Meet woman you should know, Heather Greene, one of the world’s only certified female Scotch whiskey experts. Heather, an accomplished singer and songwriter, was building her career, when after moving to Scotland to explore her heritage and work on her music, discovered her love for whiskey. This newly found passion led her to the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in Edinburgh, where she became the first American woman invited to the prestigious tasting panel. Today, Heather is determined to get the American public, especially women, as excited about whiskey as she is.
Twenty years ago, women ordering whiskey at a bar may have seemed out of place, but today, this “boys club” indulgence is quickly gaining popularity among us, thanks to women like Heather. Winner of Whisky Magazine’s American Young Ambassador of the Year award, Heather recently became the first female Whiskey Sommelier at The Flatiron Room, a whiskey and fine spirits parlor in New York City. She is also their Director of Whiskey Education, and the former ambassador for Glenfiddich. Because we aren’t savvy whiskey connoisseurs, yet, we turned to Heather to give us the basics on what we need to know.
All About Whiskey With Heather Greene
HG: I fell in love with the world of whiskey by accident while living in Scotland. I spent many years as a musician traveling and touring parts of Europe, and while there and in-between venue dates, I asked if I could work at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in Edinburgh. I immediately saw a similarity between the creation of this beautiful spirit and the creation of music — both require an ability to tap into the senses and surrender the rational parts of the brain. I also, through a lucky set of circumstances, was able to take a nosing and tasting exam while in Scotland, where I scored very high. This gave me the confidence to sit around a table and speak whiskey with some serious connoisseurs. I didn’t know at the time it would be the beginning of a very exciting journey that has brought me around the world.
You’ve achieved a lot of “firsts” as a woman in the whiskey world, why has it taken so long for women to get in the game?
HG: I’m not sure if it has really taken longer for women to “get into the game,” as there are many pockets of the USA where I think whiskey drinking women aren’t so much of a novelty. Many women from the Southern parts of the US, for example, have been exposed to fine bourbons and can be quite comfortable ordering one.
Why aren’t more women indulging in whiskey?
HG: In general, I find that the masculine identity that wraps itself around a bourbon or Scotch can pose an issue for some women. For example, one woman (a writer from a top magazine) said to me that ordering whiskey was “an act of aggression.” I naively thought that if I taught a woman the wonderful notes, aroma properties, and other fine virtues of my favorite spirit, she’d be more comfortable ordering whiskey and enjoying it. Not so. What I’ve found is that women must also confront how they feel about themselves and their own definition of what it is to be a woman (or feminine) at a bar or restaurant, which poses a double hurdle for me in educating them. I can get most women to appreciate whiskey. I can’t so easily encourage them to rethink gender identity when it comes to what they think are social norms at bar or restaurant. That is a much deeper and complex issue.
What is whiskey?
HG: Whiskey is a distilled brown spirit made from grain. It is the umbrella term that encompasses bourbons, ryes, Scotches, Blended Scotches, Irish Whiskies, and so on. You’d be surprised at how many people ask, “is Bourbon a whiskey?” or “is Scotch a whiskey?”. They all are. Whiskey has incredibly complex aroma properties — almost 80 of them, which enhances the enjoyment when nosing and tasting.
Why are you so passionate about women learning more about whiskey?
HG: Women can gain many things from appreciating whiskey. Aside from a woman’s keen sense of nosing and tasting (women have outperformed men in nosing and tasting exams for a century or so, since it has been studied), I think having another tool in the toolbox for professional women when they are sitting around a boardroom is quite valuable. I have witnessed in my tastings many male executives standing on a soapbox, trying to “teach” other executive women what I call “the rules of whiskey.” From my perspective, this dynamic doesn’t do any favors for women wishing to be treated as equals. Whiskey often equates to power in this sense, and so a woman’s ability to join in the conversation rather than be lectured to can be an asset to her.
Gender politics aside (and I wonder what other food or spirit generates so much gender conversation!), whiskey is a delicious and complex spirit. I see many women enjoying whiskey in greater numbers. My job at the Flatiron Room in Manhattan as Whiskey Sommelier is so much fun. I have over 600 whiskies from which to choose, and I like to tell visitors that I can find a whiskey for any palate or taste. I can also suggest wonderful cocktails as well.
What do we need to know?
