Opinion Whiskey's Sexism Row Misses a Trick

Whiskey's Sexism Row Misses a Trick

The gloves are off between whiskey writer Jim Murray and his critics.
© Whisky Bible | The gloves are off between whiskey writer Jim Murray and his critics.
Accusations of sexism by a noted whiskey writer has raised questions about propriety, but relevance is the key.
By Don Kavanagh | Posted Sunday, 27-Sep-2020

In a world increasingly fueled by outrage, it was only a matter of time before whiskey was drawn into the conversation, and the reaction to charges of sexism against a well-known writer in the field has a wearying sense of inevitability about it.

But are Jim Murray's critics wasting their energy? Well, there's an argument to be made that Murray is facing a bigger challenge than being unfashionably sexist – and that's relevance.

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Murray's annual self-published guide to whiskey, The Whisky Bible, has been around since 2003 and the author reckons more than a million people have bought it. This year's edition was a step too far for some people, with spirits writer and Our Whisky founder Becky Paskin the first of several writers to call out some of the entries as inappropriate.

Paskin went public on social media with her complaints, noting that she found "34 references to whisky being 'sexy' and many more crudely comparing drinking whisky to having sex with women. And, while it's tempting to quote a line from the Spinal Tap movie here ("What's wrong with being sexy?"), some of the examples Paskin highlighted are near the knuckle.

Describing malt levels in Penderyn's output he says the distillery celebrates "maltiness in the same way a sex addict revels in a threesome". And this about Canadian Club: "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."

While some might find such gratuitous sexual imagery offputting, others might simply shrug it off as locker-room banter; I suppose it all depends on whether your intellectual and sexual development continued beyond high school or not.

Reaction has been furious, as you can imagine. Paskin says that 98 percent of the social media feedback she has received has been supportive of her stance, while Murray launched a stinging defense, releasing a statement that took a very high line indeed, painting himself as a martyr for the causes of criticism and free speech.

"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," he wrote.

"We are entering very dangerous territory when people try to control the thoughts of others and wilfully distort the truth for their own ends. This is now a battle between free speech and humorless 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 appall me because what they are doing is undermining society itself."

Rowing back

The response from the whiskey industry itself has been typically corporate. While many companies are distancing themselves from Murray's guide, they only appear to have done this after Paskin and others began pointing out the crudeness of some reviews.

Take the top whiskey this year, for example, the Alberta Premium Cask Strength Rye. When the guide was launched and the award announced – two weeks ago – the distillery's parent company Beam Suntory said "It is such an honor to be named World Whisky of the Year by Jim Murray and we are thrilled for our Alberta Distillers team."

A week later – after the sexism row broke out – it was back-pedaling.

"The full edition of Whisky Bible was not available to us prior to the announcement of World Whisky of the Year, and we would like to thank the writers who have rightly voiced concerns about the objectification of women in many of Mr Murray's reviews. Language and behavior of this kind have been condoned for too long in the spirits industry, and we agree that it must stop. As a result, we are re-evaluating all planned programming that references this recognition."

Similarly, Pernod Ricard, which picked up the award for best Irish whiskey, saying: "In common with other producers, we will be reviewing who we work with to ensure we only engage with those who share our values."

However, all this "reviewing" and "re-evaluating" might well be moot; the numbers would suggest that Murray's influence is on the wane.

In previous years, we saw definite spikes in search activity for whiskeys that won Murray's top awards. This reached a crescendo in the 2015 edition of the guide, when the 2013 edition of the Yamazaki Sherry Cask was named top whiskey, the first time Japan had taken the title. Searches went through the roof, pushing the spirit to the top of our most searched-for wines list, outstripping perennial favorites Mouton Rothschild, Lafite and Dom Pérignon.

The price also went crazy as a result of all the interest, leaping from a global average of around $220 to more than $2000. That average price now is more than $7000. That's the kind of reviewer influence normally only associated with Robert Parker.

However, since then the pickings have been much slimmer. The next year's winner, Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye, saw a smaller peak in interest, while price wasn't affected at all – the average price now is the same as it was when it won the title: $33. The 2017 edition winner, Booker's 13 Year Old Rye, didn't even get a blip in the search statistics, and its price has only increased appreciably in the past nine months, due to its scarcity. The story is much the same with the 2018 winner, EH Taylor Four Grain Bourbon.

The last three years have seen similar indifference from users eager to track down a bottle of what is purportedly the best whiskey in the world. This year's winner has seen similar levels of apathy from our users, with just 3000-odd searches for this year's winner, fewer searches than we get in a day from users in India looking for Johnnie Walker Black Label.

Perhaps instead of highlighting outmoded attitudes and superfluous sexual references, Murray's critics should simply take comfort from the fact that, in a world that is changing as rapidly as ours is, "sorry" isn't necessarily the hardest word; "relevance" is.

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