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3 Female Bartenders Talk "Girly Drinks" and Gender Bias Behind the Bar

Trick Dog bartender Caitlin Laman via Smug Mug

The concept of a female bartender, though hardly a new one, has been something of a novelty during the last decade's craft cocktail explosion – a movement dominated by men, often with mustaches. But in San Francisco, female bartenders and bar managers are now commonplace in the city's nicer drinking establishments. I spoke with a trio of up-and-coming women in the local bar industry about the prejudices and assumptions they've faced with peers and customers alike, and about what it takes to rise up as a woman in the male-dominated bar world.

Trick Dog bartender Caitlin Laman, who recently won the national crown in the Miss Speedrack competition, says, "It doesn’t take giant muscles to shake the hell out of a drink, it just takes technique." She adds, "Having confidence behind the bar is imperative, and the best mentors of mine were those who instilled great confidence in me." 

Alta CA's bar manager Ashley Miller says she was subjected to "all kinds of torture" by male colleagues when she was first coming up, and was constantly being challenged to prove herself when men doubted her abilities. "And really, honestly, I'm one of the most masculine women you'll ever meet," she says. "I drink beer with the best of them. Seriously. I play softball."  

And while many of us who frequently drink cocktails around town might be familiar with the idea of women as master mixologists, it's still taking the world at large a while to catch on.

"I cannot tell you how many times in a given week I work alongside a male coworker and am asked by a customer if I can have 'the bartender make me a drink,'" says Tara Heffernon, the bar manager at Spoonbar in Healdsburg. "Mostly men ages 40 and up make the assumption that a woman couldn't possibly make a proper cocktail, much less run a successful bar program. But the other day a woman asked me the same thing. So much for the feminist movement."

But the biggest gendered scourge that women bartenders have to deal with on a daily basis is the notion of the "girl drink" or "girly cocktail," and the (probably male) customer who orders with the phrase "I just don't want anything girly."

Laman notes that she gets that just as often as her male colleagues. "Generally what people mean when they are saying this is A) they don’t want a pink drink and B) they don’t want it in a stemmed glass. It’s unfortunate because a lot of great drinks do happen to come out pink and we choose the glassware for a reason. But, at the end of the day, it comes down to what someone is comfortable drinking. Why they aren’t comfortable with a pink drink or a stemmed glass is a larger issue which I believe many people have written books about."

Miller says that her cocktail-making style could probably be dubbed "feminine" a lot of the time, but it's not because she's a fan of "girly" drinks, per se. "It's more because I work for Daniel Patterson and he always stresses everything must be seasonal and local and fresh. So, that often means fruity."

Heffernon says her style is all over the place and she'd never define it based on gender. "I make everything. Spirituous, fruity, savory, refreshing, or concentrated," she says. "Sometimes my drinks are stunningly beautiful and feminine, sometimes plain and classic.  It's all about what the drink should be, not who is drinking it."

And as for what they drink, these three female bartenders haven't spent so much time in this male-dominated industry without being able to put back the strong stuff with the best of them. "I love spirits," says Heffernon. "Neat. Lots. I love converting scotch lovers old enough to be my father to mescal and seeing the wonder on their face as they realize how much I know about both."

Miller stresses that since she makes cocktails for a living, beer is usually her go-to on her off time. But, when she does order a cocktail these days, "it's usually something spirituous. A Boulevardier or a Martinez."

Laman says her go-to beverage for the summer is going to be a Cocchi Americano Rosso and soda (recipe below). "A friend and I drank it at an event in New York that we worked together recently, and it is perfect for summer. Aromatic, refreshing, and slightly bitter. Plus it's lower alcohol so you can drink as many as you like! Also, it’s pink. Whoops."

Cocchi Rosso and soda

Serves 1

2 ounces Cocchi Americano Rosa

soda water

lemon twist

1. Build in a 10-ounce highball glass.

2. Add Cocchi Americano Rosa. 

3. Add ice.

4. Fill glass with soda water.

5. Garnish with a lemon twist.