Back in the ’90s, Allegra Lucier had an exhausting bartending gig at a rock bar in the East Village. Night after night, she got hit on.
“So this one gentleman passed me a note one evening, and I was like, ‘I’m not doing this,’ and I passed the note back. He passed it again, I passed it back, he passed it again, and I was like, ‘If you want me to get you a drink, I’ll get you a drink — other than that . . . leave me alone.’ He passed the note again. And I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to get this person kicked out.’ I’m so sick of it. So I open the note: Hello. I am deaf.”
She was mortified. But it was also a signal flare, a reminder of how jaded you can get in an environment where some of the clientele have messed-up presumptions about what “hospitality” should entail.
Those were the days of Long Island iced teas and rum-and-Cokes, before the craft cocktail renaissance. As that movement gained steam, Lucier — now head bartender at Osteria Morini in New York — moved into it. She’s happy she did. The environment is more creative and rewarding, less harassment-prone, one in which women bartenders can create a real career, even as they — the horror! — get older.
Yet she noticed another difference.
“In the rock-and-roll world, it’s all about women behind the bar — maybe because it’s about sex, it’s about sales,” she says. “When I first got into the craft cocktail world, the first thing you realize is you’re very much alone.”
The cocktail world is full of talented female bartenders. And yet both men and women will tell you that, especially in some markets, gender biases are still a problem.
Bartending was considered a woman’s job in England, but here, that began to change around the time of the Revolution, says cocktail historian David Wondrich. During Prohibition, women came to speakeasies as customers. They came back as bartenders when men were away at war; when the men came back, women got pushed out. They were seen as taking men’s jobs, says Wondrich. A notion that women needed protection from the moral vice of alcohol lingered, too.
It wasn’t until the ’70s that, thanks to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, laws prohibiting women from bartending began to get struck down.
The shift toward male bartenders in the 19th century, Wondrich says, “partly had to do with the increased status of the bartender,” a boost he captured in “Imbibe!” “It’s kind of a vicious circle. The status rises, so more men get into it, and more men get into it, so the status is raised.”
Which sounds a lot like what we’ve seen with the craft cocktail renaissance.
In its first decade, the movement often focused on digging up old drinks that had all but disappeared. It’s a subculture obsessed with history — old distilling techniques, ancient botanicals — and inclined to romanticize its past, resurrecting everything from “speakeasies” to sartorial style. The image of a bearded bartender in old-timey suspenders, geeking out on artisanal bitters has become a bit of a joke.
Yet there’s a grain of truth in it. Maybe a whole slice of bread. I regularly visit cocktail dens where the crew behind the stick is entirely or almost entirely male. Add throwback costuming and decor, and some bars can feel like you’ve stepped into a time warp — which is part of their appeal.
But it’s made me wonder: When a subculture identifies deeply with a historical heyday in which women and minorities had little place, does some of that baggage seep into modern iterations, disguised as simple aesthetics?
In “A Proper Drink,” his new history of the craft cocktail renaissance, Robert Simonson devotes extensive copy to Audrey Saunders and Julie Reiner, two pioneers who opened groundbreaking bars Pegu Club and the Flatiron Lounge and trained a cadre of New York bartenders who went on to become major influencers.
But he’s quick to acknowledge that in his years writing about cocktails for the New York Times, “I spend a lot of my time interviewing white men.”
This spring, a social media storm exploded around Employees Only, an influential speakeasy-style bar in New York. The bar had posted a hiring notice for its new Singapore location: “NOT JUST A BOYS CLUB! . . . We are looking for badass cocktail waitresses and supervisors to join our team!”
At a glance, the ad seemed harmless, even purposefully inclusive. But EO had stepped in an issue that has dogged the industry: The career path from barback — assistants who help keep the bar stocked with booze, clean glasses and perform other thankless tasks — to bartender has long been an easier one than that from cocktail waitress to bartender. Since bars have traditionally hired men as barbacks and women as servers, women have found it harder to advance.
So EO’s ad asking women to apply for non-bartending positions didn’t sit well with some and ended up in a full-scale Internet flame-and-shame war. (In EO’s defense, a spokeswoman says the bartender positions in Singapore had already been filled, and the location has a female bar apprentice.)
The organizers of Tales of the Cocktail had already been digging into diversity issues when the blowup happened, producing a white paper, making recommendations and holding a session on gender issues during the July conference. Among the findings: “Employer biases” and “customer biases” were the two most common responses to a question about barriers to women trying to build bartending careers. A New York survey found nearly 60 percent of bartenders in fine-dining establishments were male, compared to 45 percent in family-style restaurants (where earnings and prestige are lower). “In other words, despite comprising a majority of the bartending workforce, females are underrepresented in the most lucrative and highest profile positions within the industry.”
“You find a similar thing with African Americans and Hispanics,” says Ann Tuennerman, founder of Tales. “Yes, they have a high percentage in the hospitality industry, but in less-prominent positions.”
The Bureau of Labor Statistics 2015 numbers indicate that 60 percent of bartenders now are women. But the picture is complex. Women reported easily getting gigs at sports bars and “breastaurants” such as Hooters, where a good headshot can be more important than a good Manhattan. In such venues, and in particular markets (Vegas, Miami and L.A. were mentioned), men reported facing hiring barriers themselves.
In the craft cocktail world, where the bartender role is more prestigious and less sexualized, it was more of a mixed bag. Several women said they felt their gender had occasionally been an advantage, with employers looking to add a woman to their bartending lineup. Others, especially in smaller markets, reported struggles to advance.
Lots of folks agree that gender issues persist, but the best way to address them is not always clear.
