In Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, protagonist Esther Greenwood visits a bar and tries to conceal her lack of drinking expertise by ordering a plain vodka, which she’s never had. “I’d seen a vodka ad once, just a glass full of vodka standing in the middle of a snowdrift in a blue light, and the vodka looked clear and pure as water,” says Greenwood. In her telling, vodka is dreamy, refined. Its clarity connotes cleanliness; its lack of color renders its potency alchemical. “I began to think vodka was my drink at last,” she says. “It didn’t taste like anything, but it went straight down into my stomach like a sword swallower’s sword and made me feel powerful and godlike.”
Fast-forward 60 years, and vodka’s reputation for cleaner-than-clean tastelessness no longer connotes alchemical power in the popular imagination. It’s come to stand, instead, for an inherent blandness and lack of sophistication, which is reflected upon the person ordering it. The spirit was long proscribed from craft cocktail bars due to its lack of “character,” and while some have loosened their dogma and brought vodka—and the drinks it originally rode in on—back to their shelves, others have held firm. The inherent versatility of vodka is still often seen not as an advantage, but as a trick the spirit plays on philistine palates. And who are these uncultured drinkers, who turn away from the smokiness of mezcal or the spiciness of rye in favor of the universally palatable vodka? Who else but women, of course—at least according to the stereotype.
If men were once from Mars and women from Venus, in 2022 men drink whiskey and women drink vodka—and not easygoing, pleasant women. Vodka drinks, from the Skinny Bitch cocktail (vodka, soda water, lime) to Bitch brand vodka, are often named after an unknown, well, bitch. The menu at Miami bar Sweet Liberty includes a vodka cocktail called the Basic Bitch (vodka, St-Germain, lemon, strawberry, prosecco), while Hank’s Cocktail Bar in Washington, D.C., favored the milder “Becky” for its series of vodka cocktails before it closed due to COVID. (Sample Becky cocktails include the “Becky Doesn’t Brunch” with pumpkin spice, and the “Becky’s Back At It” with berry syrup.)
Now, I like a spicy cocktail name as much as the next bitch; tacitly poking fun at one’s customers is one of the perks of being a bartender, after all. But these names speak to an attitude that persists among lovers of spirits that insipid, colorless vodka is ordered only by women who are themselves insipid and colorless.
Whiskey, meanwhile, with its robust flavor, is for robust dudes, and women who are too cool to yell “Woo!” on spring break, according to journalist Courtney Balestier, who has broken down the “whiskey woman” trope. “It connotes sophistication if you can appreciate something that’s not super accessible on the first try, like whiskey,” says Balestier. “In which case vodka conveys the inverse about you—that you don’t have the palate for whiskey and you just want to get drunk, or you don’t want to taste anything, or you’re on a diet.”
Of course, the idea that vodka is specifically for dieting is specious. Vodka is barely a more calorie-conscious choice than whiskey (100 and 110 calories per serving, respectively). Both spirits routinely appear in cocktails alongside sugar, fruit and liqueurs. Why the stereotype, then?
According to Dave Infante, the spirits journalist behind the newsletter Fingers, “Vodka’s rise has dovetailed in the U.S. with tropes of urbanity and sophistication,” he says. “Ketel One commercials, when they first started hitting the air—there were men in the commercials, but you were talking about a very sleek and sophisticated packaging of masculine consumerism.”
“If vodka once connoted purity for Esther Greenwood in the 1960s, and dieting for the vodka bitch of the aughts, it now blends the two into one impossible, calorie-counting package.”
That archetypal vodka-swilling urban sophisticate died in the cocktail revolution of the 1990s. The Cosmopolitan favored by Carrie and the girls on Sex and the City became the most famous, but by no means the only, revolutionary at the front. Bartenders and distillers realized that vodka’s adaptability was a boon: The spirit could be infused with vanilla or buried in mixers without its taste deteriorating. “One of the caveats of trying to create a vodka cocktail is that vodka doesn’t necessarily impart any flavor,” says owner-bartender Matt Friedlander of New York’s Sally Can Wait. “The flip side of that is you’re basically given a blank canvas. If you do want to create something a little more universally palatable, vodka gives you a great forum for doing that.” And so we got Appletinis, Chocolate Martinis and the devastating Vodka Red Bull—drinks associated less with vinyl-loving intellectuals than with sorority girls who think beer is too fattening.
The release of Ketel One’s Botanical line gives us some clues as to the makeup of the modern vodka drinker. According to the brand’s website, a single serving of Ketel One Botanical Grapefruit & Rosé contains 40 percent fewer calories than a glass of white wine. If vodka once connoted purity for Esther Greenwood in the 1960s, and dieting for the vodka bitch of the aughts, it now blends the two into one impossible, calorie-counting package.
And so, the stereotype persists, even as the bar world grapples with an industry-wide reckoning over sexism and inequality. Perhaps the problem here is one of stakes—when industry idols are still regularly getting called out for abuse, the eye-rolling over a woman’s drink choice takes a back seat. Or maybe the opposite is true: That despite the industry’s steps in the right direction, a generalized sexism persists because the attitudes that created the vodka bitch have never been addressed at their roots.
Of course, neither the vodka bitch nor the whiskey woman really exists—each is a trope that says more about what we expect from women than about the women who happen to share some of the trope’s attributes. Whiteness, youth and a pathological desire for skinniness are all vodka bitch attributes, but they’re also attributes that women are expected to defy the laws of nature to achieve and maintain. At the same time, Balestier points out, women are also rewarded for bucking the stereotype and “drinking [whiskey] like men”—as long as they maintain the attributes that make the vodka bitch the norm against which they’re supposedly rebelling.
“It would be tempting to say, ‘OK, it’s going to be a vodka cocktail, that means it’s going to be served to women between the ages of 22 and 30,’” says Friedlander about his process for creating new cocktails. “But I don’t think about specific demographics. We know who’s coming into our bar and the range varies dramatically. We start by asking, ‘Does this taste good? Does it work from a cost perspective?’”
Indeed, looks, desirability, proper performance of gender—why should any of these be considerations for someone who’s just trying to order a drink? Let’s remember that whiskey, not the man drinking it, is the thing that’s said to have “character.” Vodka, not the woman, is what should be called “tasteless.”