This Seattle group of discerning female imbibers is being courted by distilleries from Sodo to Scotland.
For a group that keeps such a low profile, the Women Who Love Whiskey club attracts a lot of suitors. Distilleries give them private tours. Brand reps give them rare single malts to sample, and once one of the highest ranking female executives in bourbon country interrupted her vacation to speak at their luncheon.
With that executive, Maker’s Mark vice president Victoria MacRae-Samuels, in the house recently, it didn’t take much prodding for these women to be on time for a meet-and-greet luncheon at Re:public in South Lake Union. Between us, a few may have even called in sick to attend.
They buzzed around her like a celebrity until Jamie Buckman, one of the club’s leaders, said the only words that could grab their attention: “All right, who wants to drink whiskey?”
Women Who Love Whiskey
The group meets three to five times per month for tastings at bars, restaurants and distilleries around Seattle. The membership is $50 annually, though that’s expected to go up soon. The group charges $3-$25 per event for nonmembers (read men) who want to tag along. For more info, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
They are three dozen strong, these dames with their drams. Most are millennials from Seattle who work behind the bar or desk as attorneys or in the tech industry.
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Why so many distilleries would offer this group exclusive tastings can be summed up by a set of numbers: while sales of vodka stagnated at 1.6 percent growth in 2013-2014, sales of single malt rose 6.4 percent, bourbon 7.4 percent and Irish whiskey 9.1 percent, which the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, a national trade association in Washington, D.C., attributed partly to women drinking more whiskey.
In a big whiskey market such as Western Washington — where locals have been known to camp overnight for new releases — that stat was an eye-opener for Seattle-area distilleries as well as the big brands. And it confirmed what brand reps, including Mitch Bechard of the famed Glenfiddich scotch, have noticed in recent years.
“Ten years ago, it would be all men at tastings. Now when I do tastings, I see at least 40 percent are females,” said Bechard. “It’s not the old man’s tasting anymore, not your smoking-jacket-with-a-pipe-kind of drinker.”
Last month, Bechard set aside a day to lunch with Women Who Love Whiskey and later led another tasting with a women’s business group at the Columbia Tower Club when he was in town to schmooze with bars and other accounts.
“Women are a big target market,” he said, “and Seattle is one of our most important markets in the Western part of the United States.”
Thanks to suitors such as Glenfiddich, Women Who Love Whiskey has found itself with a very busy (and boozy) social calender, hosting three to five events a month.
Started in December, the group was formed by three bartenders: Bridget Maloney of Witness, Buckman of Bastille Cafe & Bar and Stoneburner, and Missy Cross, who has since moved to New Orleans.
More often than not, the women say, if they order Jim Beam on the rocks and their male friend orders some froufrou fruity drink, servers will drop the highball in front of the guy.
“There’s a part of me that’s sad that there has to be a Women Who Love Whiskey,” Buckman said. “But we’ve watched how difficult it is to be taken seriously. There are many women who love to drink whiskey more than vodka.”
Like a book club only with good booze, the women share tasting notes and lead whiskey 101 discussions.
They charge $50 (expected to go up soon) for an annual membership and charge per event for nonmembers (read: men) who want to tag along or check out the group.
By forming a club, the women figured that would make it worthwhile for booze companies to squeeze them in between the tastings the distilleries hold for bars and other clients.
They never figured how correct they were on that front.
Not only have whiskey companies from Seattle to Scotland been receptive to their invitations, but many companies, through their local distributors, now court Women Who Love Whiskey.
When MacRae-Samuels, VP of Maker’s Mark in Kentucky, vacationed in Seattle this spring, an intermediary made an introduction, and she met them for lunch.
MacRae-Samuels, who graduated from University of Puget Sound, can’t recall seeing women drinking bourbon when she lived in Queen Anne, yet alone a women’s whiskey circle.
“You just didn’t hear about those kind of events,” she said. “But I notice them now. They have more visibility.”
And more clout. “We jumped at the chance” to give them a private tour, said Emerson Lamb, co-owner of Westland Distillery in Sodo, which recently was anointed the nation’s best-craft whiskey by the American Distilling Institute.
“Whiskey is very much shedding that mantle of an old man’s drink. The demographic of the whiskey consumer is skewed to younger and also female.”
For all their geeky pontification on “charred casks,” the women know how to throw a party. Recently, they took over the speak-easy upstairs bar of Tavern Law on Capitol Hill. The password to enter? “Manhattan Project.”
They received a line of Hudson Whiskeys and Carpano Antica vermouths to play with, and play the women did, stirring different bourbons and rye to figure which made the best Manhattan while feigning hard duty.
Ursula Holder, a research scientist at the University of Washington, and Angeline Northup, an attorney, went straight for the Hudson Maple Rye and Hudson Double Charred Whiskey. By straight, we also mean that’s how they wanted it, because, apparently, that’s how they roll.
“If you go to a show or dive bar and order a shot of whiskey, it’s not going to be watered down,” Holder explained. “It’s going to taste the same everywhere. You can’t mess it up.”
Nearby, Melissa Lehuta reminisced about a dram of Teeling Irish whiskey Rum Cask she had with the women a week prior. “I like that spicy note. And holy crap, you get a little bit of dried fruit, the same profile as you would get from a rum but in whiskey. That’s like a perfect marriage.”
Some hesitated to have seconds, but the high priestess, Buckman, egged them on. “It’s just a wee dram. How much trouble can you get into,” she said. “Ok, don’t answer that.”
They chuckled and grabbed seconds (and in some cases fourths and fifths).
Later, Buckman, who considers herself a Glenrothes ’85 kind of woman, said, “When you find a bottle that you fall in love with, it can literally follow you around your entire life. It comes out for special occasions — when someone dies, gets married or has a child. There’s something really special about that.”