You don’t have to have worked in the bar scene to notice that it’s a male-dominated industry.
Walk into any bar—especially the high-end variety—and you will see mostly male bartenders. They’re familiar figures to us now; the person that shakes my drink is a man, the person who knows what whisky I’d like is a man, the person whose word I’ll take easier is a man’s. Like in many other industries, we’ve allowed men to be the figureheads, even if they weren’t the only ones to create it.
Historically, men have been the ‘drinkers’. Even now, as sex and gender are becoming less polarised and people are being seen closer to equal, we still think of men as ‘being able to hold their liquor’ better than women. Physically and scientifically, this is mostly true, but it’s the idea of being able to do ‘more’ and ‘take it’ more that is damaging in the lack of visibility for females in the bar industry, and in general. It also adds to the—dare we say toxic—masculinity that builds up wall upon wall of ego, making it difficult for other, more feminine, voices to break through.
Although many of us might look at the men in suspenders stirring drinks around us and be quick to adopt the ‘it’s a boys club’ theory, it runs much deeper than that. I mean, boy’s clubs had to come from somewhere, right?
Let’s go back to the beginning.
Every cocktail nerd has heard of Jerry Thomas’s 1862 paperback ‘The Bar-Tender’s Guide’ because it was the first book to include and title many of today’s classic cocktails. It was also the first book to categorise cocktails to their methods, such as sours, martinis and punches. Back in the 1800s, Thomas was known as what is now called a flair bartender; someone who makes drinks with an almost circus-like performance, juggling tins, spinning stirrers and throwing bottles. He ran four different saloons across New York, toured Europe, and worked in different hotels and saloons across America. Although Thomas’ book does include some of his own creations, it’s mostly full of old classics and recipes that originated in house management books that were written by—you guessed it—women.
One of these women, Isabella Beeton, published a book called Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management a year before Thomas’s in 1861. Beeton’s book covers everything from diseases of infancy, to how to shuck oysters, to the distillation process for liquors, fermentation, different remedy concoctions and explanations for every cooking process you’ve probably ever heard of. A large part of her knowledge was in cocktails and mixed drinks. Things like a ‘tomato juice cocktail’ now known as a Bloody Mary, a silver sour now known as a Classic Gin Sour and a Sherry Cobbler, still known as a Sherry Cobbler were among hundreds of her household recipes.
While Thomas’s book, which is more widely known for classic cocktails today, sold 8,000 copies in its first edition, Beeton’s book sold 2 million copies in its first edition and includes hundreds of mixed drink recipes. The only book to outsell Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management at the time was the bible.
It sounds shocking, but when you think about it, it’s quite simple. The only people interested in Thomas’s book were bartenders who were making money from making cocktails. Making cocktails wasn’t a common hobby for men, it was a job. His book served a purpose to them; it could help them to study and expand on their craft and in turn, make their business more successful. For most of them, it was about money. They were learning essentially about the processes women had been perfecting for centuries, through the words of a man, to grow a money-making industry. On the other hand, Beeton’s book was for any and every woman. The ratio of working male bartenders and wives was pretty drastic, as you can imagine, therefore explaining her book’s insane amount of sales back in the 1800s.
Yet, when you research the history of classic cocktails and bartending, the earliest recordings are all of men and only men. The way society was in the 1800s, men occupied public life and public life was all that was being documented. The drinks were being made by men, for men, in bars where women weren’t allowed to be. There’s this legacy of bartending, the art of making mixed alcoholic beverages that’s been passed down through male generations right up until today, but the question remains: where did they get their recipes? Where are the women in this story?
Women were doing the household managing, they were caring, cleaning, cooking, hosting dinner parties. They were the chief mixologists and entertainers of the home. When Jerry Thomas was writing out the Old Fashioned recipe, had he seen it before? If so, where? It could’ve been at a dinner party thrown by someone’s wife, or by his own wife. Perhaps, he’d been given a ‘whisky on the rocks with bitters and sugar’ as a ‘remedy for throat sores’, thought “hey! that’s yum” and gave it a name.
We’ll really never know, but if you think outside the box and the bar, outside what was happening in the public world and into what was happening in the private world, women were at the forefront of mixing drinks.
Before the industrial revolution and before the Golden Age of drinking that many bars are inspired by today, liquor, on the whole, was used for three things; preservation, household medicines and entertainment. The people that knew how to use it for those purposes, were almost all women.
Thankfully once the industrial revolution died down, women started working their magic behind the bar and going down in history for their work. One of the most well-noted is Ada Coleman, who was the head bartender at the Savoy in 1903. She was the second woman to ever be a ‘head bartender’ and one of the only female bartenders to create a classic cocktail that would go down in history as her own called the Hanky Panky.
Now, we’re not saying that Jerry Thomas doesn’t have any credit. His work continues to be extremely influential and his place in the evolution of the cocktail-making craft is not to be cast aside. Without his words being published at such a pivotal time for the cocktail bar, the industry may not have grown at such a rapid and industrialised way, becoming the incredible space for creative business and experiential drinking that it brings today.
I think it’s just simply worth noting that women hold an extremely vital part in this history too, and it’s time we gave it back to them.
The cold weather in most parts of Australia coinciding with EOFY celebrations is the closest thing that we’ll get to snowy Christmas vibes. And if you’re in dire need of some festive cheer after the first six months of 2023, grab your ugly sweater and head to your nearest Red Rooster for Xmas in July deals.
From June 29 – July 31, 2023, Red Rooster is serving up free food items, a chance to win $10,000 or one of 10 merch packs valued at $400 and other fun prizes. All you have to do is sign up as a Red Royalty member and spend $5 on at a location near you or online.
Each week there’ll be new delicious deals and prizes to win. The week one deals have already dropped and they’re looking pretty tasty. You can get access to them via your Red Royalty account. The more you purchase, the more chances you have to win.
Spoiler alert: you can get 10 chicken nuggets for free, right now. Brb running to Red Rooster.