How Female Bartenders are Shaking Up the Cocktail World
Every year, a slew of bartenders from the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. partake in the much-buzzed, all-female competition, Speed Rack. The purpose of the suspenseful, fast-paced event that was founded by New York bartenders Ivy Mix and Lynnette Marrero is twofold: to shine a light on the talented women working behind America’s bars and to raise funds for breast cancer research, prevention, and education.
The bar and spirits industry has long been dominated by men, but in recent years, amplified by illuminating initiatives like Speed Rack, it is taking a decidedly more robust female turn. Women across the country are opening bars, leading beverage programs, distilling spirits, and serving as ambassadors and educators for brands. With such positive developments in full force, it’s time, then, to shift the conversation away from gender and concentrate on the craftsmanship and hospitality that will only propel the industry further.
“When I started in the cocktail world, there were noticeably very few women behind the bar. Now there are plenty taken seriously and respected for what they do,” says Franky Marshall, bar director of Le Boudoir in Brooklyn. “I did notice differences, however slight, in the way people interacted with me, what they wanted to talk about in the context of the bar world. For instance, I’ve been in groups with male bartenders talking about or showing pictures of their bar set-ups or tools, and they usually engage and show the males first. They generally seem to be concerned with impressing them.”
At Le Boudoir, a subterranean lair that channels Marie Antoinette, Marshall turns out cocktails like the Axel von Fersen (bourbon, applejack, sesame, curry, black caraway) for guests equally seduced by foie gras torchons. Still, she says that some of them are more likely to pose questions about training, drink recipes, and bar philosophy to her male colleague. Marshall thinks a transformation in vocabulary is one way of combating such tendencies.
“While I appreciate the continued attention to women in the industry, we need to take the focus off gender and train our eyes on the craft itself—people’s skills, how they approach their work, and the examples they set,” she says. “As long as we keep mentioning the F word (female), that forces a perception of separation rather than unification. The dialogue should be about what it’s like as a modern bartender, and how that role has evolved.”
At the beginning of the 20th century, the sight of a female barkeep was a controversial rarity. It was only during World War II, the can-do era of Rosie the Riveter, that a surge of women tackled the verboten role of bartender. It was uncomfortable when the troops returned, eager for their jobs back and paranoid that these liberated ladies signaled a degradation of family values. Some states even banned women from slinging drinks until as late as the 1970s.
Any tale recounting the evolution of the female bartender must make mentions of two women who significantly fueled the contemporary cocktail renaissance that continues to flourish: Audrey Saunders and Julie Reiner. Saunders, a Dale DeGroff disciple who helmed the bars at Beacon Restaurant, the Tonic, and Bemelmans Bar in New York, helped usher in the modern craft-cocktail scene by opening Pegu Club. Reiner, the Hawaii-bred New Yorker (by way of San Francisco’s cocktail lounges) further defined the importance of classic cocktails and fresh ingredients at her bars Flatiron Lounge and Brooklyn’s Clover Club. Generous mentors to many, they paved the way for countless others.
Mix, for example, tirelessly works on Speed Rack, but also presides over the bar at Leyenda, the Brooklyn restaurant and bar she runs with Reiner. There, she makes Latin-inspired drinks like the Isla Bonita (Singani, Jamaican rum, palo cortado sherry, coconut yogurt, mango, vanilla, lime, and tiki bitters), sipped by regulars before the plantain-topped ropa vieja arrives. She is in good local company, with numerous hard-working women continuing to make their mark at New York bars, from Pamela Wiznitzer, national president of the United States Bartenders’ Guild and creative director of Seamstress; to Natasha David, co-owner of Nitecap; and Jillian Vose, beverage director at the Dead Rabbit. Throughout the states, women like Anu Elford, owner of the Seattle bars Navy Strength, No Anchor, and Rob Roy; Yael Vengroff, bar director of the Spare Room in Los Angeles; and Cris Dehlavi, bar chef at M at Miranova, Cameron Mitchell’s marquee restaurant in Columbus, Ohio, continue to prove the old boys’ club is an archaic notion.
In New Orleans, veteran bartender Kimberly Patton-Bragg can be found at Beachbum Berry’s tiki shrine, Latitude 29, where customers gorge on dumpling burgers in the company of Mai Tais and Mississippi Mermaids (vodka, tamarind, allspice, lemon, and banana). Patton-Bragg launched her career in the early 1990s as a server at a fine-dining restaurant “and we had to act as our own bartender as well. It was mainly wine, highballs, Martinis, and Old Fashioneds with all the mushy fruit,” she says. “When I returned to the [business], years later, it was at Danny Meyer’s Blue Smoke in New York, starting as server, and I was quickly made a bartender. I never felt any pressure there. However, guests were a different story.”
She sees the role of female bartenders changing in tandem with the general perception of bartending because it’s now seen as a “real career.”
“I love seeing more women get credit in this industry, but we still have a long way to go,” she says. “We need to hire, support, and mentor as many women and people of color in this industry. The more diversity, the more equality can come from understanding different perspectives while all being a part of the human race.”
Meaghan Dorman oversees a quartet of sexy New York bars, including the Raines Law Room, the Raines Law Room at the William, Dear Irving, and the Bennett, where Eggs Benedict brunches can be followed with the likes of the Frank of America (rye, Byrrh, Amaro Abano, spiced maple, and Angostura bitters). At the beginning of her career, she often felt frustrated. Even if she was standing behind the bar, patrons assumed she was a host or server.
“Please stop trying to order from the man running the dishwasher when my whole role is to serve you drinks,” she says.
More open-minded businesses, Dorman says, are the ones that acknowledge their best, most committed employees and find ways to support them and make adjustments for life changes. Those businesses are essential to alleviating gender disparity, fostering loyal workers in the process.
Houston bartender Alba Huerta runs Julep, a Southern-inspired bar with cocktails like the Tycoon’s Wife (bourbon, Americano Rosa, Strega, and Peychaud’s bitters) buoyed by oysters and chicken bites.
Huerta first started bartending 18 years ago, “when my threshold for fear was very low. Concern grew with time when I saw a staunch culture maintain gender roles at the bar, a ‘men can do this and women can’t do that’ mentality. Even now, when people find out that Julep is owned by a woman, it takes them a second to be OK with it. It’s not a deal breaker for most, just an adjustment.”
Huerta thinks there’s been some improvement, particularly in the fact that there are women who are bartenders, not just “female bartenders.”
“When I tried out for jobs, I didn’t apply for the female bartender position; I just applied for the bar position,” she says. “Above all, I’ve always maintained one ideology: The drinks don’t care if you’re male or female, only that they are made properly and taste delicious.”