Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Chick whisky, dude Cognac

Do we really need booze makers drawing lines in the sand for us?

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NEW YORK -- What bottle did spirits aficionados find in their Christmas stockings this year? If producers had their way, the answer depends on gender.

For the ladies, it may have been confected vodka and whisky treats, softened with maple sugar, honey or ersatz fruit flavourings. Meanwhile, for gentlemen, rugged cognac may have carried the day, manned up with oak and fiery spice.

What's that? You're a woman who would rather enjoy a dram of (unflavoured) scotch? You're a man who enjoys fine (unflavoured) brandy? I applaud your good taste, and I'm not surprised. There's no conclusive evidence men and women perceive flavours differently, so it stands to reason spirits choices have more to do with individual preference than with what's between one's legs.

But producers think otherwise. Chick-targeted bottlings like MommyJuice wine, premixed Skinnygirl margaritas (and the legions of "skinny" competitors), and the lollipop-reminiscent Little Black Dress vodka line have been available for the past few years. With the roaring success of flavoured vodka now finally starting to simmer down -- some see the invention of Cinnabon-flavoured vodka as the category's shark jump -- spirits producers think flavoured whiskys are the next big thing in girl drinks. Recent arrivals include American Honey, a delicately honey-sweet liqueur that uses Wild Turkey bourbon as its base and Peach Mist, a flavoured version of Canadian Mist that resembles peach-flavoured sweet tea more than it resembles whisky. The Canadian Mist line also includes candy-like cinnamon, maple, and vanilla flavours.

These products go beyond the gender-specific ad campaigns that have been used to sell spirits for decades. What's new and pernicious about this type of product is the liquid inside the bottle was developed with a specific gender in mind.

Consider, for example, the newly released C by Courvoisier, with its deep nut-brown colour and oaky, spicy flavours -- reminiscent of espresso mixed with dried fruit and cloves. As a counterpoint to the more "feminine" Moscato-spiked Courvoisier Rosé and Gold lines, "It's considered Courvoisier for men," Courvoisier president and general manager Patrice Pinet told me, "for a night out with the guys."

Meanwhile, Grand Marnier, best known for its cognac-based orange liqueur, is rolling out a "GM Titanium" bottling made with a blend of cognacs aged from two to 20 years, orange essence, and a heady dose of spices (black pepper, anise, clove). It too was created to be drunk by young men.

Elizabeth Sweet, a sociologist at University of California-Davis (coincidentally, a school famed for its winemaking programs), sees parallels between how toys and these candy-like alcoholic beverages are marketed. Sweet wrote her dissertation on Sears toy catalogues from the turn of the century through 1995, examining how toys were explicitly and implicitly gendered. She found gendered toy advertising dropped in the 1970s but had become more prevalent by the mid-'90s as toymakers realized they could sell more versions of the same product via market segmentation.

"The people who were children in the 1990s when I started to see toys colour-coded by gender, pink and blue, they are becoming young adults," Sweet observes. And "they are used to gender differentiation in products." In other words, millennials are desensitized to gender-specific marketing; many have never known anything else. Young adults may not notice the lines drawn for them in the sand by savvy liquor marketing pros, and if they do notice, they may not even care. But they should.

Gender-specific spirits, like gender-specific toys, come at a potentially high cost. They reinforce narrow and negative stereotypes, which play a significant role in creating inequality. You might scoff that this is overreaction -- that it's just one bottle, or a handful of bottles. But consider the messages separate spirits for men and women send. A low-cal "skinny" vodka reinforces the idea women's weight and physical beauty are of the utmost importance. Similarly, bold, aggressive flavours "for men" send a harmful message. "If everything says to boys, you must be aggressive, you must be strong -- is it so surprising that we see so many incidents of masculine violence in our society? I don't think so," Sweet says.

Thankfully, some of today's consumers are pushing back against spirits producers' backwards ideas about gender.

Heather Greene, whisky sommelier at the Flatiron Room in New York, relays this tale: During her recent visit to Kentucky, Wild Turkey distiller Jimmy Russell mentioned American Honey. "He chuckled and said, 'We now have a honey-flavoured whisky. We made it for women, but men are the ones who are drinking it." (A representative from Wild Turkey confirms the product was indeed created in part to bring more women into the whisky world and consumption now is evenly split between men and women.)

I say: Well done, gentlemen. Here's hoping women will send the spirits industry a similar message by buying GM Titanium and Courvoisier C -- or, better yet, by buying old-fashioned, gender-neutral whisky, cognac, or vodka. Having tasted more flavoured girly whiskies and manly cognacs than I care to count, I can report that the plain stuff tastes better, anyway.

-- Washington Post

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 29, 2013 A2

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