Commentary: Improving Female Participation in Spirits Markets — How a Long-accepted Spirits Glass Icon Contributes to Gender Exclusion

As the spirits industry slowly emerges from a “good old boys club” mentality, many positive steps toward gender equality have been accomplished, including hiring more female brand ambassadors and bringing more women into the ranks of corporate management. Corporate advertising appears to be much more gender-neutral than as recently as a year ago. However, from distributor to distiller, there is a lack of awareness of a vital yet untapped resource to raise the spirits quality bar - high female olfactory sensitivity, particularly in jobs which depend upon a high degree of olfactory sensory input. This opportunity also has the potential for wide expansion of the consumer base of straight, neat spirits drinkers to include many more female consumers, as well as increase revenues and spirits industry market share

Background: Barrel aged spirits have a large following of straight spirits drinkers who enjoy their favorite whisk(e)ys, rums, tequilas and cognacs straight (no ice, water, or mixers) to appreciate their unique aromas as bottled, at 40% ABV (alcohol by volume). Aroma is 90% of flavor (taste and mouth-feel 10%), and therein lies the problem. Ethanol alcohol is an anesthetic, evaporates first, and is the most abundant portion of the aroma cloud (where we sniff to detect aromas). Ethanol reaches the nose quickly during evaluation and immediately and surreptitiously begins to numb olfactory sensors and reduce aroma detectability. Handling overabundant ethanol is the key to enhancing spirits enjoyment and evaluation. There is no warning of the onset of ethanol anesthesia which begins immediately upon contact, and is unrecognizable. Strong residual memories of earlier sampled aromas begin to take over the evaluation process, severely hindering side-by-side spirits comparisons and objectivity. Ethanol on the nose is the enemy of tasters and evaluators regardless of gender.

Female Olfactory Sensitivity: How does female olfactory sensitivity compare to male? Many major research papers conclusively place female sensitivity 20-43% higher than males. Is that reminiscent of the severe whiplash recoil and a responsive face slap when a glass of strong straight spirits is shoved unannounced under the lady’s nose? At 40% ABV, the pungency of highly concentrated ethanol is painful for most females yet only mildly annoying to most males. Educational efforts have long been run by male experts, critics, authors, bloggers, distiller reps and brand ambassadors who are oblivious to the difference in olfactory sensitivity by gender. With males calling the shots in most master classes and seminars, the ladies must struggle with painful ethanol aroma to participate. By not considering the difference, the spirits industry ignores a potentially lucrative audience, and blocks opportunities for female participation. The fix is simple - it’s all about the glass.

Simple Test: As part of our research to improve spirits tasting and nosing glass design, we conducted consumer preference studies at many consumer spirits events in the form of a simple AB test (similar to the Pepsi challenge) to determine preference for ethanol aroma on the nose when smelling and tasting spirits neat (without ice, water, or mixers). Glass “A” is our engineered spirits glass prototype which has a large, open rim and displays aromas while separating the ethanol from character aromas. Glass “B” is the traditional tulip shape glass which concentrates olfactory ethanol.

Test Results - Olfactory Ethanol Hinders Spirits Enjoyment Differently for Male and Female:

All control spirits were 40%+ ABV (alcohol by volume) and results were within a 95% statistical confidence level, with a sample size of 2,914 valid participants from many different geographical locations. Results are summarized as follows:

  • 87% of males prefer aromas with no nose-numbing ethanol (Glass A), 13% prefer ethanol in aromas (Glass B)
  • 98% females prefer aromas with no nose-numbing ethanol (Glass A), <2% prefer ethanol in aromas (Glass B).
  • 30% of females asked to participate declined because they did not want to smell highly concentrated spirits.

These results leave no doubt that men and women both perceive ethanol on the nose very differently, with women by far rejecting strong ethanol aromas, and men to a large degree preferring no olfactory ethanol.

The Role of the Female Spirits Judge: With thousands of spirits on the market (including craft distillations), the public depends on cell phones or tablets to quickly find information needed to narrow down choices while shopping. This information is available as ratings scores, medals, and tasting notes awarded by major spirits competitions. The accuracy of tasting notes and dependability of ratings hinges upon the sensitivity and expertise of competition spirits judges.

Examining judges’ tasting notes from the many spirits competitions we have monitored, we discovered that women’s notes are much more detailed and diverse than the men’s notes. Simply put, on average, females detect more aromas than their male counterparts.

