A Whiskey Club for Women and the Lady Who Started It All
Like too many things in this patriarchal world, whiskey has long been dominated by men. Julia Ritz Toffoli, however, set out to change this when she founded Women Who Whiskey, a ladies drinking club focused on learning and celebrating this classic spirit. Both for amateurs and connoisseurs, chapters of the club gather in cities around the country to sample cocktails and spirits while bonding over strong drinks. Women Who Whiskey dismantles common stereotypes around drinking culture, but refreshingly, it doesn’t exist in a self-imposed feminine bubble—regular “Gentlemen's Editions” invite male friends or partners to join, creating a collaborative space that works with men to change social order, rather than against them. A novel yet classic way to meet cool women and enjoy a stiff drink? Sign us right up.
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Tell us about how you first started drinking whiskey. Was it love at first sip?
I grew up in a European household that mostly drank wine, so I didn’t have a lot of exposure to whiskey when I was younger. My first experience with whiskey was in Canada, where I was studying for my undergraduate degree. Rye & Gingers were a popular mixed drink, and I found I preferred them immensely to Gin & Tonics and Vodka Sodas. It wasn’t quite love at first sip, but I soon went looking for better quality whiskey than the bottom shelf used for cocktails, and eventually learned to love whiskey neat.
How does seeing another woman drinking whiskey at the bar inspire a connection?
Women drinking whiskey has become more and more common, even since I founded Women Who Whiskey in 2011, but I still feel a sense of kindred spirit when I see a woman enjoying a whiskey at the bar. To me, I see a woman who goes for what she likes and wants, even in the face of society telling her something isn’t for her. I see a woman who enjoys a bold spirit for its unmistakable flavor, rather than concealing the taste of alcohol in whatever it might be mixed with.
What are some of the most annoying comments you’ve gotten from men for drinking whiskey?
“That’s a strong drink for a little lady.”
“Are you sure you can handle that?”
“Wouldn’t you rather see the wine list?”
“Just so you know, whiskey is pretty strong.”
…And all sorts of other types of raised eyebrow comments, mansplaining (often wrong), and general condescension.
Tell us about some of the earliest events you organized, when things were still small and informal. Did you know then that this could turn into such a big thing?
When I first launched Women Who Whiskey, we were a group of seven or eight friends, all in graduate school together, just looking to get to know our city through the whiskey bars it had to offer. I would rally a few girls together, pick a new place we hadn’t been, and we would set up shop at the bar, and work our way through the whiskey list, tasting each other’s drams, and asking the bartenders too many questions. It was like book club at the bar. At the time, I had no idea it would, or even could, turn into such a global movement.
Do most women who join already know and love whiskey, or are they beginners simply looking to learn more?
Initially, it was more of the latter, women who were interested in learning more but reluctant to spend the big bucks usually required for a Whiskey 101 course or tasting (which can easily cost upward of $85). Over time, we’ve seen a membership trend toward women who already know they like whiskey, but are in the market for more information about it, and want to make new friends who share their passion. We get a lot of new members who tell us, “I love whiskey, but none of my friends do, so I thought this would be a good way to find some whiskey drinking buddies.”
Why do you think the idea of a female whiskey club has resonated with so many women (over 10k and counting!)?
I think as many women like whiskey as men do, but society—whether it is bar culture, traditional whiskey & cigar clubs targeted to a masculine clientele, and even marketing around spirits—relentlessly makes us aware that it’s not for us. So a club that told women, ‘not only are you invited, but the people who have been closing the door in your face are not,’ I think really resonated with women’s desire to enter a traditionally male dominated space. And I think having a women-only space to learn was critical. Learning is a vulnerable act, as it requires you to ask questions and admit what you don’t know. This is especially difficult for women in areas where men make it a lose-lose proposition: you are dismissed for not knowing enough, but then condescended to when trying to close those knowledge gaps. For women, having a safe space to educate ourselves—and discover for ourselves what we enjoy, regardless of what we’re “supposed” to like—has been life changing.
Tell us more about your “Gentlemen Edition” events. Why do you feel it’s important to include men in these female social spaces?
Like the proverbial tree in the woods, if women drink whiskey and no one sees us, did it really happen? Men are the primary obstacles to women’s full inclusion in the world of whiskey, so including them in our events helps to “socialize” the radical (to some) idea of women being whiskey drinkers and event experts. And while maintaining a safe women-only space most of the time is critical for what our club does to help our self-actualization as whiskey drinkers, it can’t happen in a vacuum. It’s also important for us to model to men what inclusive drinking can look like. And lastly, a lot of women have men in their lives with whom they enjoy sharing their favorite drink, so giving our members the opportunity to invite their friends and partners makes the experience more special. Not all men are obstacles, and it’s important to celebrate those who aren’t.
What are some of your favorite whiskeys?
This is actually one of the hardest questions to answer, because my favorites are always changing! In general, though, I prefer Rye whiskey, with its pronounced spice and slight bitterness, to Bourbon, which is a little too sugary for me. That said, I love a nice dried fruit finish, so I tend to gravitate toward sherry cask Scotch. In fact, these days I’m having a bit of a love affair with Sherry itself. I am also loving most Irish whiskey right now—the category is going through a real renaissance and there’s a lot of great product coming out of Ireland. I’m also fascinated by the number of “international” whiskeys (broadly understood to be from countries not traditionally known for whiskey production), and have discovered from real gems looking beyond traditional Scottish, Irish, Canadian, and American whiskeys.
Johnnie Walker made a lot of headlines when they announced their “Jane Walker” edition. How do you feel about this move?
This is also a tough question. When the news broke, we did an informal poll of our members and saw that reactions were really across the spectrum. Personally, I think Jane Walker represents a significant turning point, but I am also somewhat ambivalent about it. I really appreciate that Diageo took an intentional approach to inclusion, and I think that starting with one of their flagship brands was a bold move that signaled a commitment to this issue, but I recognize—and have heard from several of our members—that this doesn't necessarily represent inclusion to them.
The spectrum of what encourages and allows women to feel included is so wide that something progressive and positive for one woman might feel pandering or condescending to another. Personally, I believe that you can and should market to women by including them in advertising and marketing for "regular" products, as opposed to making special products just for them (especially if the products are "lighter" more "feminine" or flavored whiskeys with a lower ABV, which implies that women don't have the palate for regular whisk(e)y).
There are women, on the other hand, who want to be marketed to specifically in a way that highlights them as female consumers, and who actually prefer "lighter" more "feminine" or flavored whiskeys that aren't as strong.
At the end of the day, women are not a monolith, and trying to market to them as some sort of homogeneous cohort is a fool’s errand. Women are people and different people have different preferences—including for different kinds of whiskey, and how they want to be marketed to, as women or men. As long as it's not pandering to the point of being offensive or sexist, why not test out a new approach and see if it resonates?
Anything else you’d like to share?
If you like whiskey, or think you might, join Women Who Whiskey! Membership is open to women and men, and it’s free to join! You just need to go to our website. There’s a join page where you’ll fill out some information. From there, we’ll add you to our mailing list and you’ll get updates on events in your city. We have events on a bi-weekly, or monthly basis depending on how often your local chapter hosts events. Most events are in the $20-50 range, but it varies by chapter. Joining wWw is a fun way to make new friends and learn, and what could be better than that?