Wine, women and whiskey

Master Sommelier Virginia Philip, owner of the Virginia Philip Wine Shop & Academy, photographed in her shop in downtown West Palm Beach. (Scott Fisher/Sun Sentinel Correspondent)

Beer and whiskey. Wine and cigars. Are these the domains of men?

Three organizations in South Florida prove ladies know about drinking, too. To nix the notion that women stick to the 'tinis, these groups teach those who don't know as much.

Master sommelier Virginia Philip

Only 25 women in the world are master sommeliers, and only two of them have held the title for best sommelier in the U.S. Virginia Philip is one of them.


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She owns the Virginia Philip Wine Shop and Academy in West Palm Beach, and is responsible for the beverage programs at the Breakers' restaurants, as well as the wine list at Stephane's in Boca Raton.

Philip offers some sommelier training at her shop, and oversees a team of five sommeliers at the Breakers. She says only one of those five is a woman.

"When I first got hired at the Breakers, it was a little unusual to have a woman in the sommelier program," Philip recalls. "One of the main reasons you don't see more women is because they get married and have children."

Sommeliers at the Breakers resort guide guests through their dining experiences, recommending wines and beverage pairings. The night and weekend hours make it difficult to cultivate a family life, but Philip says that's not the reason some students have dropped out of her training program.

"The material was a little too aggressive," she says. "It's a lot of information handed to you in a short amount of time."

It can take four to 10 years to complete the four-step master-sommelier program, but most of Philip's customers are more interested in the tastings and cooking classes she holds at the shop.

This month, winery owner Hugh Davies, master sommelier John Blazon and chef Josef Morrera will present pairings and explain the flavors of wines from different regions. An event in December will bring in celebrity chef Norman Van Aken for a champagne pairing during the Palm Beach Food and Wine Festival.

While the sessions usually cost $40 to $50, Van Aken's appearance will cost $75. Philip will donate all proceeds to the Gary Sinise Foundation, which benefits veterans. For tickets, go to VirginiaPhilipWineShopAcademy.com.

The Whisky Sisters

Every year, whiskey lovers gather in Fort Lauderdale to taste roughly 100 of the world's best brands of scotch. They light cigars in the lobby and pick carvings from a full-service buffet while they schmooze and compare malts, under the guidance of event organizers who double as whiskey educators.

The grand tasting is put on by the U.S. chapter of the worldwide Scotch Malt Whisky Society. It is spearheaded by Gabrielle Shayne and Lauren Mayer, who host 12 other like events around the country.

At 27 and 29 years old, the sisters have taken charge of their family's Fort Lauderdale-based scotch-importing company. They also own the U.S. SMWS chapter and have launched a career as the Whisky Sisters, tasting guides for high-paying, mostly male clients who don't share their knowledge of the hard Scottish drink.

"What kind of makes me laugh the most is when I have conversations with men, they say, 'You're young, you have no idea what you're talking about,' " Shayne says. "They ask, 'What's the difference between scotch and whiskey?' There's no difference. Scotch is produced in Scotland. Many men don't know that."

The difference between regular, old Glenlivet and the sisters' scotch is its potency. No water is added to SMWS scotch before bottling, so the taste and strength are not diluted.

"Some offerings are 135-proof," Shayne says. "It's like absinthe. It's pure alcohol."

Only members can buy the mega-scotch, and only the ones who act quickly, as the bottles come from single casks and are distributed among SMWS chapters around the world. But the yearly tasting event, the Single-Malt and Scotch Whisky Extravaganza, is open to the public.