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SB Voices: Stop gender bias in spirits

Different people and occasions should be the inspiration behind new spirits products, not a reductive and out-dated idea of ‘male’ and ‘female’ palates, Amy Hopkins argues.

Gender bias in spirits restricts consumer choice

Last week, an email pinged into my inbox that required a double take. A doctor, it said – a ‘feminist’ doctor – had made a decision to “revolutionise the national [US] spirits industry for the female consumer”. Brilliant! I thought. Being a woman in the spirits industry, I am privy to its shortfalls in terms of gender equality – from a profusion of whisky marketing campaigns that quite clearly single out men as their target drinker, to the often unaddressed issue of sexual harassment in the on-trade, a lack of women in key production roles, and the number of times a condescending voice suggested I add water to my whisky as “it’s a little strong”, leaving my male peers to happily and autonomously make their own dilution decisions. What luxury.

So, I proceeded with a positive mindset to read about what Dr Nicola Nice, the Joan of Arc of the spirits world, had planned. My enthusiasm quickly waned – the revolutionary tool that was said to have the ability to bring about a “fourth wave of feminism” in the spirits industry was revealed to be… a botanical gin liqueur. Indeed, a botanical gin liqueur whose floral marketing imagery challenges that of Laura Ashley and whose “aromatic” ingredients offer a solution to the fact that “many women find traditional gin to be too bitter and/or verdant”. Said to be “crafted with gin and other lovelies”, the product, called Pomp & Whimsy, took the “concept of gin and made it truer to us [women] and our palates”.

But herein lies the contradiction: rather than challenge traditional gender bias in spirits, this is another example of a brand lazily singling out a demographic with flavours ‘specifically designed’ for what they call a ‘male’ or ‘female’ palate – scientific evidence for which is thin at best. Cultural and social factors provide better arguments for why men and women might be seen to largely enjoy different tastes – if ‘going out for a beer’ is a cultural norm for male bonding, it’s no wonder that men, as a broad consumer demographic, may enjoy bitter flavours more. After all, people enjoy what they have become accustomed to.

But these are the very types of restrictive social factors and expectations drinks marketing should set out to challenge, to encourage consumers to broaden their experiences. Sure, Pomp & Whimsy has a USP and could be seen as an attractive product by many women, but it also ostracises potential new consumers – in this case, men, a significant number of whom will certainly have an aversion to bitter or ‘challenging’ (in industry speak) flavours.

For female consumers, I don’t see how they could benefit from ‘special’ products created ‘just for them’ and their ‘delicate’ palates. Spirits marketing and production needs to become more inclusive, and not divisive, for all people with all manner of tastes. Creating a female-centred sub-section of spirits is just a bad as excluding them entirely from traditionally male-dominated categories. Ultimately, it limits consumer choice and reinforces stereotypes.

Is it a positive thing to have another female executive such as Dr Nicola Nice in the spirits world? Absolutely. Should women be considered more in spirits marketing? For sure. But this felt like a cheap marketing ploy, and perhaps a missed opportunity to further the conversation about the real needs and representations of female spirits drinkers.

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