By Richard Thomas
At The Whiskey Reviewer, we dwell a good deal on the interplay between whiskey and writing, but aqua vitae has a strong presence among musicians too. Plenty of songwriters mention whiskey in their work, and some devote entire songs to it. A few even name their band after the stuff, which brings us to Whiskey & Women.
An all female-trio who perform Celtic drinking songs, liquored-up sea shanties, Cajun music, and other tunes in that raucous vein, Whiskey & Women came reputedly came together to perform for the first time in the name of earning enough cash to buy a bottle of Jameson. Based in Oakland, California, Joan Rueter, Renee de la Prade, and Rosie Steffy have been making music and enjoying whiskey in many of its forms together ever since, and are in the midst of fundraising for their second album. Even so, they spared some time for a chat with me about the drink that brought them together.
RT: The three of you are serious whiskey fans. How did each of you discover and get into “the water of life?”
Renee: I was working as a guitar repair apprentice at Amazing Grace Music, where I got to sample some very nice whiskeys that customers brought as presents for my boss. One of my first big trips was to Scotland, where I grew to love Scotch and the Scottish people at the same time.
Rosie: Memory evades me as to when I sipped my first taste of whiskey, but over the years I’ve traded many a bottle for stick-and-poke tattoos. I gave the tattoos and received the whiskey, so it’s always been a win-win scenario.
Joan: Oh jeez… I was a rebellious youth. I tried any sort of intoxicating liquid that was offered to me, and whiskey soon became a favorite. Back in those days, it was Ten High, Old Crow, stuff that was cheap. And way too much of it. Chased down with Black Label beer. Yikes.
RT: The whiskey of choice for Whiskey and Women is Irish. In fact, you got together in a joint quest for a bottle of Jamesons, as I understand it. What is it about the Irish whiskey style that you all like so much? And is Jamesons the consensus band favorite?
Renee: Yes, Jameson is the band favorite. We like Irish whiskey because it is smooth.
Joan: Also, it’s not too sweet, like Bourbon can be. And every bottle of Jameson is unique, which is cool. It’s subtle, but if you drink enough of the stuff you can taste very slight (and occasionally very obvious) differences between bottles. And it always tastes good.
Rosie: And it mixes well with just about anything. (Or nothing at all.)
RT: Now, beyond the Irish. Joan, you profess to have a taste for rye and bourbon, whereas Renee and Rosie prefer scotch. What are your go-to, standard whiskeys for each of you in those other styles?
Joan: To say Scotch is a preference for Rosie and Renee is not quite right – they just don’t detest it like I do.
Renee: Yeah, I like Scotch okay, but I can’t usually afford the stuff I really love. If I had the money, I’d buy a bottle of Oban, for sentimental reasons. I had a great trip to the highlands once and camped out in the region where they make that whiskey. It was amazing. One thing I like about drinking Scotch is that the Scottish people, as a nation, are the only people in the world as crazy as I am, and I like to honor them. But really, I’m opportunistic – I’ll drink what’s given to me and enjoy it!
Joan: I just don’t like the taste of Scotch. I love Scotland, and I’ve got Scottish ancestry, and I’ve been there, and really, really, tried to like it. It’s just not happening. I love Rye, and to a lesser extent, Bourbon. Rye was my go-to whiskey for many years. I don’t have a clear favorite when it comes to brands; I enjoy sampling some of the great small-batch Ryes that have been popping up lately. There didn’t used to be such a great selection available – I remember even just a few years ago most bars didn’t even carry Rye, much less good Rye. Now it’s all over the place. Seems like Rye’s star is on the rise. That’s a great thing!
Rosie: I find that different occasions call for different whiskeys. I’ll drink fancy whiskey to celebrate, medium grade whiskey to socialize, and cheap whiskey to get the job done. Often my adventure flask contains a blend of whatever I might have on hand, such as Old Granddad (selected for price and personality) spruced up with a bit of Jameson for flavor. I’m not a connoisseur, just a spirited enthusiast.
RT: There is a number of old axioms and jokes about drinking fueling art. What inspiration do you find in your thematic spirit?
Renee: Whiskey has this dangerous power that’s very alluring to a woman like me. I’ve had really magical times when I couldn’t imagine anything more fun than whiskey and moonlight and music, but I’ve also been torn apart by doomed alcoholic romances. When it’s fun it’s very very fun. When it’s not, watch out!
Joan: Well, our first album was definitely pretty whiskey-fueled, perhaps a bit too much! We’ve just started recording our second album, and the theme in the studio this time around is “whiskey inspired.” While the right amount of whiskey is great kindling for creativity, too much can make you sloppy. And sometimes it’s hard to tell when you are crossing that line!
Rosie: Yeah, lately we’ve stayed sober enough to see the line, at least in public. One or two drinks serves me well at a show or recording session. But not at every jam… A very inspiring fiddler once hepped me to that idea that as long as you pick up the instrument well before the bottle, you can keep sipping late into the night and your motor skills will magically adjust. And soul will flow though your fingertips into song, especially if you happen to be outside under a full moon.
Joan: Wow, I’m inspired just thinking about that – is there a full moon tonight?
RT: On top of taking your whiskey neat, you all seem to have a knack for mixing up cocktails. You even used to blog about it. Where did some of those concoctions come from?
Joan: I’ve been bartending for 10 years, so mixing up cocktails is kind of like second nature. But I like to experiment with stuff that you normally don’t find at a bar, like basil, and ice cream, and watermelon. And it always makes band practice way more fun to have a delicious, exciting new cocktail!
Rosie: Yes, Joan is the true concoctor/conoisseur of the band, though Renee has good taste as well. She’ll get a bunch of veggies from the Farmer’s Market and cook us something like whiskey sweet potatoes. I’m good at appreciating their recipes, and I can crush ice and chop things like a champ.
Renee: I like finding methods of enjoying whiskey where a little goes a long way. That way I can buy nice whiskey and make it last.
RT: You wrote up a whiskey cookbook, which you’ll be giving away as part of your album fundraiser. As a fellow who is always looking for a way to work whisky into his recipes, that is a subject near and dear to my heart. What kind of stuff is in there?
Joan: It’s going to be great! We’ve been working hard on it, and it’s got food recipes as well as cocktails. Most of them are our original creations, but we’re going to feature a few recipes from guest chefs such as Alanna Taylor-Tobin of the bojon gourmet.
Rosie: Yeah, and there will be cute illustrations and anecdotes. A dear friend just offered up his Whiskey Truffles Recipe, which is such a fabulous treat I’m surprised he was willing to pass it along to anyone who isn’t his progeny. And then there’s the Whiskey & Women Classics. Our beloved fans deserve to know about Whiskey Oatmeal!
Renee: Whiskey sweet potatoes!