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It takes courage for a young woman whisky writer to call out a giant of the drinks industry – particularly when he is the author of a best-selling annual anthology about whiskies that has become a key reference since its launch in 2003.
That author is Jim Murray, the man behind the much-lauded (though oft-criticised) ‘Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible’, which first appeared in 2003 and which has rated some 20,000 whiskies ever since.
His annual critique, particularly his ranking of the world’s best whiskies, is eagerly anticipated and much used by producers in their marketing. Being named 2021 World Whisky of the Year, for example, as Beam Suntory’s Alberta Premium Cask Strength Rye (65.1% ABV) was in the just-published 2021 edition, is a sure-fire guarantee of a huge boost in sales.
Murray described the Canadian rye whisky as “a succulence to the oils, balanced perfectly by ulmo and manuka honeys… the most chewable Canadian mouthful possibly ever”. However, it was other descriptions in his latest work that prompted that young whisky writer, named Becky Paskin (more of her in a moment), to call the author out for what she believes is sexist and demeaning language towards women.
Here are some examples from the book:
• Have I had this much fun with a sexy 41-year-old Canadian before? Well, yes I have. But it was a few years back now and it wasn’t a whisky. Was the fun we had better? Probably not. It is hard to imagine what could be, as this whisky simply seduces you with the lightness and knowledgeable meaning of its touch, butterfly kissing your taste buds, finding time after time your whisky erogenous zone or g spots … and then surrendering itself with tender and total submission.” [Canadian Club Chronicles, Water of Windsor]
• If this was a woman, I’d want to make love to it every night. And in the morning. And afternoon, if I could find the time… and energy…” [Penderyn Celt, made by an all-women team]
• “This celebrates maltiness in the same way a sex addict revels in a threesome.” [Penderyn Single Cask]
• “Like a 40-year-old woman who has kept her figure and looks, and now only satin stands in the way between you and so much beauty and experience… and believe me: she’s spicy…” [Highland Park 40 Year Old]
•And – sorry to editorialise but I feel compelled to – the worst of the lot: “No Port. No sherry. Just the wonderful opportunity to taste naked Fannys.” [On Fannys Bay Tasmanian Single Malt bourbon cask, Barrel no. 39]
Becky Paskin was having none of it. And she let Jim Murray and the wider world know about it. She did so via Instagram, writing: “This post will no doubt attract some hate comments, but something needs to be said. Why does the whisky industry still hold Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible in such high regard when his reviews are so sexist and vulgar?
After citing a few examples (including some of those above), Becky noted. “Despite sexist and explicit language being a mainstay of Murray’s reviews, his ‘bible’ is still held in high regard by brands and whisky lovers when it’s published every year.
“Much of the industry has been working hard to change whisky’s reputation as a ‘man’s drink’, but condoning, even celebrating, a book that contains language like this erases much of that progress and allows the objectification of women in whisky.
“This. Has. To. Stop.
“Any brand celebrating their placement in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible should be ashamed.”
Felipe Schrieberg, Senior Contributor Spirits for Forbes, joined in the exchange with Ms Paskin, noting within an article headed ‘Sexism In Whisky: Why You Shouldn’t Read The Whisky Bible’: “In an interview last year, Murray likens his Murray Method [of judging] to sex while hypnotized, and it comes off as pretty smarmy. Then there are his tasting notes, which sometimes make for downright slimy reading.”
Before I go any further, a disclosure. A few months back I was introduced to Becky while I was looking for a project leader to develop an exciting virtual expo concept for the spirits industry. I’d dubbed it World of Spirits and, uniquely, I planned it to be both a consumer and a trade event. That’s a hugely ambitious proposition and – stretched already beyond limit on the day and night job – I knew I had to find someone who was as passionate about the spirits industry as I was.
One hour in the great company of Becky and I knew I had found my person. She liked my evangelism for the concept and I liked her infectious combination of knowledge, passion, creativity, common sense and drive. We agreed to set off on a journey together, with World of Spirits Virtual Expo now set to take place next March.
This week as we were due to announce the event, Becky touched base to warn me that there was something I should be aware of. Her email was accompanied by excerpts from that day’s editions of the Times in Scotland and England. “I wrote a comment on my social media pages yesterday and it’s kind of blown up,” she said with admirable understatement.
In fact, all hell had broken loose. The story had gone viral on Instagram, the mainstream and drinks industry media had leapt into the fray and Mr Murray himself had issued a statement. In the interests of balance, I republish key excerpts (courtesy of The Spirits Business) of his retort, taking the liberty of highlighting certain observations in bold.
“This is not a matter of alleged sexism on the trumped up charges against me – which have clearly been concocted for very clear purposes – this is an attack on the very essence of what it is to be a critic in any sphere, be it music, art, sport, wine or whisky. In other words: an attack on free thought and free speech.
