women in whiskey
Covering both the science of distilling and the history of women in whiskey is less like a boring lesson and more like a great conversation over whiskey.
Julia Ritz Toffoli of Women Who Whiskey
Whiskey: A Woman’s Drink
When launching whisk(e)y network almost a year ago, we decided to include a Women in Whiskey column to credit the contributions of women to the whiskey industry. Our inaugural article, In the Beginning, opened in the BC era with Sumerian Female Brewers, followed by the first known (male or female) Alchemist, Maria Hebraica, credited with designing and creating the first still in the 1st to 2nd century.
As mentioned in that article, Fred Minnick, author of Whiskey Women: The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch, and Irish Whiskey famously noted that while women had always been involved in making whiskey, they “never received credit for their efforts”.
Currently, women comprise 37% of whiskey drinkers in the US (Beam Suntory), and whisky drinking by UK women rose 15% in the last decade to 40 million glasses of whisky a year (Kantar). So, we’re proud to feature our first 2021 spotlight on Julia Ritz Toffoli, founder of the “experimental whiskey club”, Women Who Whiskey.
Drinking the Apéritif Way
Born in the Boston area to a French mother and an Italian father, Julia spent 25 to 30% of her time in Europe visiting relatives. Her introduction to liquor wasn’t a whiskey salve to sooth an aching tooth or furtive visits to her parents’ liquor cabinet; alcohol was incorporated as part of daily life and family get-togethers.
Julia credits the European apéritif culture for teaching her to enjoy alcohol in a way that “wasn’t about excess, but alchemy and taste”. Though sometimes compared to American happy hours (which are often at bars to destress from a long work day), the apéritif hour was often hosted at a house to begin the evening and as a precursor to a meal.
As a child, she remembers her French aunt and uncle hosting Bridge Nights featuring tiny crackers shaped like card suits, such as diamonds with pastis, a French liqueur. In Italy, Crodinos (nonalcoholic aperitivos) were served. And uncles from both countries enjoyed bourbon. As a teen-ager back home in Massachusetts, Julia would occasionally enjoy wine with her parents or champagne for a special occasion.
Julia’s whiskey journey started as a student at McGill University in Montreal. Since Quebec’s drinking age was 18 and socializing in bars (vs. keg parties) was the norm, with Rye and Ginger as a popular drink.
She informed me that at the time, “Rye” was a catch all term for whiskies in Canada and didn’t necessarily mean there was rye in the whisky.
Canadian Whisky De-“Mist”ified
People often assume Canadian whisky is blended and rye; familiar names are Crown Royal and Canadian Mist. While the blended part is usually true, the rye part is not. In fact, there is no legal minimum rye requirement.
Whisky in Canada was first made to use the byproduct of mills, with credit of the first Canadian distillery given to Thomas Molson (yes, of the beer), who experimented with a still in 1822, initially using barley and wheat. Today, Canada’s Food and Drug Regulations continue to spell it without the “e” and, compared to Scotch or Bourbon, their requirements allow more wiggle room for interpretation.
▪ Distillate must be “potable” and made from cereal grain (Unlike the US, they generally combine the grains AFTER distillation and aging, not before.)
▪ Aged in “small wood” for not less than 3 years
▪ “Possess the aroma, taste and character generally attributed to Canadian whisky”
▪ Mashed, distilled, and aged in Canada
▪ Minimum of 40% ABV
▪ May contain caramel and flavouring
In 2009, they allowed 9.09% of other spirits (bourbon, wine, sherry, cognac, etc.) to be added and still exported as “Canadian whisky”, with the caveat that the spirit be at least 2 years old. This rule is still debated in whisky circles today.
Last year the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States reported that 17.4mln nine-litre cases of Canadian Whisky were sold (~USD $2 billion) in the US. Statista reported that the top three brands by sales volume were Crown Royal, Black Velvet, and Canadian Club (2019).
For more geekery, check out The New Portable Expert (2nd Edition) by Davin de Kergommeaux or expand beyond Crown Royal to WBSE faves such as Lot 40, Caribou Crossing, JP Wiser’s. Gooderham & Worts, or Pendleton.
Around the World and Back to Whiskey
Long before heading a global whiskey group, Julia was someone who simply enjoyed rye. In Montreal, she frequented the Whisky Café, a “proper whisky bar” (before it was a trend). She loved seeing the seemingly endless rows of bottles, and this was where she was introduced to Scotch.
