This is not a piece that I wanted to write. But, sometimes you have to stand up. I keep most of my political and social views out the sphere of my work in the drinks industry. Because, this is my work, and my views are personal. However, I feel the need to express this, and I humbly ask that you bear with me and read this to the end.
I’ll keep the backstory succinct and simple. Jim Murray, a drinks writer, brought out a book, The Whisky Bible, in which some (NOTE: I has stated many, but it is in fact some), of his tasting notes compare a whisky to a woman, or sexual relations with one. Becky Paskin, another drinks writer, called him out on this online. She wrote a thread, giving examples of the quotes and explaining why it wasn’t ok. The public reacted to this and as a result some of his contracts were lost, with companies deciding that they did not want to be associated with someone who was accused of sexism.
Jim has kept his head down for the last fourteen months. Until yesterday, when the Daily Mail published an article about the matter, taking the angle that as a “white, middle-aged, middle class man, he cannot say anything.” And, that his voice has been silenced due to ‘wokeism’ and ‘cancel culture’.
I will state now, there are no links here. I don’t want to give the Daily Mail article the extra clicks. So, in the name of fairness I didn’t link to anything else either. But I understand you need to do your own research. All it takes is a quick google.
Firstly, and I must stress this, we must always be wary of language and how it is being used. A point can be made in so many styles and tones. And its easy to be tricked by one point, masquerading as another.
We need to be challenged. That’s how we grow. Seeing things that are difficult to stomach that challenge us are needed for us to think, learn and adjust our own moral compass. It’s a blurry line, as people are a mixed bag. Something that challenges someone to think differently, may be upsetting to someone else. We are not dealing with absolutes here. One thing is not the same for everyone. A person may say something that that someone else finds offensive and the argument is often, “Well I didn’t mean it like that, I didn’t know it would offend you, so really the issue is at your end.” And, there is a point there. But is there not also at least some responsibility to think, “I’ll be more mindful of how my words affect people.”? Why can’t we meet in the middle, or thereabouts, in some of these issues? Surely that is more fair? There are examples of this in various cases. It is a case by case basis, of course. But when your words are being published, you should perhaps bear in mind that it could be read by anyone and be prepared to at least take some responsibility for them.
In the DM article, Jim claims that he is an ‘entertainer’ and that what he has written has been taken out of context. He also claims that this is the descriptor that the whiskies evoke from him and this is his creativity to describe the drink as such. But, as a drinks writer, I feel the need to weigh in here. I often use descriptors of evocative language, that’s what we do to convey the concept of taste to the reader in language and ideas as pleasurable as the drink itself. I look at how it relates to it’s environment, how local botanicals are used, how the flavours fit in to a historical story at the heart of it’s branding, a sense of place or time, or the people that make it. I’ve never felt the need to relate it to the sexual body, or acts of a person, particularly a woman. Neither do drinks brands, not in recent years, anyway. In fact, I think that perhaps there are legal issues with this.
He claims that other industries use the term ‘sexy’, and that’s completely true. Yes, cars, sports commentators use the term, but they don’t attribute this to a particular gender, and this is the difference. They are using the term as in ‘attractive’, you don’t hear a sports commentator suggest he make love to the goal.
And I am presenting a balanced view here. I understand why he’s upset. Who likes being called out and told they’re wrong? I know I don’t. And you probably don’t either. It’s embarrassing, especially when it’s a public thing that affects your work. I understand that it’s caused him much loss, and you would get upset about that, wouldn’t you? As he said himself in the DM, article, he’s not had an issue before. Even so, if it becomes an issue, surely that means there is now something to address? If we did not address these things, what would become of our world?
Time is moving fast. From just a few decades ago where we may meet someone in the local pub with a different view, we now have the internet and are being constantly presented with other various ways of thinking, living and existing, and this causes much conflict. Ideas change, and our acknowledgement of this changes the way we treat others. People who pride themselves on being ‘good people’ become defensive if their idea is confronted as being out of date and offensive. ‘But, I’m a good person’ is the response. They feel attacked, and they get defensive. Again, I understand. It stings. And of course, you are entitled to your view. We all have our ‘freedom of speech’. But there are limits to this. This doesn’t entitle you to say things that can contribute to issues of division, persecution or hatred. And, unfortunately this phrase has been hijacked by some as a ticket to say problematic things without consequence. Is their right to speak more important than the right to a fairer world? I would suggest people are allowed to speak, but in doing so they commit to the right to be challenged, and to reasonably handle that challenge for their own sake, as much as the world around them.
