Calgary distillery unsure it’ll promote its top rating by Whisky Bible after book deemed sexist by industry

A Calgary distillery recently honoured for producing the world’s best whiskey says it’s not sure it’ll promote the recognition, adding its voice to a host of others criticizing sexist language in the renowned guidebook, Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible.

In his Whisky Bible 2021, Murray awarded his top title, world whisky of the year, to the Alberta Premium Cask Strength produced by Alberta Distillers, which is based in Calgary.

At first, Alberta Distillers was thrilled that its whisky — which is made with 100 per cent rye grain and water from the Rockies — had beaten out roughly 1,200 whisky selections on the world stage.

However, the owner of Alberta Distillers, Beam Suntory later said it’s unsure it wants to be associated with the win as a controversy ignited anew over sexist language and the alleged objectification of women in many of the publication’s product reviews.

Beam Suntory wrote that while it was honoured that the Alberta Premium Cask Strength rye whisky was named best in world, it was extremely disappointed by some of the language used in many of the publication’s product reviews.

“The full edition of Whisky Bible was not available to us prior to the announcement of World Whisky of the Year,” Beam Suntory, the company that owns the distillery, wrote in an emailed statement to CBC News.

“Language and behaviour 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.”

Compares whisky to sex with women

It all started when co-founder of Our Whisky, Becky Paskin, posted a Twitter thread highlighting the sexist language Murray uses when describing the products.

“In the 2020 edition there are 34 references to whisky being ‘sexy’ and many more crudely comparing drinking whisky to having sex with women,” wrote Paskin.

As Paskin points out, in one part, 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.”

Another tweet says that in a review for Penderyn Single Cask, he writes, “This celebrates maltiness in the same way a sex addict revels in a threesome.”

As well, Glenfarclas Family Casks whisky is described as, “The malt for the woman of your life, first to enjoy her to seduce and/or be seduced by, and then to share together,” tweeted Paskin.

The whisky journalist continues to explain that this points to the broader issue within the industry of sexism and objectification of women.

“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,” said Paskin.

Some key players in the industry joined the conversation, stating that they will no longer support Murray’s book.

The Whisky Exchange, a specialist retailer of whisky and fine spirits from around the world, posted a statement on Facebook announcing its decision to delist Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible from its website and stores.

“We do not feel that some of his comments that have come to light in the recent edition represent this ethos or the future of the whisky community.”

A distillery in Virginia, Catoctin Creek, joined the conversation. Its founder tweeted that the company has also taken the book off its online store review from its awards page.

“We are a woman-owned, woman-run distillery, and his kind of talk doesn’t resonate well with us. At all,” tweeted the founder and chief, Scott Harris.

Calgary reaction

Andrew Ferguson, a Scotch expert and the owner of Kensington Wine Market in Calgary, says a lot of people in the whisky industry have been avoiding associating with Murray for a long time because of his lewd and graphic descriptions of sex and women.

“People who are deeply involved in the industry and passionate about it have known it for a long time,” Ferguson told the Calgary Eyeopener

“The disconnect is where I think marketing companies and the management arms of some of the big drink companies aren’t aware of it and so when they see, ‘oh, we got awarded world whisky of the year,’ that’s a great sound bite.”

Ferguson says a personal experience with Murray six years ago spurred his decision to no longer stock the Whisky Bible or reference any of his notes when talking about product.

“He was asked to speak to give a tasting and they asked me if I wanted to sit in on it,” he said.

“And in the tasting, he singled out an attractive young woman to make a very thin stretch to one of his points about tasting and asked people to imagine her naked. It was just incredibly off-putting and upsetting.”

He says that while Murray is entitled to his position, whisky brands need to be aware that by promoting his book or award, you’re tying yourself to his comments.

“You’re kind of letting people know — in this case, women — that they’re not an important part of your business or important part of your market.”

Murray responds

CBC News reached out for comment from Murray, who is based in England. He didn’t agree to be interviewed directly, but he did respond in an email to written questions.

He wrote that in the 17 years Whisky Bible has been published, there has not been a single complaint sent to the office in regards to his writing style — nor has it been brought up in meetings with executives of whisky companies.

“The analogy of sex and food and drink is commonplace throughout the world. Probably because both food and drink, including whisky, is sensual. As is sex,” said the whisky writer.

He states that his writing is not about being sexist or objectifying women, rather the “sensual effect” a great whisky might have on you.

“My writing could apply to male or female — but these trumped up charges make it sound as though it is about women alone. It isn’t.”   

He adds that out of the 21,000 whiskies he has tasted and wrote about, only a fraction discuss any kind of sexual reference.

“Having said all that, if any true reader has been genuinely upset by what I’ve written, I’m sorry, because I never intend to offend anyone. I set out to enlighten and entertain. But, as I say, we haven’t had a complaint yet.”

In regards to the statement by Beam Suntory, Murray says it was “massively disappointing,” and that while that company may not wish to accept the award, its Alberta Premium Cask Strength remains world whisky of the year.

“No one from Alberta has actually been on to tell me what language they are disappointed with.… Oddly enough, last week I got a text from one of their executives telling me just how beautiful my tasting notes were.”

“The next thing I hear is that they are disassociating themselves. It is beyond bizarre.”

Murray says he hopes once the dust settles that everyone can enter into a “sensible” conversation.

“I’m totally behind the eradication of sexism, not just in whisky but in all walks of life. Indeed, for the last decade, I have spoken against the use of scantily clad models at certain whisky shows around the world,” he said.

“But to call the Whisky Bible sexist is simply not how all the women I have ever spoken to about it over the years perceive it.”

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