After all these years, as enlightened as we pretend to have become, the bar is still a place where gender stereotypes persist. Not just persist, but thrive. Consider the endless conversation over what constitutes a “manly” drink vs. a “girly” drink. Sometimes it feels as juvenile as, say, trucks for boys and dolls for girls.
I was thinking about that gender divide a couple Sundays ago, when I attended an event called DC Bras. It was put on by the local chapter of Ladies United for the Preservation of Endangered Cocktails, or LUPEC DC, a society of more than a dozen female craft bartenders in the District, from places such as Room 11, Estadio and Chef Geoff’s.
There was nary a girly drink on the list. Among the 14 special cocktails offered by LUPEC DC members, I saw a lot of rye whiskey, aromatic bitters, maraschino liqueur and Fernet Branca: the sort of stuff that dudes were drinking when women weren’t even allowed inside bars. That’s not even including the aged rum and tequila and a six-gallon pisco sour made with Macchu Pisco.
“We have great female bartenders in the city. It’s still a boys’ club, but women have steadily risen,” said Angie Salame of Laughing Cocktail, who organized the event at the Passenger to raise money for breast cancer research. About 200 people attended.
LUPEC chapters have existed in other cities around the country for several years, so one seems long overdue here, especially because certain female bartenders, such as Gina Chersevani (formerly of PS 7’s and Rasika), Chantal Tseng (Tabard Inn) and Rachel Sergi (Jack Rose Dining Saloon) have been instrumental in the cocktail renaissance in Washington.
“It’s nice to have unity among the ladies,” said Alexandra Bookless of the Passenger, LUPEC DC’s chapter president. “Historically, it’s been a male-dominated profession. Women kind of got pushed out from behind the bar.
“Until about 10 years ago, your role was either buxom or matronly,” Bookless said. “I can’t put myself in the mind of a 65-year-old guy, but what they seem to envision is someone working at Hooters or someone who’s making old-fashioneds at a cigar bar.”
It was perhaps a delicate question to raise, but I had to ask: Do female bartenders approach cocktails differently from male bartenders?
“Is there a difference in drinks made by women? I would like to think so, even though there is no actual evidence of this,” Chersevani said. “Women tend to be more emotional and so are their cocktails, whether it be a bright, happy drink or a small, sassy elixir. Our cocktails reflect more than the booze. They are extensions of the person.”
I don’t know what this says about Chersevani’s personality, but here was the “cocktail” she was featuring at the event: a shot of rye whiskey.
Sergi, on the other hand, scoffed at the question, and then foisted a bracing shot of Fernet Branca on me. “Female cocktail geeks don’t feel the need to wear a costume,” she said, referring to the persistent trend of male bartenders to engage in speak-easy-era role-playing with vests, trilby hats and waxed mustaches.
So what sorts of cocktails were the ladies making? Classics: the Jack Rose, the Aviation and the Seelbach, along with inventive new drinks such as the District by Bookless (a mix of rye, ginger liqueur, lemon juice and bitters) and Her Lips Were Devil Red (anejo tequila, vermouth, orange bitters and adobo-infused agave nectar) by Alexandra Nichols of Estadio.
As I took my leave of the DC Bras event, Sergi was ordering another round of Fernet Branca. Later, she sent me this text: “Drinks made with love and care, regardless of gender, taste best.”
Wilson is the author of “Boozehound: On the Trail of the Obscure, the Rare, and the Overrated in Spirits” (Ten Speed Press, 2010). Follow him on Twitter: @boozecolumnist.