Female judges in spirits competitions have gradually increased in number over the last few years, yet most competitions have a ratio of male to female judges of 3:1 at best. Since their noses are more sensitive, it stands to reason that there should be more female judges. Perhaps the ratio should be reversed to leverage their superior smell sensitivity to a more accurate evaluation of quality and aroma nuances during competition judging.

Attitudes of 13% of Males Preferring Ethanol Aromas: Further inquiry was revealing, directional, and should be formally investigated as responses were gleaned from casual questioning, not always asked in the same order. We asked males who preferred olfactory ethanol their age, and why they preferred ethanol aromas. The answers are directionally indicative of values seldom exposed, and uncomfortable for industry to address, yet are an existing indicator of gender inequality and point to a need to improve spirits education. Percentages are only of the population of 13% males who preferred ethanol.

  • Age: Two-thirds are over age 45, indicating younger male drinkers lean to a preference for less ethanol in aromas.
  • Circumstances: Spirits are consumed straight during social situations, such as “guys night out,” stag parties, televised team sports events, and bachelor parties, which indicates a high male presence and female exclusion.
  • Ethanol and quality: 63% believe higher ethanol means higher quality, indicating difficulty in separating ethanol from character aromas, and a possible influence of the marketing and pricing of cask strength spirits. That view may be tied to the common yet unfounded beliefs that larger numbers and more expensive is better.
  • Proficiency: 34% consider themselves above average or expert in knowledge of their favorite spirit, and most vocal were the responses of whisk(e)y drinkers, including Scotch, Irish whiskey, and Bourbon.
  • Glass shape preference: When confronted with the choice of the engineered glass vs tulip, frequent comments include; (1) “I only use the tulip” indicating iconic loyalty, (2) Referring to the engineered glass, “Where’s the alcohol? There is no aroma” indicating a primary dependence on the smell of ethanol to evaluate a spirit’s quality, and (3) “The engineered glass looks like a flower vase, spittoon or goldfish bowl,” or it’s not “manly,” indicating gender assignment to glass shapes (no comments on the tulip glass looking like a flower). Preference for the iconic tulip shaped vessel was readily apparent from males who preferred ethanol aromas, perhaps due to long standing promotion by spirits industry, critics, and educators for decades. The vast majority (87%) of males who prefer no ethanol aroma suggests there may be a better vessel.

Inferences from Male Attitudes: These responses expose; (1) a significant but perhaps limited exclusion of women, and attitudes toward social spirits drinking as a specifically male activity, (2) a rally around the male spirits drinking club iconic symbol, (3) a misplaced reverence of ethanol in aromas, and (4) an arbitrary gender identification with inanimate objects.

To these males, exclusive club membership may be more important than understanding and evaluating spirits. That will be difficult to change, as machismo doesn’t seem to be disappearing any time soon from motorcycles, guns, eating the hottest peppers, or social spirits drinking. It is in the best interest of the spirits industry, at least from the standpoints of image, expanding markets, and improving sales revenue, to take positive steps to remove social spirits drinking from that infamous list and create a gender-friendly environment through re-education.

Note that unquestioned acceptance of tulip-shaped glasses and derivatives and presenting them as the industry supported glassware of choice unintentionally risks excluding the more sensitive female nose and inadvertently promotes a male-favored element to social spirits drinking, as most women are prone to abandoning the quest following a single sniff from their introductory tulip glass of spirit.

Understanding the Evolution: It’s fairly easy to point fingers at scotch whisky distillers, educators and associations who have encouraged drinkers for decades to adopt the tulip-shaped copita glass (and derivatives) which were originally designed for 20% ABV sherry. But, it’s not the right answer, it’s how the industry evolved, without overt collaboration, and pointing fingers doesn’t fix it. Scotch whisky marketing gurus needed an icon to create a fraternity for scotch during a time when male whisky drinking was viewed without the overlay of today’s social norms of gender inclusion. Their icon became the historic, tulip-shaped sherry, or “dock glass” associated with the industry for well over a century. Marketers applied basic techniques by choosing it as the “flag” to lead the charge elevating scotch to the elite level it enjoys today.

Unwittingly, the glass industry followed along producing many products which did not stray too far from the closed-rim, tall, narrow vessel that the industry worked so hard to establish as their icon, hoping to profit by offering stylish variations, mistakenly assuming that the spirits industry knew best what they needed, and seeking spirits industry approval for their styled versions. Glass manufacturers fell into a trap, missing several opportunities to make a difference by not thinking outside the styling box to embrace simple science, as they once did with stunning results in wine glassware.

