Hold the wine, please — an experimental whiskey appreciation club for women is growing in Los Angeles.
Launched in March, Women Who Whiskey’s newest L.A. chapter has more than 1,500 registered members and boasts the club's largest branch in the world.
The women-only group was founded in New York City by whiskey enthusiast Julia Ritz Toffoli, who first moved to the city thinking, “What better place to make new friends than over a drink?”
“We were tired of hearing, ‘Whoa, that’s a strong drink for a little lady!’” Toffoli said of her (and countless other women’s) common experience when ordering whiskey at a bar.
In 2011, Toffoli decided to organize a social group dedicated to the craft, taste — and sometimes, yes, mixology — of the beloved drink.
“By socializing and drinking whiskey together, we’re normalizing it as something that’s a matter of taste more than a matter of gender,” she writes.
As an organization, Women Who Whiskey has grown to 19 chapters across the United States, plus Toronto; Waterloo, Ontario; London; Nairobi, Kenya; and Geneva.
“I wanted to provide opportunities for women to explore different kinds of whiskey, so they feel confident ordering whiskey in a bar,” said L.A. chapter president Kim Ohanneson, a certified whiskey ambassador who also runs the bimonthly Whisky & Poetry Salon and hosts whiskey tastings and events.
“I love the sense of community that the [Whisky & Poetry Salon] creates, and wanted to expand upon that. When the opportunity came along to launch the first California chapter of Women Who Whiskey, it was the perfect next step,” Ohanneson said.
Membership to the club is informal and free, with access to events and an extremely diverse network of like-minded, liquor-loving women.
“I always liked that the group was geared toward women — this group feels approachable, like you’re going to learn something you didn’t know,” noted Chris Lutz, an active member of the L.A. chapter since its inception.
“Whiskey is a very masculine, sort of traditional drink. These [events] allow women to ask questions that they might feel embarrassed or shy to ask otherwise, in a mixed-gender group. Everyone is here to learn and share their knowledge of whiskey and liquor-loving culture, and not be ashamed of it,” Lutz added.
Member Melanie Cockrum, who tends bar at the Troubadour, agreed. “I think there’s a misconception of women only liking sweet and fruity drinks … sort of attached to the sweet, delicate nature and traditional characteristics [of women]. Back [in younger days] we liked a lot of vodka — but as you age, your drinking palate will also change.”
“I think there’s a stereotype that is 100 percent wrong that women don’t drink whiskey, and this group is proof that a lot of women in fact do,” said Joe Capella, co-owner of the Everson Royce Bar in the Arts District.
Capella recently partnered with the L.A. chapter to host a whiskey tasting at the upscale downtown restaurant. “At least half of the whiskey we sell to women is intended for different social settings. This whole whiskey revival — it’s not just for old people,” he said.
Held several times a month, Women Who Whiskey events have included distillery tours, bar collaborations, cocktail mixing classes and a variety of whiskey tastings around the city. There are also select co-ed events allowing ladies to bring their gentleman counterparts.
“We’re not affiliated with a liquor brand; we’re a more grass-roots, very egalitarian group,” Ohanneson said. “Members don’t have to have a skill to participate, aside from holding their liquor! There’s no pressure to network and most of the time, guests don’t have to make or do anything unless they attend a class or the poetry salon. It’s also a diverse group of women, ranging from 20s to 70s. … I’m firmly convinced that whiskey keeps you young!”
Working with American brands as well as Irish, Canadian, German and Scottish names, Women Who Whiskey will try everything from Kentucky bourbons to single malt scotch.
“We are a network of professional ladies who are busy, have deadlines and often full-time jobs, but still want to relax and meet new people and learn," said Sherman Oaks resident Amanda Barnes. "It’s not just like, ‘Let’s drink!’ Here, you are learning the history, how it’s distilled, even about the neighborhood. There are not a lot of nonthreatening environments in which women can do that."
A recent Art of Whiskey summer event featured a walking tour of life-size murals in the Arts District neighborhood, followed by whiskey and food pairings at the Everson Royce Bar.
“It struck me that what people are looking for in Los Angeles is a sense of community and storytelling, and whiskey tells that story,” said tour operator Cindy Schwarzstein of Cartwheel Art Tours, who curated the event.
The walking tour also featured the work of female muralists, something relatively hard to find among L.A.’s colorful, decorated streets.
“It’s nice to see a woman out there holding her own in this male-dominated, street art or graffiti culture,” noted L.A. native Christy Heyob. “We also hope to see more women ambassadors — like Mila Kunis for Jim Beam — for whiskey.”
“When was the last time you had a woman advertising hard alcohol like that, not clad in a bikini?”
Aside from hosting monthly events, Ohanneson hopes to collaborate with more businesswomen and expand the group’s reach to distilleries outside of Los Angeles. She is also planning a big celebration for the chapter’s one-year anniversary next March. (All upcoming event information can be found at the chapter’s Facebook page.)
“My long-term dream in terms of this chapter is to create a whiskey cocktail book and donate the proceeds to a women’s charity,” she said.
“I’ve asked women who attend the cocktail-making classes to save their recipes," Ohanneson added. "I’d have pro bartenders vet the recipes, publish them in a cocktail book and donate the profits. I’m also hoping to call on the fab skills of the Women Who Whiskey — Los Angeles community to help make that happen!”
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Barnes, a California transplant from the Midwest, expressed her hopes for Women Who Whiskey to never lose its spirit.
“Here I get to meet a lot of intelligent, very real women — it’s like, ‘Ahh, here we are.’ I don’t have to get dressed or dolled up at the bar. No one is judging me; nobody here has a thing to prove.
“Whiskey never judges! We’ve sort of adopted that as a mantra."
Added Ohanneson, “I think my excitement gets others excited. Whiskey is all about stories and passion.”