Drinks Don't Have a Gender

Even after blatant sexism in advertising has kinda-sorta drifted out of fashion, booze is often still hawked with a glib nod and wink toward gender roles, and the idea that what you drink is a signifier of your masculinity or femininity is still...

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Dec 8 2015, 6:00pm

Booze has no gender. This should be obvious, right?

Having spent more than five minutes on the internet, I know how upset people get over any statement like that, even when it's about an inanimate object. A gentle loner somewhere is frothing "SJW," before settling into a tub of raw cookie dough and an evening of trolling fan-fiction subreddits.

But there's no secret cabal of PC cocktail warriors looking to make you less grumblingly fearful of pink drinks. Think of this more of an advisement, the same way that an article you might read about whiskey advises you on how to impress your buddies while getting pounded. (Oh, you're really into rye right now?) We're both trying to help you not sound stupid.

Think of it as a public service in an industry not always known for its progressive stances. Even after blatant sexism in advertising has kinda-sorta (but not really) drifted out of fashion, booze is often still hawked with a glib nod and wink toward gender roles, and the idea that what you drink is a signifier of your masculinity, femininity, and its relationship to sex or gender is still pervasive. There might always be some basic bro scared to drink out of a coupe (while still dropping fitties at the cocktail bar) but even cocktail writers and industry forerunners still seem comfortable calling cocktails "girly" from time to time.

If Time Out published a 'Top 10 Female Optometrists' list, people would be like, 'That's sexist bullshit,' but in bars and restaurants it's just fine.

In order to gain some insight about this phenomenon, I asked three of my favorite bartenders to weigh in. These are the kind of bartenders that get props on lists with titles like "10 Female Bartenders You Should Know," which highlight people who bartend but also have vaginas. Or, ostensibly they do.

Actually, you know what? It's none of our fucking business.

"If I see one more fucking 'Top 10 Female Bartenders' list!" says Karin Stanley of Dutch Kills. "If Time Out published a 'Top 10 Female Optometrists' list, people would be like, 'That's sexist bullshit,' but in bars and restaurants it's just fine to rank us in groups assigned by our outward appearance. Girls can't be barbacks, boys can't be hosts, that waitron is a bitch cause she's not smiling, that guy is gay because he's not hitting on me, etc., etc. That stuff is all status quo in our world."

The world's changed since I started drinking legally. No doubt my preference for bourbon neat at 21 was inspired in part by associations. The cool kids drank like that. It was a little hard-boiled, a little rock and roll, and a lot macho. As a dumb young kid, I'm sure I said plenty of things I'd cringe at today. Even now, part of me is hesitant to give up certain descriptors because they're just so colorful.

"Even me, when I'm working on a menu, I say 'Where's the panty-dropper?'" says Ivy Mix, founder of Speed Rack and partner at Leyenda. "What I mean by that is a certain kind of cocktail in a certain kind of glass, and you know what? It's gross. I'll purposefully put pictures of glasses next to drinks so I don't have to have a conversation with a man about a 'girly' glass. I'm so fucking sick of men who can't handle pink drinks. It's insane. It's crazy how accepted that is."

The phenomenon of men being terrified of the coupe (the sexy little glass used for Champagne and most cocktails served up) is one most modern cocktail bartenders have had to navigate. If a glass was manly enough for Hemingway, chances are it's manly enough for you.

"I've been known to use a snifter with one ice cube as a substitution to serving a cocktail up in a coupe glass, because I know some people are too insecure to order it," says Yael Vengroff, the bar director of The Spare Room in Los Angeles. "I think the question [of whether drinks have a gender] is perpetuating the divisive nature of gender. I don't think I feel differently about gendering drinks because I'm a woman. I'm also not so sure I'm mad at it either. There are a lot of flavors that I would describe as feminine when talking about the flavor profile of a particular cocktail."

Again, this sort of qualification is something we're often hesitant to give up. I've certainly used "feminine" in the past to describe cocktails and flavors, and it's not until the past few years I've tried to get away from it. I began to wonder what one could extrapolate from this kind of gendering, the bigger prejudices it illuminates.

It's pretty sad to think about, but to give 'good service' in a bar is to 'do gender' and participate in these perceived norms.

A certain kind of person might argue that the war of the sexes is a natural state of affairs. Sexual hierarchies can be found all over nature. But, to my knowledge, no other species has as elaborate a nexus of information or as complicated an identity as human beings, and certainly none of them have invented anything as ephemeral as the cocktail. Hell, we didn't even do it until a few hundred years ago.

Of course, most of the time in the bar setting, our craft is kindness, and most dealers of hospitality go out of their way not to contradict customers.

"I try hard not to scold," says Stanley. "But I draw the line at 'something less pussy' or 'he's a bitch, he wants a daiquiri.' For some reason, people think its OK to talk like that to strangers in a bar. Usually I try to be a subtle, good influence because it isn't my job to give outright tolerance lessons. But if it gets dark, I'll nip it real quick. It's pretty sad to think about, but to give 'good service' in a bar is to 'do gender' and participate in these perceived norms. I put both of [these] things in quotes because they're [constructs] I don't believe in, but certainly exist."

"You wouldn't ever say the way a police officer arrested someone was 'girly.' You wouldn't ever say 'That soufflé is mad girly,'" quips Mix. "Girly never has a positive connotation. Nobody ever wants a girly drink, and if they do, they're being ironic. It's code. It's how women are treated in the workplace."

The cocktail world constantly flirts with nostalgia, harkening back to the good old days. Along the way, it sometimes pulls along outmoded ways of thinking and talking about sex and gender. In a world lubricated with alcohol, our more contemporary guards can fall quicker and language becomes looser. Part of the big-kid world of drinking in 2015 includes maintaining polite language, staying intelligent, and being thoughtful of one another.

Also, drinks don't have a fucking gender.