WHEN whisky critic Jim Murray used sexual imagery to evoke the sensual experience of the drams he was tasting, it was as welcome to some as a slug of diet lemonade in a fine malt.

With references to threesomes, sexual encounters and women incapable of making up their own minds, he faced criticism for dragging the whisky sector back in time.

Now the whisky critic has said he is sorry if he caused offence for his comments, while at the same time branding his critics as “the woke brigade who are professionally offended.”

And while the whisky sector strived to stress its support for equality and diversity, Murray defended his use of salacious descriptions: “Either people drink whisky for its sensual qualities through nose and taste. Or they drink it for the alcohol,” he said. “If it’s for the former, then the Whisky Bible will reflect the sensuality – and the better the whisky the more sensual it is.

“If people are buying whisky for the alcohol, they don’t need ‘the Bible’,” he added.

“But sensuality doesn’t always equate to sex; and when it does that doesn’t automatically equal sexism.”

The whisky row flared after Murray, who for almost two decades has been one of the loudest voices within the whisky sector, published his new Whisky Bible book of reviews, sparking accusations of Seventies’ sitcom sexism for references said to objectify women and perpetuate the myth that whisky is a man’s drink.

In a series of tweets, whisky writer Becky Paskin shared examples of his reviews, including one dram which Murray said left him with the feeling “after you have just made love and you are unable to speak or move”.

For another, he wrote: “If whisky could be sexed, this would be a woman.

"It appears not to be able to make up its mind. But, does it know how to pout, seduce and win your heart? Oh, yes."

In his review of a Canadian Club whisky, he wrote: “Have I had this much fun with a sexy 41-year-old Canadian before? Well, yes I have. But it was a few years back now and it wasn’t a whisky. Was the fun we had better? Probably not.”

“This has to stop,” Paskin said. “Much of the industry has been working hard to change whisky's reputation as a 'man's drink' but condoning, even celebrating, a book that contains language like this erases much of that progress and allows the objectification of women in whisky.”

One of the first to back her was tiny Dornoch Distillery, perhaps the very place that might yearn for the platform of a good review in a world-renowned publication and which can spark a rush on sales.

“We spoke with the women who work with us about their experiences and what they have to tolerate now and again from a minority of guys in the industry and the whisky enthusiasts,” said Simon Thompson, who runs the distillery with his brother Philip.

“They told us about the preconceptions of well-meaning people at trade stands, when someone will engage with the guy and not the girl because they don’t think she could be the whisky expert.

“But there’s a changing demographic, more and more women are getting involved in whisky, the audience is changing massively.”

Criticism also came from US-based Beam Suntory, corporate owners of the whisky Murray had declared World Whisky of the Year, Alberta Premium Cask Strength: “Language and behavior (sic) of this kind have been condoned for too long in the spirits industry, and we agree that it must stop.”

Closer to home, Glenfiddich said sexism “has no place in our industry,” while Chivas Brothers said it was reviewing its partners to “ensure they share the same values as us, our teams and our customers.”

The backlash against Murray’s use of language erupted just days before The Scotch Whisky Association launches a Diversity and Inclusivity Charter. “Whisky is for everyone – sexism and the objectification of women have no place in our industry,” said CEO of the Scotch Whisky Association, Karen Betts. “The language used in the ‘Whisky Bible’ is offensive and we do not support it.”

For Paskin, former editor of scotchwhisky.com, the problem lies with how whisky continues to be marketed and perceived. “Ever since I have been in it, the whisky industry has stood for diversity, inclusion, equality for genders,” she stressed. “I have never felt anything but welcome and included.

“The issue is that we have so long marketed whisky as a man’s drink in a man’s world. That has stuck with consumers, so whisky is perceived to be a gentleman’s club. Stereotypes have perpetuated and something has to change.”

HeraldScotland:

Our Whisky, a global diversity campaign she has launched with whisky ambassador Georgie Bell, analysed social media posts from top whisky brands over the course of a year. “Women featured in just 20% of the posts that had pictures of people in them,” she says. “In one account, dogs outnumbered women by 400%.

“How can you expect a woman to feel like she is a target consumer of a whisky, if she is only ever seeing men being targeted?”

John Dewar and Sons whisky master blender Stephanie Macleod, who has worked in the industry for 20 years and has just won the International Whisky Competition’s prized Master Blender of the Year title for the second year, said: “I would not have stayed for so long in the industry if I felt it wasn’t welcoming to me. I’ve never been made to feel I’m different because I am a woman.”

Yet there are, she concedes, still some who are amazed to find she not only drinks whisky but is a master blender. “Things have definitely changed. Although people are still surprised, they are less surprised.

“Younger people who are starting to appreciate whisky, don’t think there’s anything odd about a woman being a master blender, or drinking whisky or working with whisky. They just think it’s perfectly normal.

“It’s up to the whisky industry to amplify all the great work we do,” she adds.

At the Glenmorangie company, Gillian Macdonald, Head of Analytics and Whisky Creation, points out: “During my 16 years in the industry, nearly every media interview I have done includes a question about how I feel as a woman in the industry. That in itself is evidence enough that there is work to be done.

“In the last few years there has been an acceleration, as companies have committed to diversity and inclusion programmes, policies and targets which will address and change the narrative and behaviours.

“A diverse industry delivers a mirror representation of society and can only bring greater creativity, empathy, resilience and opportunity as we continue to move our wonderful whisky industry forward.”

Murray, however, defended his right to use sexual language in his descriptions.

“I have tasted 21,000 whiskies in 17 years for this book and there are all kinds of similes – from the oil smelt on toy train sets to antique rocking chairs – because, sensually, that is where the whisky took me,” he said.

“Reading some of the comments you’d think that the book was crammed cover to cover with smut. This is absolutely ridiculous.

“If anyone has genuinely been offended by what I have written, I’d always apologise to them.

“But I will never apologise to the woke brigade who are professionally offended and who have seen me as another bandwagon to jump on in order to scream, hysterically, point and destroy.

“What is needed is intellectual debate, of which there has been precisely zero so far. Not hate and hysteria. Nor hypocrisy.”