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The Bar World Has It All Wrong When It Comes to Gender and Cocktails

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(illustration: Erna Kristin)

Our culture is undergoing a gender revolution. Thanks to decades of work from pioneering activists like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, we cisgender people—that is, those of us whose gender matches the one we were assigned at birth—are learning there’s more to gender identity than the male and female binary that we grew up accepting.

Terms such as “trans,” “nonbinary” and “agender” are starting to seep into the mainstream. (For a list of updated terms, click here.) At the same time, people are questioning what it truly means to be masculine and feminine and whether those descriptors are useful or outdated.

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Truth is it’s quite common in the beverage world to experience antiquated thinking about gender. As a decade-long member of the bar community, I think it’s time we talk about improving our understanding of gender as it relates to the industry. The language we use affects our perception of the world and who we include in that world.

“Imagine your masculinity is so fragile that you can’t drink a cocktail out of a coupe.” I tweeted this recently, and the response was overwhelming. Some people were shocked that this was even a thing, while others shared their exasperation. A few bartenders told me that as a matter of policy they don’t exchange glassware for men who request more manly vessels for their drinks.

It’s easy to trash insecure bros for refusing to drink out of a dainty glass, but that’s missing the point. A cocktail coupe, which is said to have been modeled after the shape of a woman’s breast, exists for a specific purpose. It allows a person to sip their drink while holding the stem, thus preventing body heat from cooking your Last Word.

Refusing to drink out of a coupe tells the world that you’d rather suffer a warm cocktail than be perceived as feminine. That should tell you a lot about how deeply entrenched misogyny still is in our culture. When I was a full-time bartender, I would regularly encounter men who’d ask if a cocktail is girly and, if so, proclaim that they wanted a manly drink. It happened enough that I had a sassy retort preloaded in my back pocket: “A girly drink depends on the girl drinking it.”

Last Word

And just what exactly makes a drink girly or manly? Historically, stronger drinks such as bourbon or scotch have been attributed to men, while sweet, fruity cocktails often get assigned to women.

While it’s true that men and women process alcohol differently, the fact that beer is preferred overwhelmingly by men seems to indicate there’s more to it than just ethanol concentrations. Like pretty much all of our notions surrounding gender roles, these attributes are constructed by society. There’s nothing inherently masculine about scotch—it’s fermented barley. Nor is rosé liquid womanhood; it’s wine with some grape skin pigments in it.

Sam Penix, the owner of New York’s Everyman Espresso, says it best: “Drinks aren’t people. Drinks are inanimate, and at best they have one goal: to be delicious.” Describing drinks with a narrow binary is not only inaccurate and boring, he says, but it can be harmful.

“Nonbinary folks and trans people just want to be included and welcomed into your space like the rest of humanity,” says Penix. “Women don’t want to be limited to brighter, sweeter, fruitier drinks or have femininity falsely equated to weakness. Men don’t want to be stigmatized for ordering skim lattes. Excellent hospitality requires us to meet the needs and expectations of a diverse group of people.”

I talked to Karen Fu, my former colleague and the bar manager at Studio bar and restaurant at NYC’s Freehand hotel, about the subject. Fu is no stranger to gender assumptions about her own level of expertise. I once witnessed a catering company bartender mansplain her own drink to her at a friend’s wedding. “The ever-constant battle of gender applied to drinking culture will persist so long as misaligned perceptions still exist,” she says.

So the next time you’re afraid to order a drink that sounds girly, don’t be. Or if you’re tempted to call a wine “masculine,” stop and come up with a few words that actually describe the wine rather than falling back on an essentially meaningless descriptor.

There’s too much beauty and diversity in the world, and it’s up to us to drink it all up.

Locations: New York
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