Why gender stereotypes have no place in the barrooms of the nation
Above is exactly the type of headline that would vex most people employed in the drinks industry in a big North American city. Aja Sax, a 33-year-old industry vet, who started working the Toronto bar circuit when she was 18, is one of them. Sax, like myself and a number of other Canadian women I know, mostly consume so-called “guy drinks.” We appreciate the bitter brightness of an old fashioned, the cool malt of Guinness and the deep cinnamon notes of a Balvenie Doublewood.
In a recent Washington Post piece, writer Jim Webster describes his penchant for “frilly, froufrou and girly” cocktails: “The world thinks we make a weird pair. And at first, I admit, I was a little shaken when it seemed that whenever I ordered a cocktail, it was invariably pink and prissy and had some kind of flower on top. It didn’t necessarily fit my profile,” he writes. “The world thinks that I should be drinking something of my own kind. Something of a dark spirit, sort of plain and unassuming. Something strong and sturdy in a wide glass.”
Webster’s rattling off some culturally conceived gender stereotypes here, ones that have pervaded the alcoholic-beverage industry for a long time. They section drinks into men’s versus women’s by attaching inherent values and characteristics to one’s choice in libations. It’s the reason why I have to utter an, “I like it,” as I gulp a full pint of Guinness, as if to convince those around me that I really do.
On a recent night out, Sax and a girlfriend did a round of whisky shots with the bartender: “Some guy was like, ‘You’re really puttin’ hair on your chest’,” she tells me. But after the initial astonishment fades, Sax then gets an, “ ‘Oh, wow,’ because it’s sexy for a woman to drink hard liquor but it’s not perceived as sexy for a man to drink a mojito,” she says.
There’s no better pop-culture reference, which exhibits perceived gender norms surrounding alcoholic bevvies, than the hit TV series Mad Men. Josh Lindley, bar manager at Toronto’s Harbord Room and until recently the Canadian brand ambassador for Hendrick’s gin, says that as cocktail culture became a “thing” over the last decade, the Mad Men mentality stuck: “You had a bunch of women drinking wine and men drinking rye, and the women who developed into the more important characters on the show were the ones that ended up drinking with the men,” he says. “Women who drink whisky are perceived as tough, when in reality, whisky just tastes good; it doesn’t really matter who is drinking it.”
Google “women who drink whisky” and you’re likely to stumble on a viral article from Elite Daily (a Gen-Y listicle website) on “10 Reasons Why You Should Always Go for the Girl Who Drinks Whisky.” Their rationale? She can hold her liquor, she isn’t afraid to stick up for herself, she’s a little bit badass. Practicality tells us that any human being (male, female, trans) who drinks whisky may exhibit some, none or all of the above-mentioned behaviours, but it’s this particular type of media-induced, personal character-to-drink association, that limits progressive thinking.
Mirella Amato, author of Beerology and master cicerone (a title signifying the highest recognized level of universal beer expertise, which has only been granted to 11 people in the world), says the media always positions her as the “first woman” in Canada to be certified: “The minute you say, ‘first woman,’ it implies that all the previous master cicerones in Canada were men, whereas there are no other master cicerones in the country. I found that was quite misleading,” she reveals. “The media certainly feels there’s a hook there, and is really attached to the notion that beer is a masculine beverage – which it isn’t.”
Other times, dated traditions just get in the way. Amato remembers a time when she was at a pub in Liverpool, UK, back in the 1990’s: “I ordered a pint, and I had a number of people point out to me that it wasn’t proper to for a woman to drink full pints and that I should be drinking half pints, which I found very entertaining,” she says.
And though this particular incident happened some twenty years ago, Donna Wolff, owner of The Caledonian pub in Toronto, found herself in a similar situation in late 2015 at the Lagavulin distillery in Scotland. One attendant asked Wolff’s husband if their group wanted a complementary tasting. “He goes, ‘Oh, that’d be fantastic, thank you,’ ” recalls Wolff, a native Scotswoman and co-organizer of Toronto’s Women in Whisky. “But she just poured whisky for the men. And I’m like, ‘Oh my god, are you joking? I know more about whisky than him!’ ”
Quite honestly, the only curious comments I’ve had about my womanly Guinness-drinking habit have come from Irishmen, whose affiliation with the beer is something born out of custom: watching their fathers drink the creamy stout every Sunday at the local pub, while their mothers sipped on vodka-and-Cokes. (In my estimation, the former tastes far better.) It’s convention and ritual in the Emerald Isle – guys drink Guinness, girls drink Magners Light.
But Amato fills me in on a little secret about beer in general: “Historically, it was always brewed by women. It was one of the kitchen duties – you baked bread, you cooked food, you brewed beer.” she explains. “In ancient Sumeria, the deities that were associated with beer were always women, and the first written recipe of beer is called the Hymn to Ninkasi – a hymn to the goddess of beer.”
The brewing shifted hands when the industrial revolution hit and beer became produced in mass quantities: “As soon as it became a job, it went from being something that women do at the time, to something that men do,” says Amato. “It would be accurate to say that’s when the switch began, though I think the close association between men and beer is a much more nuanced and elaborate sequence of events.”
As a girl’s girl who only drinks manly drinks, my answer to Webster’s story would go something like this: “The world thinks we make suggestive pair. And at first, I admit, I was a little shaken when it seemed that whenever I ordered a full pint of Guinness, I’d be regarded with a surprise, like it was antithesis of girlishness. It’s a reaction that rapidly morphed into something else: Others now looked at me like I was some sort of heroine – strong, decisive, tasteful. None of which entirely represents my being. The world thinks I should be drinking something of my own kind, though I’m still not sure what that means. Something that represents womanhood. Something that can’t be defined in a drink.”