It’s a well known chef’s axiom that we eat with our eyes. A variation with whiskey may be that we drink with our nose.

“I want it straight up, without any ice. I breathe it in and out; that’s how I taste it best,” said Nichole McIntosh.

Raised in Tennessee, Macintosh, 30, grew up in a region with a long legacy of distilling corn mash into smooth spirits and recalls a youthful taste of cherries soaked in moonshine. Now living in Minneapolis, she recently went out for a night of sipping with a group of women who also appreciate the pull of the hard stuff.

“Women want to know more about whiskey and understand better why they like it so much,” said Molly Clark, who this year established the Twin Cities chapter of a Women Who Whiskey club with a fellow enthusiast.

“It’s a great social lubricant,” said co-founder Hayley Matthews-Jones.

Connecting through social media, they’ve built a rotating monthly happy hour, seeking out bars and distilleries that have offered them special flights, guided tastings and food pairings. Most recently, about two dozen of them — an educator, a lawyer, a programmer and several women who work in the food industry — gathered at a long rectangular table at Coup d’état in Uptown to order shots, clink cocktail glasses and share samples of what’s long been considered a man’s drink.

“It can be intimidating, because there are so many kinds. We want to break down that barrier,” said Clark, 30, of St. Paul, who ordered a $12 Smoked Manhattan, a showy bourbon drink that’s sipped from a tumbler smoked at the table over a mini-campfire of apple-wood kindling.

Interest in whiskey is on a new high, with more artisanal and small-batch distilleries joining longtime producers to create thousands of options. Americans consumed 24 million cases of domestically produced whiskey last year, according to the International Wine & Spirit Research. That’s up by almost 30 percent over the past decade.

Booze purveyors have long pushed cocktails as colorful and sweet as a bag of Skittles on their female customers, mixing up pink Cosmos, green appletinis and rainbow-shaded margaritas.

But deep brown — the mellowed hue of polished mahogany or George Clooney’s eyes — increasingly has a feminine appeal. Women represent nearly 40 percent of whiskey consumers today, up from 15 percent in the ’90s, making female drinkers a driving force in consumption — and of great appeal to whiskey makers. That may be why Mila Kunis is peddling Jim Beam while Christina Hendricks promotes Johnnie Walker.

“I study about it every day, and the more I learn, the more passionate I’ve become,” said Coup d’état bartender Ralena Young, who teaches cocktail classes and offered an impromptu lesson to the visiting whiskey lovers.

“I’m a chick who knows her brown,” she said.

A drink with history

There’s a lot to know about whiskey, from its ancient origins to how ingredients and aging shape its taste. Made with grain mash — barley, corn, rye or wheat — and aged in wooden casks, the whiskey category includes bourbon, rye, Scotch, Irish whiskey or Canadian whisky.

Where and how it’s distilled shapes the flavor and even how the label on the bottle reads; it’s spelled “whisky” if produced in Scotland, Canada and Japan, and “whiskey” if distilled in the U.S. or Ireland. (An exception to the rule, Maker’s Mark and Old Forester, both Kentucky bourbons, call themselves whisky without the “e.”)

”Whiskey was always what old white men drank,” said Julia Ritz Toffoli.

Lonely after moving to New York City for graduate school, Toffoli fired up the first Women Who Whiskey club there five years ago as a way to meet people. The New York chapter has grown to 800 members, and the organization has expanded its reach to nine international chapters.

“Nobody cares if women drink wine, but women enjoying hard liquor still surprises some people,” Toffoli said. “Sometimes there’s been incredulousness and condescension from male bartenders, ‘Hey, are you sure you can handle that?’ comments. At first, the women in the club bonded over our shared indignation.”

According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, Minnesota ranks ninth in the nation in per capita consumption of spirits, with whiskey at the top of the list.

An Irish flavor

One of Minnesota’s favorite whiskey brands has a feminine touch. In 2011, Kieran Folliard, the Irish-born former proprietor of a quartet of pubs in the Twin Cities, launched 2Gingers, a premium twice-distilled Irish whiskey.

The name pays homage to Folliard’s beloved mother and aunt, a spirited pair of redheaded sisters pictured in a sketch on every bottle’s label.

“I wanted to honor their attitude and personality,” said Folliard, who sold his company to Jim Beam and is now CEO of 2Gingers. “Growing up in a small community in the west of Ireland, I saw every day that they didn’t suffer fools gladly. They always held their own in a society that was very male-dominated.”

Today, Folliard calculates that half of his 2Gingers customers are women, but it was a different story when he opened his first Minneapolis bar in 1994.

“In the past, it was difficult to get women to taste the product. Now the taboo part of it has disappeared. Women have learned the lingo; they take an interest in the craft of it.”

Folliard believes women have a deeper appreciation of flavor.

“Women are quicker to pick up on the complexities,” he said. “Their taste profile is more expressive than men’s. They get the hints of honey, citrus, the vanilla.”

Words of advice

Women may also be more susceptible to the hazards of drinking too much.

“Alcohol use is simply more dangerous for women,” said Dr. Emily Brunner, an addiction medicine physician at the Hazelden Betty Ford Clinic in St. Paul. “Biochemically, women metabolize alcohol differently than men do. They develop alcohol-related health problems like liver damage more quickly and with about half the usage.”

A report released last month by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism noted a shift in consumption patterns; while the 10-year study found men drinking less, it tracked increased use by women, enough to nearly close the drinking gender gap.

“This is one area where we don’t want to be equal,” Brunner said.

Molly Clark emphasizes that the Twin Cities Women Who Whiskey club is careful to pick its happy hour sites at bars located on bus or light rail lines, and said the group discourages overimbibing.

“We enjoy ourselves within the realm of appreciation as opposed to getting drunk,” she said. “Women who drink whiskey tend to be more adventurous, but we take ownership of being responsible.

“We respect what we’re drinking.”

Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.