Lady Liquor: What Makes a Drink a Girly Drink?
“As women have entered the world of men, they have taken on the characteristics of the previously dominant male culture. As women entered the world of whiskey, they latched on to male images and characteristics.
“It may be worth pausing to ask, why is it that the drinks that women drink cause embarrassment while the drinks that men drink are reason for praise? It's no more or less arbitrary than the fact that men who sew or knit or vacuum are being feminized (a bad thing) and women who ride motorcycles are sexy. So, add a little testosterone to the girlie girl, and she rises in everyone's estimation. Add a little estrogen to the man's man, and he should crawl under a shawl of shame.”
- Ada Brunstein, “Women, Whiskey and Libationary Liberation,” collected in Whiskey & Philosophy: A Small Batch of Spirited Ideas.
In the essay I've quoted above, Brunstein was writing about her foray into the world of whiskey and cocktails, as a wine lover, and how whiskey-drinking women have a cool, tough, independent image (some commenters on prior installments in this series have described beer-drinking women in similar terms: “They know who they are”). The essay is well worth reading – Brunstein opens with a discussion of popular reactions to this video of Hillary Clinton drinking whiskey on the campaign trail and continues to a deeper discussion of how female drinkers drinking “male” drinks can be perceived as both transgressive and as perpetuating masculine norms. That's territory we've trod before. But in this paragraph, Brunstein raises an issue I haven't discussed before: that is, what precisely makes a drink a girl drink?
Cocktail culture began in the home and broke down norms around who socialized with whom, gender-wise, and I certainly know people who assume all cocktails are sweet and sugary (and therefore feminine), or that any drink with more than two ingredients is a “girly” drink. Neither of those things are true, of course, as anyone with an alcoholic grandfather or an even passing familiarity with James Bond can attest. And, I mean, Ernest Hemingway drank mojitos and daiquiris (albeit not the frozen, flavored concoction usually called a daiquiri these days).
Also, tiki drinks – usually mixed on rum, and full of sweet ingredients that will charm the teeth straight out of your mouth! These are drinks people like Howard Hughes used to love in the postwar period, and that have become popular among lovers of craft cocktails in the last few years. Tiki drinks, as far as I can tell, are largely detached from “girly drink” stigma, possibly because most of the classics are so full of booze that their moribund names (the Zombie, the Corpse Reviver, the Suffering Bastard) should serve as a warning, a kind of macho throwdown: "Just because I am full of fruity, tropical flavors and rum does not mean I cannot kill you dead, sir!"
Of course, the fact that a fictitious jerky, misogynistic spy likes something or an actual jerky, misogynistic writer liked something does not automatically make that thing good. Or bad. (Let's not even mention Don Draper and his old fashioneds.) Nor should we assume any correlation between urine-hoarding and knowledgeability about cocktails. And while I'm still snobbish enough to make faces when I walk into a bar and the drink menu includes things like appletinis (or, really, anything that's just vodka and flavored syrup in a martini glass), it stands to reason that not every drink pegged as a “girl drink” tastes like a blue Slush Puppy.
Take, for instance, the cosmopolitan – which became hugely popular after Sex and the City first aired in 1998, and is still, as far as I can tell, the reigning queen of lady cocktails. Among cocktail snobs, opinions on the drink are still mixed. Noting that it's not an especially complex or interesting drink, but is drinkable (done right, I'd add, it's not overly sweet, which is rare in this genre), drink blogger the Tipsy Texan writes that he's become an “unlikely apologist” for the cosmo, partly because it's a gateway to get bar patrons interested in mixology. Also, he notes, “a lot of the vitriol invoked by mention of the Cosmo, in certain circles, is rooted in sexism and homophobia...It is no less fruity than the countless sugary concoctions that frat boys and tipsy Texans pound in shot bars every weekend. But when you put it in a conical glass and place it in the hands of empowered women, it becomes a 'bitch's drink.' A hateful assessment.”
The cosmo's deep pink color – and the beautiful, inverted-skirt-like shape of the martini glass – was, I am guessing, the lion's share of the reason production designers chose it as the show's signature drink. The fact that martini glasses have graced the pink covers of countless “chick lit” novels since hasn't helped the sexist associations attached to it, and frankly many other cocktails. Still: if daiquiries and mojitos are still broadly perceived as the preferred libation of “girls in Ugg boots" (as a friend of mine once said), the stripped-down version of the daiquiri is beginning to appear on the menus of high-end bars. The mojito, too, at least in some circles, is enjoying a resurgence as a gender-neutral drink. So maybe it's possible to rescue those drinks once banished to the girly-drink ghetto – but then again, maybe it's not necessary. My footwear doesn't need anybody else's approval; why should my drink?
Previously: Staying Afloat at the Office Holiday Party
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