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What Does It Mean to Drink Like a Woman?

Decades of etiquette and marketing about spirits, cocktails and bartending have established stereotypes about how women like to and should drink. Shanna Farrell explores the history of women behind—and in front of—the bar, as well as her own relationship with drinking.

I am a woman who likes whiskey. I order Manhattans. I drink Old-Fashioneds. And nearly every time I announce this request to a bartender, I get the knowing nod—the unvoiced approval and the respect that comes along with defying the expectations of what a woman usually drinks.

And usually this approving bartender is a male. By nature of its history, bartending is a male-dominated industry, one in which women tend to work a little harder to earn the same credibility bestowed upon our dark-spirit swilling counterparts.

“It’s kind of a thrill when a woman orders whiskey,” says Toby Cecchini, a longtime bartender and the owner of New York’s Long Island Bar. “You serve three hundred white wines to women and when a female comes in and asks for a single malt, it blows my mind. Red carpet for you, ladies.” As a woman, ordering a Manhattan or an Old Fashioned affords more attention from the bartender and, admittedly, I find it empowering.

But why? Why do I get more attention for ordering a spirit-forward drink, and why do I—why does any woman—find this empowering? In a sense, by ordering whiskey with confidence, I’m challenging the stereotype that women have dainty palates while disproving the assumption that I’m not interested in spirits—a stereotype that, in part, stems from historic mores that are deeply woven into the cultural fabric that dictates gender roles.

While there have long been behavioral codes, Emily Post was the first to formalize them in 1922 with her highly influential book Etiquette. The book gave explicit instructions for the conduct of women, which proclaimed that she be passive and not draw attention to herself, take a man’s arm after dark because she might trip, not allow a drunk man into her house and—my personal favorite— “never pay a party call on a gentleman.”

“You did not see women behind the bar in the 1970s and ’80s in big cities. You just didn’t. It was considered a man’s world.” When DeGroff opened the Rainbow Room in 1986, he hired four women to tend bar. “That’s probably four more women than anyone else around had hired.”

These rules enabled stereotypes about the fragility of women, which translated into drink trends assuming woman prefer cocktails that disguise the taste of alcohol, because, well, alcohol can be aggressive. In the 1950s the Pink Lady became popular, which, according to The Bartender’s Book, was considered a both inoffensive and visually appealing choice for “that nice little girl who works in files.”  Gender stereotypes were further perpetuated by the Lemon Drop, which was first introduced in the 1970s, likely at Henry’s Africa in San Francisco.

Henry’s Africa was a classic singles bar where the Lemon Drop—a sweet drink that masked the taste of alcohol—was marketed to women to lure them inside. In 1988, Cecchini created the Cosmopolitan specifically for women. “I literally invented the Cosmo for waitresses who were on my staff,” he says. “I understood a bit about how women drank.” Some women do genuinely prefer lighter drinks to more spirituous cocktails. But so do some men. However, it became widely accepted that all women cleave to innocuous concoctions.

Before I earned a reputation as a whiskey drinker, there were numerous occasions when people—mostly men—would presume that I wanted something juicy or sweet. I’d sit down at a bar and be recommended anything but a spirit-forward cocktail. I’d go to a friend’s place for a party and immediately be told that there were mixers—like juice or soda—for the array of spirits residing on the kitchen table while the host swirled Scotch around in his rocks glass. I’d be at a celebration and handed a shot, wherein I would ask what I was holding and be told, “It’s pink; you’ll like it.”

The ways in which certain cocktails have been perceived, discussed and used as marketing tools reify the ideas about how women drink. They’ve since been embedded in our collective cultural consciousness along with ideas about women in the profession of bartending.

Prior to the women’s movement in the 1970s, females struggled to be treated as equal in many professions, but the best example in bartending dates back to World War II. When men went overseas, women dominated bars as part of their patriotic duty to hold down the home front. But when men returned after the war they lobbied for ways to get their bartending jobs back and ensure that they kept them. Both Michigan and California passed laws that made it illegal for a woman to tend bar unless she was the daughter or wife of the bar owner.

Valentine Goesaert, a bar owner in Michigan, challenged this law in court but lost after the state argued that tending bar could lead to “moral and social problems” for women; this hypocrisy is highlighted by the fact that the susceptibility of men to “moral and social problems” was never mentioned. The law—which dictated, quite literally, that bartending was a male profession—stayed on the books until the early 1970s when a similar law in California was challenged and finally overturned in the federal Supreme Court.

Dale DeGroff remembers the issue lasting well after the laws had changed: “You did not see women behind the bar in the 1970s and ’80s in big cities. You just didn’t. It was considered a man’s world.” When DeGroff opened the Rainbow Room in 1986, he hired four women to tend bar. “That’s probably four more women than anyone else around had hired,” he says. However, management tried to put these ladies in the front of the house—where they were easier to see—causing several of them to leave.

More than 30 years later, things are finally changing. Along with updated ideas about etiquette brought to us by the women’s movement, the internet is one of the primary reasons for this shift. There is an abundance of information available on spirits, which is helping to generate interest among women and allow them to challenge stereotypes. While whiskey experienced a 50% drop in sales from 1970 to 2000, it is making a comeback due, in large part, to an increase in female whiskey enthusiasts. A 2008 Nielsen survey revealed that women account for the fastest-growing segment of worldwide whiskey consumers. This is reflected in the rise of female memberships in several whiskey clubs, like the UK’s Scotch Malt Whiskey Society, whose female membership doubled from 2008 to 2009, and at Seven Grand’s Whiskey Society in L.A., where nearly half of its members are women.

Cecchini has noticed this shift, which is reflected in the way people order in a general sense. “In the five years since my last bar closed, things have changed,” he says. “I’ve never made so many Manhattans and Old Fashioneds than I have in the past four months since Long Island Bar opened.”

There are also more female bartenders than ever before. Reiner and Audrey Saunders—now two of the most influential figures in the cocktail world—paved the way for a new generation of female bartenders, a growing population. Reiner and Saunders were doing innovative things—like featuring gin over vodka—when they came up in the New York cocktail scene in the 1990s. This garnered attention from people like DeGroff and earned them much-deserved respect by their predecessors. In fact, they trained many of the most notable male bartenders working today. Ivy Mix, one of Reiner’s bartenders, co-founded Speed Rack—a female bartending competition conceived to help women establish credibility and celebrate their contributions to the cocktail world.

This sea change has served as the impetus for gender-related discussions, which is now a hot topic in the cocktail world. “It seems like every writer that is calling me wants to talk about women in bartending,” says Reiner. Hopefully, these conversations will serve to further challenge gender biases and allow us to cultivate a deeper understanding of where they are rooted.

While I find the attention that I receive when I order whiskey empowering because it validates my interest in spirits, there are more ways for a female to demonstrate her knowledge about cocktails than by ordering a spirit-forward drink. I’m ordering what I like, which just so happens to be a Manhattan or an Old Fashioned. But maybe tomorrow I’ll be interested in trying a new gin or vodka, regardless of what its flavor profile insinuates or what kind of reaction I get from the bartender.

Bio: Shanna Farrell is an oral historian in UC Berkeley’s Regional Oral History Office. She is currently working on a project about the legacy of the West Coast craft cocktail. She lives in the Bay Area.