Chick Whiskey and Dude Cognac

Gender-specific spirits aren’t just stupid. They can be harmful, too.

Cinnabon vodka.
Photo-illustration by Slate; Images courtesy of Cinnabon and Pinnacle

What bottle will spirits aficionados find in their Christmas stockings this year? If producers have their way, the answer depends on gender.

For the ladies, keep an eye out for confected vodka and whiskey treats, softened with maple sugar, honey, or ersatz fruit flavorings. Meanwhile, for gentlemen, rugged cognac awaits, manned up with oak and fiery spice.

What’s that? You’re a woman who would rather enjoy a dram of (unflavored) scotch? You’re a man who enjoys fine (unflavored) brandy? I applaud your good taste, and I’m not surprised. There’s no conclusive evidence that men and women perceive flavors differently, so it stands to reason that spirits choices have more to do with individual preference than with what’s between one’s legs.

But producers think otherwise. Chick-targeted bottlings like MommyJuice wine, premixed Skinnygirl margaritas (and the legions of “skinny” competitors), and the lollipop-reminiscent Little Black Dress vodka line have been available for the past few years. With the roaring success of flavored vodka now finally starting to simmer down—some see the invention of Cinnabon-flavored vodka (TM) as the category’s shark jump—spirits producers think flavored whiskeys are the next big thing in girl drinks. Recent arrivals include Evan Williams Cinnamon Reserve and Cherry Reserve flavored bourbon and Peach Mist, a flavored version of Canadian Mist that resembles peach-flavored sweet tea more than it resembles whiskey. The Canadian Mist line also includes candy-like cinnamon, maple, and vanilla flavors. Sales of flavored whiskeys made triple-digit gains in 2012, according to statistics from Nielsen (2013 stats are not yet available). And the invention of dude-centric hooch threatens to further widen the divide.

These products go beyond the gender-specific ad campaigns that have been used to sell spirits for decades. (Jack Daniels, for instance, tried to appeal to men by plastering its logos on NASCAR racing cars and targeted women with the “Add a splash of Jack” and “Stir conversation” ads that ran briefly a couple of years back. Both approaches were intended to sell the same Jack Daniels whiskey.) What’s new and pernicious about this type of product is that the liquid inside the bottle was developed with a specific gender in mind.

Consider, for example, the newly released C by Courvoisier, with its deep nut-brown color and oaky, spicy flavors—reminiscent of espresso mixed with dried fruit and cloves. As a counterpoint to the more “feminine” Moscato-spiked Courvoisier Rosé and Gold lines, “It’s considered Courvoisier for men,” Courvoisier president and general manager Patrice Pinet told me, “for a night out with the guys.”  

Meanwhile, Grand Marnier, best known for its cognac-based orange liqueur, is rolling out a “GM Titanium” bottling just in time for the holidays, made with a blend of cognacs aged from two to 20 years, orange essence, and a heady dose of spices (black pepper, anise, clove). It too was created to be drunk by young men. In his inimitable French accent, Grand Marnier master distiller Patrick Raguenaud, who oversaw development of GM Titanium, dubs it “cognac masculin.”

Elizabeth Sweet, a sociologist at University of California–Davis (coincidentally, a school famed for its winemaking programs), sees parallels between how toys and these candy-like alcoholic beverages are marketed. Sweet wrote her dissertation on Sears toy catalogues from the turn of the century through 1995, examining how toys were explicitly and implicitly gendered. She found that gendered toy advertising dropped in the 1970s but had become more prevalent by the mid-90s as toymakers realized they could sell more versions of the same product via market segmentation. “The people who were children in the 1990s when I started to see toys color-coded by gender, pink and blue, they are becoming young adults,” Sweet observes. And “they are used to gender differentiation in products.” In other words, millennials are desensitized to gender-specific marketing; many have never known anything else. Young adults may not notice the lines drawn for them in the sand by savvy liquor marketing pros, and if they do notice, they may not even care. But they should.

Gender-specific spirits, like gender-specific toys, come at a potentially high cost. They reinforce narrow and negative stereotypes, which play a significant role in creating inequality. You might scoff that this is overreaction—that it’s just one bottle, or a handful of bottles. But consider the messages separate spirits for men and women send. A low-cal “skinny” vodka reinforces the idea that women’s weight and physical beauty are of the utmost importance. Similarly, bold, aggressive flavors “for men” send a harmful message. “If everything says to boys, you must be aggressive, you must be strong—is it so surprising that we see so many incidents of masculine violence in our society? I don’t think so,” Sweet says.

Thankfully, some of today’s consumers are pushing back against spirits producers’ backwards ideas about gender. Heather Greene, whiskey sommelier at the Flatiron Room in New York, relays this tale: During her recent visit to Kentucky, Wild Turkey distiller Jimmy Russell mentioned American Honey, a delicately honey-sweet liqueur that uses Wild Turkey bourbon as its base. “He chuckled and said, ‘We now have a honey-flavored whiskey. We made it for women, but men are the ones who are drinking it.’” (A representative from Wild Turkey confirms that the product was indeed relaunched in 2006 in part to bring more women into the whiskey world and that consumption now is evenly split between men and women.) I say: Well done, gentlemen. Here’s hoping women will send the spirits industry a similar message by buying GM Titanium and Courvoisier C—or, better yet, by buying old-fashioned, gender-neutral whiskey, cognac, or vodka. Having tasted more flavored girly whiskeys and manly cognacs than I care to count, I can report that the plain stuff tastes better, anyway.

Correction, Dec. 24, 2013: This article originally misstated that Wild Turkey American Honey was a recent arrival. The product was originally created in 1986 and then relaunched in 2006 to appeal to women. This article has been updated to reflect those facts.