This is part of SevenFifty Daily’s 2023 Drinks Innovators series. You can learn more about the rest of our award-winners here.
In the early days of OurWhisky Foundation in 2018, Becky Paskin and cofounder Georgie Bell (who has since parted ways with the organization) went to a conference to give a talk about their work: empowering and supporting women in the global whiskey industry. “We took to the stage, and once we started talking about women in whiskey, half the room stood up and walked out,” Paskin says. “It was a struggle.”
Five years later, Paskin still encounters resistance to this conversation; most commonly it’s dismissed as no longer necessary. And yet, while women account for 36 percent of whiskey drinkers, a figure that is on the rise, the world’s leading whiskey brands posted 228 percent more images featuring men than women across their social media accounts in 2020. Non-white people were represented in just 17.9 percent of images.
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These figures were cited in OurWhisky’s “Women & Whisky: Female Representation in Social Media Marketing” report released in 2020, which was part of their impetus to make it easier for brands, media outlets, and content creators to address this broad misrepresentation. How did they do that? They created a free image library to tackle gender bias in the industry.
The Modern Face of Whisky launched in April 2023, providing a free collection of unbranded stock photos for media outlets or content creators to download and use, depicting people of all genders, races, and ages. “As a former editor of two globally award-winning publications, I always struggled to find any imagery of diverse people drinking whiskey,” says Paskin. “Your choice was men in suits or naked women. I saw this and thought, ‘This is unbelievable.’”
She approached whiskey brands including Glenfiddich, Bacardi, Beam Suntory, Diageo, Distill Ventures, The Glenlivet, Brown-Forman, Whyte & Mackay, Glenmorangie, Heaven Hill, and Edrington, and they “all said yes immediately,” giving the foundation equal donations to ensure equality. “The whiskey world doesn’t unite on anything, it’s so competitive, yet they all united on this,” says Paskin.
While the first collection was shot by Jo Hanley, it will be an evolving project, with future collections helmed by different photographers “from minority voices, women, people of color, nonbinary individuals,” Paskin says. “If you come at it from having a different experience and background to the average white drinking guy, you’re going to see something different in the subject you’re photographing, so that’s really important to us.” The images are already being used widely, with the library attracting three million views and 20,000 downloads in its first week across Unsplash, Pexels, and Pixabay.
OurWhisky’s work goes beyond the media library. It began in the U.K. as a social media campaign, but then in 2022, Paskin launched its current iteration as a trade-oriented global nonprofit. It works to empower and support women working in whiskey through training, advocacy, free resources, networking opportunities, and community, as well as working with big brands to bring in and champion more women in their workplaces.
Paskin is most proud of its six-month mentorship program, however, which matches 50 candidates from all over the world with an experienced mentor in their field. The list of mentors is a roll call of whiskey big hitters, including: Brown-Forman master blender Rachel Barrie; Nicola Riske, the brand education manager at The Macallan; Steve Hawley, the founder and president of the American Single Malt Whiskey Commission; and so on. The mentorship includes monthly one-on-one sessions with the mentor, as well as regular workshops, meetups, and a WhatsApp group to share resources and support one another through the process.
Ana Hinz, who’s based in Seattle, Washington, entered the mentorship program as part of the first tranche of mentees in August 2022 after a career change. “One of the big challenges for me was that I knew about brand ambassadors and distillers, but I didn’t really know what else there is—and you don’t know unless you’re in the industry,” she says. “Being paired with Matt Hofmann [of Westland Distillery] was really fortuitous. He was able to share career and education ideas that I hadn’t thought of, and then amazingly described a position that sounded like it was custom-made for me.” Hinz took a role as a project manager at Westland and she’s since been promoted to business development manager. While not everyone will land a job, she says “there’s a plethora of opportunities for anyone in the mentorship program that I can’t speak highly enough of. ”
What’s next for Paskin and the team behind OurWhisky? She hopes the foundation will be able to expand to host its own awards ceremony and conference in the future. Of the 85 inductees in the World Drinks Awards’ Whisky Hall of Fame since 2004, just five are women, a problem that’s perpetuated by the lack of diversity on judging panels, or, in Paskin’s words, “if you only have the same old white Scottish guy in a tweed suit, the outcome is going to be the same, again and again … Someone has to say, ‘enough!’ Let’s look at how diverse we can make this and talk about representation in a very positive way to push this forward.”
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Tyler Wetherall is the senior editor for SevenFifty Daily and the Beverage Media Group publications. Her drinks journalism has appeared in publications including Punch, The Guardian, Condé Nast Traveler, Thrillist, and The Spirits Business, which awarded her the Alan Lodge Young International Drinks Writer of the Year. Tyler is also the author of No Way Home: A Memoir of Life on the Run. Follow her on Instagram at @tylerwrites.