HG: Nosing – I encourage women to try to see if they can nose vanillas, spice, leather, honey, smoke, and other lush notes. These are just some of the common aromas one can identify. The notes can come from aging in a cask, the type of grain used, how it is distilled, and from what country the spirit hails, among other elements.
Age - Each country has a set of rules to which the spirit must adhere to even be called a Bourbon or a Scotch. For example, to be called a Scotch, the spirit must be aged in oak casks for a minimum of 3 years, on Scottish soil and bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV (alcohol by volume). To be called a Single Malt Scotch, the rules get stricter. In addition to abiding by Scotch definition rules, a couple more are added on: only barley can be used and the spirit must come from only one distillery as opposed to blending from a group of distilleries (hence the word blend).
Taste - In terms of actually tasting the spirit, I suggest trying to see how it affects the taste buds all over your mouth. Do you sense some sweetness on the tip of your tongue? How about towards the back of your palate? Do you notice some woodiness from the casks coming through? Does it create a warming sensation as it goes down your throat? For how long? Is it nice? That is what we call a finish. Learning to appreciate whiskey takes a bit of time and exploration — much the way we learned to appreciate other fine things in life like wine, or rich and complex coffees.
My advice is to start at your favorite local restaurant and start mining the whiskey list there. Or, even better, get a group of friends together and invest in some bottles from different regions (Bourbons, Irish, Scotch, etc). Make some fun cocktails, bring out the ice and water, experiment. Take home leftovers in a decanter or hip flask. Whiskey doesn’t age the way wine does, and should keep for a very long time before any noticeable changes take over — I have tasted whiskies that have been around for 50 years in a bottle and still taste great.
Is it taboo to mix whiskey in cocktails?
HG: What I love about whiskey is its versatility. Like wine, whiskey can be paired with food or made into a wonderful cocktail. Any great bartender knows how to work with all the different aromas in a Scotch or Bourbon to create a delicious cocktail.
I have met many whiskey fans who think it is a sin to put ice in a whiskey or cocktail, especially Scotch. I hear over and over again “Don’t EVER put ice in that! Don’t put water in your whiskey, you will dilute it!” It is perfectly acceptable and even common to do either. Water can sometimes release hidden distillery characteristics, and ice, while condensing flavors, can bring out some other subtleties. These rules are old and outdated, part of an attitude that to drink fine spirit you need to do things a very particular way. I do not subscribe to that way of thinking – America is a vast country with a range of different climates and cultures.
Try telling the Cuban community in Miami that they can’t put ice in their Scotch when it’s 95 degrees out, or a top bartender in San Francisco that she can’t use an Islay whiskey (Scotch whiskey made on Islay, the southernmost of the Inner Hebridean Islands off the west coast of Scotland) in a cocktail with her carefully sourced ingredients. You would be bold to do so. My point is that you should drink whiskey any way you want to.
What’s the best way to serve whiskey?
HG: Whiskey can be served in many types of glassware, and I have a collection at home with which I experiment often. I love vintage Don Draper style, silver rimmed old fashioned glasses, and I also have what we call Glencairn crystal glasses for professional nosing and tasting purposes. They are designed to maximize the nosing and tasting experience in a whiskey. In a pinch, I’ll even use a wine glass if the only other option is plastic or a beer pint glass.
Really, glassware is about the individual’s taste. I’ve enjoyed Bourbon out of old mason jars alongside ribs, and I’ve sipped Irish Whiskey from heavy Waterford Crystal glasses. My advice is to be relaxed about it — use what you have, and pay attention to how much is in the glass and the shape. This will guide how you approach the whiskey. The first thing I tell new whiskey drinkers is to NOT approach it like you might a wine, that is, stick your nose in it. Rather, depending on the glass, you want to gently approach it towards your nose until you start getting the perfumes. It is 40% ABV so you don’t want to “burn” yourself right away.
What’s next for you?
HG: In 2013 I hope to continue to demystify this lovely spirit. I plan to work on my first book, write for a couple of magazines, and get better at social media so that women such as the ones reading this blog have access to a friendly resource. No one bats an eye when a woman orders a wine. I think that in the next decade we’ll get to that point with whiskey, too.
Want to learn more? Check out the The Flatiron Room whiskey school. This month, Heather is hosting a 3 part series Bourbon class with special guests. The first 10 readers to register will receive a 15% discount. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org for details.