Burning Question: Why Don't Women Drink Whiskey?

A bartender told us years ago that the sexiest thing a woman can do in a bar is to order good scotch and sip it neat.

Hmm...guess we're not the only ones a little past our prime.

We seem to recall hearing this from a staff member at the old Whisky Bar--a rather appropriate setting, but also something we can't seem to confirm no matter how hard we rack whatever remains of our gray matter. Our editor keeps referring to "research"--apparently a well-known concept, for when we Googled to find out just what the hell he was talking about, about 975 million examples popped up.

Oh, well--the question still stands. Most people assume--often with good reason--that women stick with sweeter, fruity concoctions while men evolve (although not in Bible Belt states) from beer to blended whiskey and, finally, the vaunted single malts.

In either case, brown liquor remains an acquired taste. "Most guys don't really get into whiskey until around age 30," admits Kevin Stein, a bartender at Candleroom.

So why do some men eventually lean toward whiskeys and most women cringe at the thought?

To find out, we convinced our innocent young editorial assistant, Sarah, that Candleroom had something to do with a devotional procession and "doing flights" was just our expression for spiritual soaring. Poor, gullible Sarah...you see, the cool Henderson Avenue lounge recently began a program offering flights of, well, just about every distilled spirit imaginable. They will walk you through rums, different types of vodka (potato, grain and grape), gin, Patron's line of tequila and so on.

For our protégé, we ordered first a row of New World whiskeys: Canadian, represented by Crown Reserve, Kentucky bourbon (Knob Creek) and some Gentleman Jack to show off some Tennessee pride. Then she would try three single malts (Glenlivet, Macallan and Oban), followed by a sample of blended whiskeys--nine in all.

Her first sip of Crown set the tone. "It makes my eyes burn," Sarah blurted. "It tastes like rubbing alcohol."

When the Burning Question crew's veteran drinkers showed her how to sip for taste, drawing air through the mouth while the alcohol spreads across the palate, she almost sprayed the entire bar: "Oh my God--my tongue is numb."

She survived the New World flight, thanks to her approximation of Gentleman Jack with the smell of banana taffy. The opening scotch, however, drew immediate scorn. "Now I know why I don't drink this," she said of Glenlivet's 12-year. It took a moment before young Sarah reached for the Macallan, but her assessment of the
Scottish whisky's burnished aroma and medium-bodied, almost floral taste, teased slightly by hints of peat and vanilla clover, was almost instantaneous.

"Gag reflex is coming," she gulped, covering her mouth. "Oh, shit."

Geez--and we still had the blended brands to go. In general, she explained (while still able to explain such things) "American whiskeys are very bitter, but I can stomach them." Single malts, on the other hand...well, she said, "I'm just happy I have a bottle of water."

The blends met with a mixed reaction. Sarah reluctantly took a long draw on the Chivas after denouncing its strong alcohol smell. "OK, I like that," she said after an extensive pause. But Dewar's caused another near gag. A measure of the classic Johnnie Walker Black drew a so-so review.

"It's not that bad," she noted.

So for a wide-eyed young woman, smoother blends and gentrified Tennessee whiskey fared, um, in the drinkable category. Not so the basic range of single malts.

But the question is why. As Stein, the bartender who suffered through our little experiment, pointed out, most guys shy from the sharp, acrid taste of whiskey until well into their drinking years--which leads us to believe it's a matter of nurture over nature. In our early 20s, we all generally prefer the taste of simple, sweet mixed drinks (in addition to the usual beer and wine). Male role models tend toward the harder stuff, though--whether it be gin martinis, Cognac or whiskey.

Most women, on the other hand, don't feel any cultural sway toward these spirits. Nor do they see much value in investing the time to acquire the taste. So they stick with easy-drinking cocktails.

As Sarah beamed when Candleroom's bartender finally poured Coke into one of the blended whiskeys, "This is good! I would order this."

Of course, after nine sizable samples and a mixed drink or two, she kinda faded out. The person responsible for driving her home probably had to...shit! We were supposed to drive her home.

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