Then began her whirlwind career journey: she relocated to Rome for a UNICEF internship, planning to move to Argentina after a year. She ended up staying a few years before going to teach in Madrid, followed by working for a Vaccine Foundation in Bamako, Mali (West Africa).
Julia returned stateside to earn her Master’s Degree in International Affairs and Human Rights Advocacy at Columbia University. There were social happy hours where she met people from all over the world was able to indulge in her appreciation for rye.
But she didn’t appreciate the negative whiskey experiences that came with it. Bartenders and patrons alike responded to Julia ordering a rye whiskey with comments like “Are you sure you can handle that? You know that’s really strong”. And on dates, it was common to have the wine glass set down in front of her leading to the awkward moment of switching the glasses back so that she could claim her whiskey.
It happened so frequently that she ended up arranging drinks with other women facing these same frustrations. Julia told me walking into a bar with several whiskey drinking women “was a 180”. There were still one or two rude remarks but it was definitely a more comfortable social atmosphere.
As of this article, Women Who Whiskey has 30 chapters worldwide with 16,000 members; several started by original NYC members who moved and others by people who heard about Julia’s group and wanted to start a local chapter. She hadn’t intended to start an international whiskey club, albeit one boasting chapters in Nairobi, London, and Geneva, but would love to see one launch in Asia, possibly Tokyo or Hong Kong.
Women Who Whiskey vs. Whiskey “for Women”
When asked if her group might be perceived as “excluding men” or is still needed in 2020, Julia pointed out that advocating whiskey enjoyment and education for everyone would always be the main focus. And now, more than ever, they would continue to address the need for connection through community.
She waited a few months to set up the first virtual event with Elizabeth McCall, Assistant Master Distiller for Woodford Reserve, open to all. Since there is no membership fee and Julia collaborate with brands to keep ticket costs low, it was “pay-what-you-wish” (suggested donation) that included a discount code for online ordering. Proceeds were matched and donated to a community organization supporting the NYC hospitality industry. Based on positive feedback, additional events were added.
They have been featured in consumer and industry media in local publications to podcasts to television (including Forbes, Whisky Advocate, The Wall Street Journal, CBS, NBC, Fox & Friends, The Australian and Mark Gillespie’s WhiskyCast). Julia was featured in Yahoo’s Women in Whiskey to Watch alongside industry women including our February guest, Marianne Eaves, Kentucky’s first female distiller.
In addition to promoting “whiskey for all”, she also posits that swinging the advertising pendulum from only men to only women can hurt more than help. Some of you may recall the backlash from the campaign launch for the Jane Walker Scotch whisky (same whisky, different packaging) coupled with media interview remarks such as “Scotch is seen as particularly intimidating to women”. Diageo has since apologized and created a unique blend.
So, when the new Museum of Distilled Spirits needed a Director of Whiskey Curation and Education for its virtual launch (pivoted from the original bricks and mortar model), Julia was a natural choice. She hosted her first event last December, Around the World in a Dozen Drams, and looks forward to more events as well as building their whiskey archive.
For Whiskey 101 books, Julia recommends American "Whiskey, Bourbon and Rye: A Guide to the Nation's Favorite Spirit" and "Single Malt: A Guide to the Whiskies of Scotland" both by Clay Risen. (You may recall his role in the creation of Uncle Nearest from Women in Whiskey, October 2020.)
For whiskey virgins, we played the “If you like this, drink this” game:
Vodka Soda: Bruichladdich Classic Laddie
Cosmopolitan: Redbreast Lustau
Gin & Tonic: Japanese Blend like a Suntory Toki or Suntory High Ball
Tequila: JJ Corry Battalion Batch 2
Red Wine: Starward Nova
White Wine: Weller
Rosé: Glen Moray Chardonnay Cask
Try Julia’s favorite cocktail, the Employees Only Manhattan, and her first whiskey cocktail from her first Women Who Whiskey event
Recipe from Employees Only, NYC
1.5 oz Rye
1.75 oz Sweet Vermouth
0.5 oz Grand Marnier
3 Dashes Angostura Bitters
Add all ingredients into an ice filled mixing glass. Stir till chilled. Strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.