Kate McCarty has recently co-founded Portland Spirits Society, a women-only group dedicated to learning about local spirits. And by “learning” we mean distillery tours, tastings and social events.
Distilling. Now there’s a subject that keeps a student’s attention in a way no earth science or English 101 class ever could. Of course, most earth science classes don’t include samples of whiskey, gin and rum. We’d have a lot more volcanologists in the world if they did.
But the process of distillation – from sprouting barley to years in a barrel – is a topic of increasing interest to even casual and/or curious spirit drinkers (and drinkers whose experience with whiskey is limited to a handful of less-than-pleasant teenage memories of sneaking off with dad’s Dewar’s and a two-liter of Coke). Also worth noting: More and more of those curious spirit drinkers are women.
It’s a shift that hasn’t escaped Kate McCarty.
McCarty, a food preservation educator at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension and local food blogger behind The Blueberry Files, happens to be one of those whiskey curious women. And she’s recently co-founded Portland Spirits Society, a women-only group dedicated to learning about local spirits.
The idea for the group came after McCarty heard a story on NPR’s Morning Edition about women and whiskey – namely, that increasing numbers of women are drinking whiskey and shirking the outdated stereotype that whiskey is somehow “a man’s drink.” (The NPR story: “Not Just A Man’s Drink: Ladies Lead The Whiskey Renaissance”)
“They’re finding that younger women are becoming more interested in whiskey,” said McCarty. And bars are catering to the trend, including one in New York City that hosts a Whiskey 101 class for women, which was mentioned in the NPR piece. McCarty’s immediate thought? “I want to go to that.”
Problem was, there wasn’t any dedicated whiskey group or class like that here in Portland. So she decided to create it herself.
McCarty reached out to Lora Burns of the Maine Beer Mavens – another local group dedicated to helping women explore craft beer – and it turns out Burns had been toying with a similar idea. So together they launched Portland Spirits Society this winter.
The group, which can be found on Facebook, is free to join and open to any woman who’s interested in learning more about spirits – be that rum, gin, vodka, or the spirit that piqued McCarty’s interest in the first place: Whiskey.
“My interest was in the whiskey,” she said. “And the world of whiskey is huge…the more I learn, the more I learn I’m ignorant. I’m also interested in any sort of spirits, like rum, and there’s a million different styles,” she said
But with the formation of Portland Spirits Society (and the not-so-tough work of distillery visits and repeated sampling) McCarty aims to turn that ignorance into educated appreciation for herself and any other Portland-area women interested in learning more about their booze.
Judging by the early enthusiasm for Portland Spirits Society, there are a lot of women who are interested.
Women aren’t happy to just drink Stoli any more, she joked. Instead, women are saying, “I’d be interested to know how (liquor) is made and who’s making it,” just like so many locals already do with their food.
Portland Spirits Society already has two events under its belt: A distillery tour and sampling at Maine Craft Distilling in late January and a sold-out beginner whiskey tasting at Portland Hunt & Alpine Club this week.
“I was a little surprised how quickly it took off,” said McCarty, who added that she’s had inquiries from some men who wondered when they’d be able to join. Her response to them: “For now it’s for ladies.”
Being women-only is an attractive element of the group, McCarty said. Learning more about spirits is certainly something anyone’s free to do on their own, but “to have something that’s formal – and women only – it’s an attractive environment,” said McCarty. “It’s a safe space where people might feel more comfortable and not feel judged for asking questions.”
And while McCarty said she doesn’t have any hard and fast expectations about what the group will do, drink or become, she has plenty of ideas (and she’s open to suggestions if you’ve got ’em). Future events might include local distillery tours and tastings or meetups at local bars to explore scotch or rum or gin more closely. “I did envision a bourbon night, a scotch night – vertical tastings within a style,” she said. “Maybe you’ll learn that you don’t like bourbon, but if you do like it, what are the different styles?”
And that’s just the tip of the liquor iceberg.
But mostly, it’s about helping women learn more about what they’re drinking (or what they’ve never tried before).
“I want to learn and have fun and meet some new people who are interested in learning as well,” said McCarty.
I think we can all drink to that.