ÒSpirited Women Past and PresentÓ
10 a.m. Thursday, July 19
Hotel Monteleone, Riverview Room, 214 Royal St.; www.talesofthecocktail.com
The indomitable Mrs. Parker wrote those lines when her beloved martini was a controlled substance, obtainable via bathtub, bootlegger or secret password -- sometimes necessitating all three. Parker helped to invent the archetype of the sophisticated, cheerfully liquored-up literati during Prohibition. But it was also Prohibition that helped to invent the female drinker. Or at least, the first incarnation of the female drinker who wasn't obviously, indicated by the cocktail in her hand, also a woman of low moral standing. Before the Volstead Act largely kicked off the existence of nightclub culture in America, women simply did not frequent saloons and taverns -- and those who did were seen as buying drinks while selling something else.
"Those freewheeling speakeasy days brought women into the bars and to smoking in the open, too," says Dale DeGroff, author of the boozy history and recipe book The Craft of the Cocktail. "There were a lot of women in bars all through the 19th century, but they were those sort of women."
Women have turned up in cocktail culture spottily throughout the 20th century, but it wasn't until recently that the stigma of women drinking in bars seems to have lifted. True, famous wild women like the silent film star and saloonkeeper Texas Guinan were bawdy barroom personalities in the early years of the 20th century. Hotsy-totsy flappers guzzled bathtub gin. Starlets popped up throughout the postwar years in Walter Winchell's columns for sipping Manhattans at the Stork Club. In 1949, a group of New Orleans women even staged a protest at the Sazerac Bar, which had hitherto only allowed them over its threshold on Mardi Gras Day. Still, though, these were women who bucked trends, were famous or simply came from the upper classes. For the most part, even at the time of the storming of the Sazerac, it didn't go without comment if a woman went to a bar for an innocent Pink Squirrel or Rob Roy. How did we get from there to today's world of Cosmopolitans and low-carb beer in under a century?
"There were more women, more people, drinking and clubbing during Prohibition than ever before," says DeGroff. "The per-person alcohol consumption rate then was astounding." Interestingly, though it was groups like the Women's Christian Temperance Union that lobbied strongly for Prohibition, it was also women -- newly enfranchised and flexing their political muscle -- who pushed for repeal via groups like the Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform, formed in 1929 by activist Pauline Sabin. More so than demon alcohol itself, they reasoned, the crime and corruption that came as a result of bootlegging, gangsters and speakeasy culture was a threat to American morality.
Still, even after Prohibition was repealed, many bars -- like Bud Rip's in the Ninth Ward, which discouraged women customers until the '90s -- frowned on female drinkers, particularly solo ones. Regardless of what it meant for her perceived moral character, most bars weren't places a woman would want to go, and the drinks on the menu offered little to tempt her taste buds. After the flashy days of Prohibition were over the sobering Depression set in.
Charlotte Voisey is an international liquor rep and used to run upscale cocktail bars in London, Barcelona and Buenos Aires. During this week's Tales of the Cocktail event (July 18-22), she's giving a lecture called "Spirited Women Past and Present," in which she'll discuss, among other things, the woman's place in cocktail culture throughout history -- and in the future.
"It wasn't really until Prohibition that women went out and drank cocktails, or really even drank at all," she says. "At the end of the 19th century, only a few restaurants made it legal for women to enter alone, and they'd have to sit in a separate room from the men. If they were drinking alcoholic drinks, they wouldn't be strong liquors; it'd be wine or beer. After the Second World War, women had the vote and they had had independence in the workplace, so they were ready to drink."
Not so surprisingly, the appeal of women as an insufficiently tapped customer base for the liquor industry has also drove the renovation of the familiar shot-and-a-beer aesthetic. The phenomenon is comparable to the wildly successful, if morally skewed Virginia Slims ad campaign of the '70s, which counted the right to indulge in smoking among the new freedoms won by the feminist movement. Marketing to female customers, Voisey admits, has these days engendered the popularity of brightly colored, dubious drinks with unfortunate names (Slippery Nipple shots, anyone?), but it has also been a significant part of changing the cocktail culture at large for the better. Experiments with flavor and the introduction of new, lighter liquors, she says, helped draw women up to the bar.
"What was on offer then," she says, speaking of the mid-20th century, "was whiskey and gin, before vodka came on the scene." Smirnoff began production of vodka in the United States in the '30s, bit it was a little known spirit at the time. By the mid-'70s, its sales surpassed those of bourbon in the U.S. "Vodka and white rum were less strong spirits, with less of an acquired taste. So you had drinks that didn't taste as alcoholic that women could enjoy quicker." Like the deceptively powerful Cosmopolitan, the now-ubiquitous pink drink that acted as practically its own character on HBO's Sex and the City, guzzled by Sarah Jessica Parker and her gang of improbably chic friends in nearly every episode, with nary a Y-chromosome in sight to validate their place at the bar. It's a descendant, in spirit, of the early vodka and white-rum cocktails that made lady drinkers want another round.
"My research shows that women are more likely to experiment and try new drinks," Voisey says. "They don't mind getting handed a glass of a pink cocktail with a flower in it."
Dale DeGroff also points to vodka as the culprit that led the latest boom in bringing women to the bar for good -- specifically flavored vodka, the essential ingredient in the infamous Cosmo, which he notes, because of its TV stardom, "may have been the first pink drink a lot of guys had drunk."
"I think it started with Absolut Citron," he says. "The test marketing for that product -- Absolut was a pioneer in that. But the movement in that direction had started long before, and had to do with more than just cocktails. It was a style of entertaining, dressing up and going out, retro music and dancing -- the stylish '90s," he says. Retro chic and the upscaling of the whole bar experience, he says, was a major factor in bringing women to bars.
"It started with the singles scene," he remembers. "Bartenders started to realize that if lots of women were at the bar, lots of men would be there too. You wanted women at bars."
Now, Voisey and DeGroff say, equal-opportunity drinking has managed to precipitate an overall shift in the nature of the cocktail bar as a whole, from pub grub to who's behind the bar.
"It's been driven by the whole culinary end, too," DeGroff says. "Food is fresh, real, seasonal, and people want their cocktails to be that way too. And food has become a much bigger player at the bar, with tapas and small bites. It's more festive, overall."
"We've gone from women not being able to drink legally 150 years ago, to some of the best bartenders in the industry being women," Voisey adds. "Over the past few decades, bartending has stopped being about lugging crates of beer around and it's opened the door and allowed a lot more women in. A woman behind the bar can be almost a mother, a schoolmistress, a bit of flirtation ... it can affect the ambience, or the behavior of regulars in the bar, often for the better." Is there any downside, then, to the changing, feminine face of boozing in the twenty-first century?
"The horrendous apple-watermelon-peachtini craze that still seems to be with us gives cocktails a bad name," Voisey says.