Women in Whiskey - What I learnt from Master Taster Elizabeth McCall

 Elizabeth McCall on her recent visit to Australia in November 2017

Elizabeth McCall on her recent visit to Australia in November 2017

BY INOKA HO

There's no question that whisky (or whiskey depending on where you live) has been portrayed as a masculine drink, where the men are macho, and the women their handmaidens. Though largely a beast created by canny marketers, media programs such as Mad Men have no doubt also played its part in fanning those flames. One might say too, that this attitude isn't unique to whisky, though in much the same way as society seem to associate darker colours as being masculine and lighter colours as being girly, white spirits such as vodka and gin have arguably gone the other way in playing up their feminine appeal.

But as society progresses, advertisers and producers have become more attuned to changing attitudes on this gender divide, and it's evident that in recent times there's been more of a movement towards making the spirits category more inclusive. In whisky in particular, it's hard to ignore the number of initiatives aimed at changing the perception of women in whisky, either as drinkers or the makers. If public data is to be believed, it is only in the past few years that more women have embraced the dark spirit. Yet despite that, ladies have long been involved in the production of whisky, a fact highlighted by Fred Minnick in his 2013 book "Whiskey Women". They may not all have been actually distilling, but there is no doubt they've played (and continue to play) a significant role in the industry.

It's a sentiment echoed by Elizabeth McCall, Master Taster at Woodford Reserve, who recently flew into Australia to host a series of sessions, including one exclusively for women as part of the Women in Whiskey initiative by parent company Brown Forman. Speaking to a packed room of about 30-odd ladies (all of whom it seemed were no stranger to the liquid), Elizabeth professed whilst rattling off the names of the females she worked with on the production chain, "When people ask me what it is like to be working in such a male dominated field, my answer is that I don't know, because I actually work with so many women in the field."

 Elizabeth addressing the room at the Women in Whiskey tasting at Tankstream Bar in November 2017

Elizabeth addressing the room at the Women in Whiskey tasting at Tankstream Bar in November 2017

Listening to Elizabeth speak, it's hard to believe that up until 8 years ago, she didn't even drink whiskey. Originally a psychologist by trade, it was a chance encounter that led to her working for Brown Forman as a sensory technician. Her role?  Quality testing and understanding how to improve that quality from a sensory standpoint. It was here that the psychological background came in useful as her job effectively required her to read human responses to the product or sample to ascertain if it met specific standards. At a learning session with master distiller Chris Morris in 2014, she impressed him sufficiently that he asked if she would like to train to become the company's Master Taster. Following the conclusion of her training nearly a year later, she spent some time on Old Forester before settling in to work exclusively on the Woodford Reserve brand. Today, she works directly with Chris, focussing on innovation and how to navigate Woodford Reserve in the modern burgeoning market.

 Sensory elements to assist with bringing out selected flavours of the whiskey, experienced at the Women in Whiskey tasting. Did you know there are 212 flavour elements in Woodford Reserve?

Sensory elements to assist with bringing out selected flavours of the whiskey, experienced at the Women in Whiskey tasting. Did you know there are 212 flavour elements in Woodford Reserve?

But what exactly does a Master Taster do? Well, it seems...just that. In her words, "I sit with him (Chris) and taste. We work out what we like about that particular batch or sample, what we don't like, how can we manipulate that to develop the kind of flavours we are looking for."

 A sample of the materials used by the sensory panel to help identify different flavours in the whiskey - rose petals, cloves...even cedarwood balls.

A sample of the materials used by the sensory panel to help identify different flavours in the whiskey - rose petals, cloves...even cedarwood balls.

Aside from her tasting role, Elizabeth also wears the hat of Senior Quality Control Specialist, responsible for auditing the entire production process, from checking the grain, monitoring water quality through to testing the whiskey on maturation. At a second session at the Baxter Inn exploring the science of tasting, it was fascinating to hear her explain how important each step was, and how one slip up early on in the chain could have a significant domino effect. Nowhere was this more apparent than when she recounted how one batch could turn out faulty on maturation due to a sensory tester having a cold and not being able to nose the new make sample correctly. Or the time they discovered a matured batch of Woodford Reserve that had traces of paint thinner on the nose. This was despite them having seemingly followed all the right processes from distilling through to testing of the batches before it went into the barrel. As it transpired, the bottle caps for that batch had been contaminated by some paint thinner that had been left near the barrels on which the caps were sat.  

 An example of the testing sheet used by the sensory panel at Woodford Reserve.

An example of the testing sheet used by the sensory panel at Woodford Reserve.

It's easy to assume that everything comes down the master distiller him/herself. Sure, theirs is a key function but if anything, the one lesson I took away from Elizabeth's sessions was that unless you are a one man (or woman) band, the production of good whisk(e)y isn't solely the province of a single person. This is consistent with what so many master distillers/blenders from the great whisky houses have been at pains to impress upon whisky drinkers, from David Stewart of Balvenie to Chris Morris himself. And with studies seemingly pointing to women being more predisposed to have better sense of taste and smell than men, it is probably also natural to see a higher skew of females in certain types of roles in the process that play to their natural strengths. Perhaps if we all took bigger steps to celebrate the functions of other players in the chain rather than singularly directing credit to or focussing on the master distiller all the time, we might find the inclusiveness we so desperately seek, less elusive.

Sincere thanks to Brown Forman for their generosity and hospitality. Opinions entirely our own.