Neil Ridley: This is whisky's greatest opportunity to stamp out sexism in the spirit

Neil Ridley

Neil Ridley

24 September 2020

As the whisky industry promises tougher measures in the light of the recent sexism allegations against 'Whisky Bible' author, Jim Murray, Neil Ridley wonders what these might actually look like and how its stance towards gender inequality in whisky can move positively forward

With the exception of a few die-hard fans – and of course, the author himself – it’s pretty fair to say that the whole whisky industry is completely united in the condemnation of Jim Murray’s most recent book, Whisky Bible 2021, which contained a number of unpleasant references that sexualised and objectified women.  

Brands must now weigh up and deliver a very clear and critical message. Failure to make a direct example here points to weakness and fear

At best, you could probably describe Murray’s self-aggrandising tasting-note style as the sort of double-denim-clad guff you might have heard on Top Gear, before Jeremy Clarkson got all punchy over a missing steak dinner. However, at its roots, it represents something much more serious and sinister indeed. The 2021 edition of the Whisky Bible is not the first time Murray has used blatant and demeaning sexual innuendo to describe the flavour of a whisky and it’s high time this came to a swift end.

It took the courage of Becky Paskin, an experienced drinks writer and co-founder of Our Whisky, a website which actively seeks to promote gender equality in a notoriously male-dominated industry, to call time on the author’s unacceptable behaviour.

The response to the tasting notes (which I won’t glamourise or give unnecessary promotional column inches to but you can see examples in Paskin's original post here) from the industry has been swift, with both independent brands and the major players, such as William Grant & Sons, Dewars and Diageo posting positive statements on Instagram in support of Paskin.

In his response, an unrepentant Murray’s main line of defence comes down to a flimsy argument about free speech, before calling his accusers 'latter-day Cromwellians' and concluding with the arrogant riposte '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'.

A missed opportunity, indeed, Mr Murray.

Clearly, the wounded Murray hasn’t grasped that this isn’t all about him: it’s about changing the outdated attitudes which have dogged the business for decades, of which his kind are very much part of the problem. Murray is no stranger to controversy and has often sought to use sensationalism to sell more copies of his self-published book.

It’s here that the industry needs to look long-term. Whilst it’s clearly positive that distillery companies are issuing statements of unanimous support in context, the actual content of these messages has seemed, for the most part, somewhat deliberately ambiguous, with very few offering any direct action regarding their continued support of Murray’s annually released title. Only one, from the online retailer The Whisky Exchange, points to delisting the book from its website completely.

This incident represents the whisky industry’s greatest opportunity to make a true statement of intent and stamp out sexist attitudes in the spirit once and for all

Brands must now weigh up and deliver a very clear and critical message. Failure to make a direct example here points to weakness and fear about how they feel their collective brands will be impacted: for all his faults, Murray is still an influential critic, particularly in the Far East.

But by not taking a hardline stance and distancing themselves from the book in the future, it completely undermines the hugely positive impact the likes of Paskin have had thus far in the industry, bringing the issue of gender inequality and the objectification of women directly to the fore for greater discussion.

There’s no doubt that this incident represents the whisky industry’s greatest opportunity to make a true statement of intent and stamp out sexist attitudes in the spirit once and for all, consigning the outdated behaviour and beliefs to the bin, moving it firmly into a place where the many talented women working tirelessly in our business are treated with the complete and utmost respect they truly deserve.

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