistic behaviour, I sure as heck don’t feel the need to do so these days.  I know though that it is still out there in pockets. I can spot it a mile away, even over the phone, and it reveals a lot about the person holding that attitude, which can ultimately be used to my advantage.

Mansplaining is a VERY real thing in my world folks……

There is a reason for the rise of the terms  #GirlGang and #Girlpower. These days women know exactly what we are capable of, we have no doubts even though others may continue to harbour them. Bring back the lost art of Irish Whiskey Bonding? Can Do. Travel the U.S.A. alone telling the J.J. Corry brand story? No bother. The only significant thing about us being an all-female whiskey company is that we have zero ambiguity as to what we are capable of achieving together. Women helping Women is a powerful thing and in spite of all the progress made in the past two decades in the industry, we still need that to ensure our mutual success.

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