Some have focused on cultivating female talent. In 2011, bartenders Ivy Mix and Lynnette Marrero started Speed Rack, a bartending competition for women, “because there weren’t any female bartenders in the best bars in the world, and there was a problem with that,” Mix says. The popular competitions now take place around the country and internationally, and Mix says they’ve built a lot of camaraderie.
After winning the Bols spirits company-sponsored world bartending championship in 2014, bartender Kate Gerwin started Girls with Bols, a program that pairs up-and-coming women with female (and some male) mentors. That program, too, has grown by leaps and bounds and helped many women.
Derek Brown, owner of multiple D.C. bars and founder of hospitality group Drink Company, says building a diverse bar takes effort. “It’s not this knee-jerk ‘Let’s make our staff Benetton,’ but more a thoughtful approach that says, ‘Let’s be careful not to stack our staff with all the same kind of people, because that doesn’t reflect the people who will come to our bars.’”
Being intentional in hiring is key, says David Kaplan, a founder of Death & Co., another highly influential speakeasy-style cocktail bar in New York.
Over the years, Death & Co. has had female head bartenders, female general managers, men and women servers. Kaplan’s proud of the year when all the New York Speed Rack finalists were from the company’s family of bars. But when Death & Co. first opened, “we did have an all-female floor staff, and . . . I didn’t question it. Only later I realized, ‘Oh, I’m doing this just because I’ve seen everyone else doing it.’ ”
“We all have biases,” he says. “The thing is realizing they’re there and working to counter them.”
Many women I talked to had rueful stories of how the “Bartenders are male” bias had played out. Rachel Sergi, bartender at Quarter + Glory in the District, related a common theme: She’ll be behind the bar with a male colleague, and customers will ask him to make their drink. Or customers will ask her when the bartender will be there.
Megan Barnes, beverage director at Espita, recalls a customer who complimented her male barback on the drink she had made. “Because if a man and a woman are standing behind a bar together, the man is clearly the bartender and the female is a server or hostess, right?”
Gina Chersevani of Buffalo & Bergen gets people who assume someone else (a man) owns her bar and call asking to talk to “Gino.” Even good looks can be a double-edged sword: Lydia Ballard, a bartender at Rue St. Louis in New Orleans, says some people seem to think a male bartender “is there because he’s skilled, but I’m there because I’m pretty.”
Most women shake off the casual sexism. But harassment is a different beast. It’s less common in the craft cocktail world, but women had stories ranging from obscene comments to actual fondling and groping by customers. (One survey cited in the Tales research found that women in the hospitality industry filed sexual harassment charges at more than five times the rate of the general female workforce.)
“The line is crossed, and it’s crossed daily,” says Gerwin, who’s working to develop an anti-harassment program for bars.
Many women I spoke to described men who had given them their first breaks or trained them behind the bar — mentors, bosses, allies and fellow bartenders — as best friends and brothers. “Our male friends are often our biggest champions,” says Tyler Hudgens, bar director at the Dabney. Mix points out that half of the people who come to watch Speed Rack are men. Overall, women seemed to feel that good guys make up the vast majority in the craft cocktail world.
But bias and harassment aren’t just coming from the other side of the bar. Many women had work stories that ranged from “mildly discouraging” to “boss may actually have been a caveman.” They had been passed over for jobs in favor of far less-experienced men. They had been hit on by supervisors or colleagues, sometimes to the point where they had quit. Hiring managers had told them women weren’t welcome as bartenders. A cocktail competition judge had made innuendos about the genitals of a female competitor. There were managers who had taken a “customer is always right” approach to harassment, in one case firing a woman who had objected to being groped.
Bosses (male and female) had made sexist comments, a few going on tirades about women’s lack of competence and strength. (The ability to move a keg, Wondrich says, is something women “get ragged on for by idiots. . . . Many women can move kegs. And many of the men who are saying that are so out of shape they couldn’t move a keg anyway.”)
Bartenders hate complainers, and women bartenders are no exception. The job requires a physical and emotional toughness, and the perceived pressure for bartenders to grin and bear whatever they get is substantial.
My conversations indicated that bars need to make clear that there are circumstances in which staff should complain. Customers are not always right, and a work culture that tells staff to tolerate situations that are at best exhausting and at worst downright dangerous are setting them up for discouragement, failure and career change for the wrong reasons.
Drink Company’s Angie Fetherston, who has worked with Brown to get their staff training from Safe Bars, says managers need to empower staff of any gender to 86 a customer who’s out of line.
Bartenders “think they’re supposed to get people to buy drinks and tip well . . . so they just have to endure this treatment,” she said. “And they absolutely don’t. We don’t want customers like that.”
When I asked women who’ve been in the industry for years for advice for women starting out in the field, they had a lot to say.
Don’t allow others to hijack your plans. If you hear “no,” find a job where you’ll hear “yes.” Become your own best advocate. You may be working in a man’s world, but remember that warmth and compassion are strengths. Don’t play the gender card, but don’t let others play it against you either. The woman who works harder — who cleans the bar, reads the books, masters technique, learns everything she can about spirits and flavors and customer service and smart business practices — be her.
And to customers encountering her? You may not see old-timey suspenders, which don’t sit right if you have breasts. But check the tattoos, the grin, the shake-hardened arms and the killer martini you’re drinking, and remember: She’s a bartender. If you want to show appreciation, tip well and direct your compliments appropriately. “It’s nice when I have people tell me a drink was amazing, the best Negroni in town, and have that be the compliment and not that I’m a girl who’s pretty,” says Lucier. “I’d rather hear I’m talented.”
Allan is a Hyattsville, Md., writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter: @Carrie_the_Red.