Many of you may know that I’m partial to a dram. More than one, possibly. Is it your round? I’ve loved whisky since I was in my early twenties, starting with Macallan and gradually getting a taste for peatier, smokier malts, the kind that make you feel as if you’ve been sitting next to an open fire for a week, inhaling the fumes, reading the same page of a book you started years earlier.
If I’m being charitable, I could stay my interest is partially literary. On Tuesday, in conversation with Claire Carter and Jo Gavins at an event in Sheffield, I argued that a poem is the dram of the literary world: distilled, powerful, best savoured neat. The short story is a pint. The novel is a bottle of fine wine. But the poem is a single malt, burning the back of your throat. I’ve even written bad verse about whisky in the past – a poem in my pamphlet ‘a pint for the ghost’ called ‘a dram for all the men I’ve never drunk with’ imagines a peculiar drinking session with Byron, Marx and Freud. The piece isn’t noteworthy, but it nods towards a trend in whisky-drinking circles: men usually tend to outnumber women.
Imagine my delight, then, when I recently discovered Miss Whisky, a blog set up by Canadian expat and London journalist Alwynne Gwilt in 2011. Gwilt states that the aim of Miss Whisky is “….to provide a wide range of content relating to the whisky industry – from features, to news, reviews and profiles of the women who work in this space – and to show that whisky is having a makeover, becoming a drink that can be appealing to a much larger demographic than it may have been advertised as in the past.” Her blog is informative and inspiring – full of tasting notes, features and a ‘Whisky Women’ list, detailing women who work in the industry. I’d urge any whisky lover to check it out.
I was pleased, then, to see Alwynne Gwilt on the cover of The Whisky Shop’s ‘Whiskeria’ last week, advertising an extensive interview with her in the centre pages. But I was bemused by the image of her the magazine had chosen to foreground. In the full feature, Gwilt is shown tasting malts and addressing audiences. But on the cover, she’s seated with a dainty cocktail in front of her, wearing set of pearls. It seems a slightly curious way to portray someone who works towards “correcting the ‘Miss’ belief that women don’t like whisky.” Why couldn’t she have been nursing a Lagavulin or pouring from a bottle of Laphroaig? As she says in her interview, Gwilt is just as inspired by the possibilities of whisky cocktails (and her blog contains some great articles about them). Whisky can be enjoyed in many forms (hey, drink responsibly, folks). But choosing a neat image of her with a cocktail glass for the single cover image signifies a particular kind of presentation. To me, the subliminal message is: “it’s ok, guys and girls, women who like whisky are still feminine!”. There were lots of ways Gwilt could have been portrayed on the magazine cover, but this was the dominant archetype.
If you’d like a rather more raw image of whisky-drinking, you could do much worse than to read Don Paterson’s tipsy tour-de-force ‘A Private Bottling’, for all that it does little to alter the stereotype of the lone, male whisky drinker. The female presence in this poem is someone absent, a lost lover who the narrator thinks of with bittersweet melancholy:
…So finally, let me propose a toast,
not to love, or life, or real feeling
but to their sentimental residue;
to your sweet memory, but not to you…
But when I read ‘A Private Bottling’, I’m not thinking of the lovelorn narrator at all. I’m looking past him into the glasses, laced with autumn-coloured light, wincing and smiling as I imagine each taste:
…This little number catches at the throat
but is all sweetness in the finish: my tongue trips
first through burning brake-fluid, then nicotine,
pastis, Diorissimo and wet grass;
another is silk sleeves and lip-service
with a kick like a smacked puss in a train station…
‘One For The Road’, an anthology of pub poetry edited by me and Stuart Maconie will be published by Smith Doorstop later this year.