There is sexism in the drinks industry. There is in a lot of industries. We are in a constant flux of learning and improving through conversation. I’m not going to include my personal complaints. I love this industry and I work with fantastic people of all genders, who are passionate about what they do. To me, this isn’t a them vs us thing. But, sometimes you have to say: I think it’s damaging to the industry that you’ve written a book when the majority of notes compare whisky to a woman in her physical and sexual capacity. I don’t think there is a need for it, and condoning these ideas perpetuates these attitudes. Essentially, this may be your creative schtick, Jim. But it’s not just a case of being able to say what you want, as it has negative affect that ripples for miles. Do you really want to be responsible for that? Is your right to say what you like more important to you?
This is what Becky Paskin did. She called him out and said ‘that’s not ok’.
Fourteen months later, This DM article is published. It’s interesting that as a writer, Jim didn’t write this article himself. He could have taken the floor to make his point, but he didn’t. And further more, a woman wrote it. We could easily read into this that he has hidden behind a women. Maybe the Daily Mail thought it would be safer, hold more weight to the argument? But when that woman writes sentences like “I hardly dare ask” about his reference to Penderyn Single Cask (an all woman distilling team) referring to a threesome. Well, you can’t help but wonder if even she was nervous.
The ideas of ‘wokeism’ and ‘cancel culture’ also need addressing. Too big a conversation for here, but we need to touch on it. Again, these are not absolutes. There are people trying to make change. Some do this in an aggressive way, because they are angry, and I understand this. But, that aggression can do more harm than good. People become defensive and they not only refuse change, but there is less chance of change in the future. We need to listen and have patience with people taking on new ideas in the world. Sometimes these things take time. And again, terms like ‘wokeism’ and ‘cancel culture’ have been hijacked by some to undermine the efforts for positive change that people make. Life is about evolution. Ideas are not stationary. We grow better by question and improvement. This should be embraced, rather than viewed as an attack on someone’s freedom, especially when someone believes exercising their freedom is more important than the knock on effect it will have on so many others.
I have been careful to present a calm and balanced point of view. Language can cause such reaction. If we read something that upsets us, we can react in anger, and the point we’re trying to make drowns in the phrasing and tone of our angry response. Sometimes we can’t help but be clever to get one over, but making someone feel stupid is not going to make them listen and you have to ask yourself, what is my intention here? Do I want them to hear my point, or do I want to upset them because I am angry about this. It’s ok to be angry, your reactions are valid. But where it comes to debate, getting your point across so it is heard and realised is the most important thing if you really do want to instigate change.
It may well be entertaining to describe whisky like woman. But I would assert that in an era where women are trying to position themselves as equals in the spirits industry, it’s not only tasteless, but it perpetuates issues of inequality that we are desperately trying to resolve. Comparing a whisky to a woman likens the woman to the object that you consume and discard, having appreciated it for such a small space of time. You may not realise it, but you are saying a woman is less.
It’s never pleasant to lose what you’ve worked for. But, we need a sense of accountability. If something causes issue, a conversation needs to be had. The world would not function without this. Society is based on us being able to work together, and why would you sell yourself short by refusing the opportunity to learn and improve? This whole thing could have been easily resolved by Jim listening to the issue and asking himself if he could have done things differently. He could have explored the extraordinary palate of language and concept and found a different way of describing a spirit without needing to use the woman’s form. Like I do, and pretty much every other spirits writer out there. He could have set a wonderful example to make a positive change in the industry.
Instead, he teamed up with the Daily Mail to play the silenced victim and contact other ‘cancel culture’ victims to set up an organisation called ‘War On Woke’. And, they’ve painted Becky Paskin as someone who complained unnecessarily, and at great cost to him. They have completely ignored the fact that she had a point. They are silencing her.
Yes, ‘Wokeism’ and ‘Cancel Culture’ can be detrimental. We are learning and progressing in different ways and change can take time to come. Silencing people is indeed an act against our freedom of speech. But my question is this: Do you really think that people should be allowed to say anything without challenge? Do you really think that people should be given free reign to perpetuate persecution, misinformation or hatred in any means? Do you not think we should be challenged to learn more and consider what the ethics of our ideas really mean in our society?
Becky made a bold move to stand up and say something. She has put her work and her career on the line as much as Jim. This was acknowledged with an award by the IWSC recently, one that celebrated her world in inequality in the drinks industry. After reading that Daily Mail article yesterday, and some of the result comments, I feel strongly that I need to stand up and say something too. It’s deeply concerning how language in the media is being hijacked and used to silence a rightful call for positive change, whilst simultaneously giving a further platform for others to say things that do nothing other than spread negative ideas under the guide of ‘entertainment’ and ‘free speech’. We all have a responsibility to stand against this, for future of not only our industry, but our world.
This is not a piece that I wanted to write. But, sometimes you have to stand up.