Celebrating Women's Month with Women Who Whiskey

Celebrating Women's Month with Women Who Whiskey

In the past, there has been a stigma that hard spirits, like whiskey, are what men drink, and it’s unapproachable for women. Thankfully, that mistaken overgeneralization is coming to an end; it’s becoming clearer and clearer that women love whiskey and are willing to explore varieties and learn more about this delicious and fascinating spirit.

In fact, it's interesting to know that in history, women played a central role in distilling until prohibition, and Fred Minnick’s book Whiskey Women charts the lives of many female distillers into the 1920s and beyond.

So it is quite fitting that this March, which happens to be 'Womens Month', we're celebrating some notable women in whiskey who have pushed the boundaries to create a space that can now be unapologetically enjoyed by all.

First up is Women Who Whiskey, an experimental whiskey club for women.

The club prides itself on giving it's members the opportunity to learn about varieties of whiskeys and cocktail culture, and to join a network of like-minded women who have the same curiosity.

They also host events in different venues around their chapter cities (Nairobi being the only in Africa), where members can try new spirits, discuss mixology with seasoned bartenders, and enjoy the company of other whiskey-loving ladies.

Bars Kenya had the opportunity of speaking to the Founder and Principal, Julia Ritz Toffoli. We also spoke to the President of the Nairobi Chapter, Mary Anne Mumbi, and here's what they had to say:

How did you first get interested in whisk(e)y?

With a French mother and an Italian father, I grew up around wine, bubbly, and aperitivi, but didn’t truly discover whiskey until college. When I moved to Montreal, Canada to study at McGill University, Rye & Gingers were the cocktail du jour, and where I realized whiskey was a category to discover. Curiosity piqued, I followed the Rye to other whiskeys and before long I was a convert.

In 2010, I moved to New York City to pursue a graduate degree in Human Rights Advocacy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, where my passions for whisk(e)y, feminism, and social justice met, culminating in Women Who Whiskey.

How did you go on to start Women Who Whiskey Club?

When I moved to New York in 2010, it was at the epicenter of the cocktail revival and speakeasy boom. You couldn’t throw a rock without hitting a trendy new cocktail bar with a whiskey book.

New to the city, and excited to explore, I eagerly set out to see what the city had to offer. But as I made my way into the world of whiskey, I was often met with condescending comments and felt excluded from what I quickly came to understand was meant to be a “man’s domain.” Unsurprisingly, nearly all the women I met shared similar experiences.

In 2011, tired of hearing, “that’s a strong drink for a little lady,” or “wouldn’t you rather see the wine list?” I gathered female friends who felt the same way and led a series of outings; I wanted us to be able to explore our city—and enjoy our whiskey—sans mansplaining. We needed to be able to feel comfortable drinking whiskey in our own city. So why don’t we get together and do that? And so that’s kind of how the idea was born.

What is the inspiration behind the Club?

Both for amateurs and connoisseurs, wWw is dedicated to creating a space where our members can cultivate their passions for whiskey and community. With a focus on inclusion, wWw aims to create an educational and experimental environment for those who have all-too-often been left out of the traditionally male-dominated world of whiskey. Membership provides the opportunity to learn about spirits and cocktail culture, and to join a world-wide network of like-minded people with a taste for curiosity and delicious drams.

What do you love most about your role?

The biggest highlight has been all of the amazing women I’ve met doing this. Aside from the hundreds of members I’ve had the delight to meet and share a drink with, some of my chapter presidents are women whom I still haven’t met in person, who live in cities on the other side of the country or world that I’ve never been to, and yet we have this sort of kindred spirit. A passion that connects us, and a passion to do right by that passion.

You’re a young, dedicated woman in whisk(e)y: do you face any challenges based on your age/gender?

To be honest, while gender-based discrimination was really the genesis of the club, once I started Women Who Whiskey, I really felt that direct discrimination melt away. The support the club has received, from men, women, venues, partners, brands, has been nothing but supportive. There are still some skeptical bar patrons—always men—who sometimes raise an eyebrow at our endeavor, but by virtue of just existing we are changing their perception of what they should be skeptical about. But, while my experience in the whiskey world and world of hospitality that wWw operates in has, for the most part, been positive, that’s not to say that I haven’t experienced challenges because of my age and gender, though those experiences have mostly occurred in my personal life and day job.

Do you think more women should or could work in whisk(e)y?

I think both, and I think it’s changing for the positive, albeit slowly. I can’t speak to how diverse most whiskey companies are, but I do know that in the 10 years I’ve been running wWw, I have worked with as many women as men—whether brand ambassadors, bartenders, distillers, blenders, etc. I think there is an opportunity for women who take up more positions of leadership, but in my experience there has never been a dearth of women working as the face of a brand, which goes face in changing society’s perception of who whiskey drinkers are.

Do you plan on expanding the Women Who Whiskey into other regions?

wWw is an international organization. We are mostly US-based, but have a few international chapters in Africa, Canada, and Europe. But we are definitely open to expanding further!

Desert Island Drams: you can take three to your island —what are they?

Picking favorites is my least favorite kind of question—it’s too hard! :) But right now, based on what I’ve been in the mood for, I’d say Redbreast 12, Kavalan Sherry Oak, and High West Double Rye.

Click HERE to Read More on President of the Nairobi Chapter, Mary Anne Mumbi's experience in running the first Chapter in Africa.