How to Make Women Feel Welcome: Avoid Pinkification

Image: Age Barros / iStock / Getty Images Plus (Man and woman toasting)

We won’t have reached diversity and inclusion, says Peggy Noe Stevens, until she’s not asked to speak on a panel addressing it. She made this powerful statement at this year's Tales of the Cocktail, on a diversity panel.

On the topic of diversity, guests who identify as women, and whiskey, Stevens wants to see real progress. This can be accomplished through training, a healthy and inclusive brand culture, and authentic engagement.

Stevens is the world’s—not North America’s or the USA’s, the world’s—first female Master Bourbon Taster. Having accomplished that feat in the late 1990s or early 2000s is as impressive as it is shocking—women have been involved in every aspect and role in whiskey production for over 200 years. And yet, the world only recognized a woman as a Master Bourbon Taster about 20 years ago.

That’s not all that long ago considering how long women have had a hand (or stave or whiskey thief, I suppose) in whiskey.

If you’re an owner, operator, manager, bartender or server, picture a woman walking up to your bar and ordering a whiskey. Stevens wants you to ask yourself these questions:

  • What does she look like?
  • How is she dressed?
  • What did she order?
  • What kind of glass did she want?
  • How did she enjoy the whiskey?
  • Did she ask questions?

Now, understand that including women and helping them feel welcome in your establishment isn’t about demographics—this is about psychographics. What’s important isn’t a female guest’s age and appearance, what’s important is who she is.

Check this out: We Need to Talk: Diversity in the Industry

We go to great lengths in this industry to collect hundreds of datapoints of guest data. We put guests into buckets based on age, gender, and frequency of visit, to name a handful of common identifiers. We think we understand these consumers, but do we really?

In 2011, Stevens founded Bourbon Women. Another first, Bourbon Women is a women’s consumer organization in the beverage industry. This organization has conducted studies, gathering data on female bourbon drinkers that all operators can act upon.

Here’s the first takeaway: Women don’t want operators to form a women’s whiskey club and “pat them on the head.” As an idea of what whiskey-drinking women (and likely most women) don’t want, Stevens points to Johnnie Walker’s Jane Walker expression and campaign. Such marketing efforts are referred to “pinkification,” a transparent attempt to pander to women by targeting them with a “woman-specific” product.

Women don’t want a specific product aimed just at them. In Stevens’ and other people's opinions, Jane Walker is a disaster.

What do women want? To be accepted and welcomed. To learn about spirits and brands. To understand an operator, their brand and their brand culture. To know that their opinions matter to operators. A great way to let women know their valued guests is simple: Ask a follow-up question about their orders and engage with them about whiskey. What you and your bar team will learn is invaluable guest data.

Check this out: 3 Talented Women Share Their Bar Business Insights

Speaking of data, back to Bourbon Women’s findings. Unfortunately, many operators and bartenders make assumptions about female guests drinking tastes. Some think women prefer bourbon in a cocktail or want low-calorie drinks.

Well, Stevens and Bourbon Women have debunked those myths. According to their data:

  • 68% of women who drink bourbon prefer it straight or with water.
  • 81% of female bourbon drinkers are unlikely to purchase pre-mixed bourbon drinks, and 77% aren’t likely to buy low-calorie, pre-mixed bourbon drinks.
  • 49% of female bourbon drinkers aren’t influenced by packaging, their orders are based on what’s inside a bottle.
  • 69% of female bourbon drinkers aren’t interested in special names for spirits/products marketed specifically to women, and 46% aren’t interested in bourbon marketed toward women.
  • Smoothness is the most important quality of a bourbon for 53% of female bourbon drinkers.

Bourbon Women conducted a blind taste test, having participants judge the nose, body, smoothness, complexity, and finish of several bourbons. The following are the results:

  • Elijah Craig Barrel Strength (124.2 proof), Wild Turkey Rare Breed (108 proof) and Wild Turkey Russell’s Reserve 10-Year-Old (90 proof) were each rated “Excellent.”
  • Evan Williams Single Barrel 2004 Vintage (86.6 proof) received a rating of “Good+.”
  • Elijah Craig 12-Year-Old (94 proof) and Larceny (92 proof) were both rated “Good.”
  • Bernheim Original Wheat Whiskey (90 proof) was rated “Fair+.”
  • Wild Turkey 81 (81 proof) received a rating of “Fair.”

Did anything stand out to you? Two of the expressions rated “Excellent” ring in at over 100 proof. This contradicts another widespread alcohol myth: Men prefer higher-proof spirits. According to Stevens, men tend to select lighter-proof products as their favorites.

Operators who want more women to visit and spend money at their venues would be wise to avoid pinkification and assumptions. Stevens suggests inclusivity training, engaging women, talking about whiskey with them, and offering other brands and expressions based on their orders. Be specific, she says, about which brands are call and which are premium at your bar. The same approach, by the way, can be embraced for all guests and all drink preferences, including alcohol-free beverages.

Avoid making assumptions about a woman’s palate based solely on the fact that she’s a woman, says Stevens. Offer whiskeys in the proper glassware. In fact, engage female guests by asking what type of glass they’d like. When an order for a mixed group is placed, don’t assume that the women in the group get the wine or certain cocktails.

Check this out: 4 Tips to Show You Value Your Women Guests, Coworkers and Employees

Stevens addresses those last two points, glassware and drink orders, with two personal examples. Both are examples of what not to do. First, on glassware: Stevens was at a bar with a man. They both ordered Manhattans. The bartender made one in a cocktail glass and one in a rocks glass. The latter went to Stevens' male friend solely because he was a man.

Second, on mixed audience orders: When at events with her husband, it’s not uncommon for bartenders to make assumptions. Her husband is a wine drinker, she’s a whiskey drinker. Servers often hand Stevens the wine and give her husband her whiskey order.

Change in this industry often comes as a domino effect. The bartenders, says Stevens, “have the power to actually unlock a woman's curiosity on what to drink.” Bartenders can drive diversity and inclusivity, and make female guests feel welcome. If a woman is a new consumer, a bartender can invite her to try a great whiskey cocktail. And if a woman already drinks whiskey, a bartender can upgrade her to a premium or cask strength option.

A rising tide lifts all ships. Operators and bartenders can be that rising tide.