“This is now a battle between free speech and humourless puritanism. I am not alone in finding this very sinister.
“I am not sexist; the Whisky Bible is not sexist, has never been sexist and I will not bow to this faux outrage. I have always fought the bully and I will do so here. Debate has been replaced by the baying of the mob, common sense and decency by straitjacketed dogma. Frankly, these people appal me because what they are doing is undermining society itself.
“How, in God’s name, can, for instance, likening a whisky to an orgasm be remotely construed as sexist? Last I heard, male, females, transgender people, everyone is capable of an orgasm. I am a professional writer and use a language that adults – for the Whisky Bible is designed for adults – can relate to. I paint pictures of a whisky. And if that, on the rare occasion, is the picture or sensation that formulates in my mind, then I say so. As I have every right to.
“Rather than write interesting, illuminating and compelling articles about whisky, other writers would rather engage in ‘cancel culture’ to [bring] down the world’s most successful author on the subject.
“These outrageous and concocted allegations will not derail me in my life’s quest. My championing of great whisky will continue. My freedom of speech will continue. Whether these latter day Cromwellians like it or not.”
Ah that old chestnut about ‘freedom’. Freedom to do what exactly? To body shame? To denigrate a whole gender? To use language that if Mr Murray uttered it in a room full of people rather than in a book would have people walk out in disgust?
If Mr Murray thinks that talking of “naked Fannys” is non-sexist, inoffensive, or (heaven forbid) simply painting a picture or sensation that formulates in his mind then he is probably best avoided as a drinking companion. Would he stand up in a (hopefully mixed) board room of a whisk(e)y company and use such language?
If he thinks describing a highland whisky as “like a 40-year-old woman who has kept her figure and looks” is acceptable then he must live in a cocoon of like-minded, sexist, socially backward and monolithic individuals. The comment is reptilian.
To portray himself as a valiant defender of free speech, manning (in every sense) the barricades against an invading army of Cromwellian kill-joys, and ‘cancel culture’ zealots suggests he has spent too much time in the oak and not enough in the real world.
How has the whisk(ey) industry reacted? Pretty damn well in my view. I include some of the social media reaction below. And I applaud Beam Suntory, in particular, who must have been jumping for joy about the accolade given to Alberta Premium Cask Strength Rye until they realised what else was written in the book.
I think that says it all. Bravo Beam Suntory. Bravo the other houses that came out with similarly critical comments. Bravo Felip Schrieberg. And bravo Becky Paskin. I am proud that you are our partner on World of Spirits, an event that will welcome women and men from all over the world but will bar sexism from coming anywhere near the door.
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This post will no doubt attract some hate comments, but something needs to be said. Why does the whisky industry still hold Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible in such high regard when his reviews are so sexist and vulgar? In the 2021 edition there are 34 references to whisky being ‘sexy’ and many more crudely comparing drinking whisky to having sex with women. Penderyn is made by an all-female team of distillers and blenders, yet this is how he refers to their whisky: “If this was a woman, I’d want to make love to it every night. And in the morning. And afternoon, if I could find the time… and energy…” (Penderyn Celt) And again: “This celebrates maltiness in the same way a sex addict revels in a threesome.” (Penderyn Single Cask) Murray refers to Canadian Club Chronicles, Water of Windsor as: “Have I had this much fun with a sexy 41-year-old Canadian before? Well, yes I have. But it was a few years back now and it wasn’t a whisky. Was the fun we had better? Probably not.” A few more examples: “If whisky could be sexed, this would be a woman. Every time I encounter Morangie Artisan, it pops up with a new look, a different perfume. And mood. It appears not to be able to make up its mind. But does it know how to pout, seduce and win your heart…? Oh yes.” (Glenmorangie Artisan Casks) “The malt for the woman of your life, first to enjoy her to seduce and/or be seduced by, and then to share together.” (Glenfarclas Family Casks) Despite sexist and explicit language being a mainstay of Murray’s reviews, his ‘bible’ is still held in high regard by brands and whisky lovers when it’s published every year. Much of the industry has been working hard to change whisky’s reputation as a ‘man’s drink’, but condoning, even celebrating, a book that contains language like this erases much of that progress and allows the objectification of women in whisky. Women working in the industry continue to be asked if we even like whisky, with ambassadors and female whisky makers often enduring leering comments during whisky tastings and festivals. This. Has. To. Stop. Any brand celebrating their placement in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible should be ashamed.
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The issues raised in the last few days are more deeply rooted than the comments printed in a whisky reviews guide. So this is the first of many open conversations with the whisky community on the issues of sexism, objectification of women and gender stereotyping, and how the industry can collectively make progressive, positive change. Thanks to @themisswhisky @thejenniferwren @_simo_simo_ @louisemcguane @davemitton @beckhar67 @belleswhisky