Old School Science Fails: However, innovations upset trends and they also occur without warning. The old school of “science” used to justify the tulip glass is summarized as: (1) small glasses collect aromas so none escape detection, and (2) ethanol is impossible to separate from character aromas, so we have to modify technique to escape the burn.

The innovation of adding a “neck-and-flare” to a spirit glass efficiently accomplishes separation of over-abundant ethanol from character aromas is the equalizer and dispeller of mythical science. Small rim spirits glasses do not focus aromas, they concentrate nose numbing ethanol, and should be left where they came from, with the sherry drinkers.

Perhaps the next relevant question is “Where do we go from here?” The objective is clearly defined

Proposal to the Spirits Industry: Suggested first steps to hasten emergence from the “good-old-boys-club.”

  • Examine what women have to offer the industry. Female olfactory sensitivity is significantly greater than male. Women should be an integral part of the blending and distilling process as well as education. Hire, train, and welcome them as a valuable and necessary sensory asset to your companies, as decision makers, blenders, educators, marketers, and more brand representatives. Without question, women’s roles have progressed much further in the wine industry.
  • Take positive steps to eliminate cliquish, elitist behavior, including male chauvinism prevalent in consumer spirits events, marketing, professional associations, and many spirits judging competitions. It is no longer acceptable. Don’t play into the fraternal mentality, awareness of everyone’s perspective is important. By changing the corporate mindset, industry captains can at least begin to level the playing field with positive steps. A few males may not like it (my guess is about 13%), but they won’t stop drinking because there are more females at spirits events, and they probably will put more effort into minding their manners. How can that approach be bad for the success of corporate sponsored consumer events? Especially since many have degraded to the status of “puke fests.”
  • Increase the number of female judges in spirits competitions to improve the quality of ratings and evaluations. Improve spirits competitions by replacing “honorary” and “celebrity” judges with proven female noses. The wine industry has an abundance of expert female noses who also love spirits.
  • Abandon tulip-shaped glassware, it has no scientific function, it hinders the evaluation of spirits, and only has iconic value as a club membership identifier. Wide rim glassware goes a long way to leveling the playing field by diffusing ethanol, whether it’s a tumbler, a cocktail glass, or the NEAT glass. Many women want to drink straight spirits, but it’s painful in the wrong glass. Growing acceptance of the engineered open-rimmed glass in spirits competitions since 2012 is a solid testimonial to its effectiveness as a gender friendly diagnostics tool.
  • The majority of males prefer the open-rimmed vessel (87%). There is a significant potential to attract more male participants from other markets to the world of neat drinkers with vessels that dissipate ethanol for better aromas. Liberate them from the iconic sherry glass derivatives designed for lower ABV beverages.
  • Promote science to explain how to evaluate and enjoy distilled spirits for everyone, and abandon the myths that surround tasting and nosing spirits. Such myths include adding water to spirits, wafting and olfactory acclimation, breathing through mouth and nose simultaneously, and many other “procedures” designed to reduce ethanol on the nose (which they do not, as they only acclimate the nose to accept the overabundance of ethanol further disguising the onset of ethanol anesthesia). These “devices” are proof that the industry recognizes that tulip-shaped glassware concentrates ethanol, and they are attempts to acclimate to rather than reduce nose-numbing in order to preserve a functionally inferior but iconic design.
  • Take definitive steps to educate the male drinker that high ABV is not a measure of quality when marketing cask-strength offerings.

Think about it. Drinking straight spirits is not a “boys club,” it’s a viable, profitable, job-providing, economy-enhancing business with much higher growth potential if the female population is welcomed into the industry as equals, both as members and consumers. A change in perspective is a guaranteed improvement for men, women, and the spirits industry. More details about the research are available at peer-reviewed open access MDPI Beverages Journal, quick link https://www.mdpi.com/2306-5710/4/4/93

Arsilica, Inc. is a woman owned company. As owners and inventors of the NEAT glass, we are comfortable with our position because our innovative products have the potential to encourage much-needed social change. Our research started long before NEAT was released, and is the result of our research. We promote NEAT because it provides a significant improvement in diagnostics over tulip shapes, raises the quality bar for the industry, is gender friendly, and improves drinking enjoyment for all consumers. We willingly share our research and knowledge to anyone who is interested in clicking the link. Science built a better glass.