We all have a friend who makes more jokes than the rest about beer-o'clock, brings cocktail fixings to the office holiday potluck, and maybe has a "drink of the season." (Bonus points if they've created a signature drink and named it after themselves.) If you don't have that friend, you might be that friend. For your favorite happy-hour gossip, your partner in crime for cooking and sipping, or the friend who needs "a little something" to get them through the seasonal frenzy, here are a few merry, boozy, and bright ideas that are still thoughtful.
So far in this series I've talked about women making and marketing beer, the gender politics projected onto drinks themselves and women visiting bars. But I haven't yet talked about women behind the bar.
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to speak to Mindy Kucan, the lead bartender at Hale Pele, a tiki bar in Northeast Portland. Kucan has been tending bar for 10 years, but got interested in "craft bartending" (which focuses on complex, balanced cocktails mixed on quality liquors and unusual ingredients, as well as reviving classic drinks from bygone eras) five years ago, while tending bar at a Hilton in Texas. "I wanted to get better at what I did, so I just found ways to do it," Kucan told me.
In 2008, she attended Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans both to meet more people in the craft cocktail scene and to watch skilled bartenders at work. Eventually, she started entering mixology competitions. Often, these are sponsored by the makers of spirits or liqueurs, and the competition centers around (quickly) building a drink with that ingredient inclusive – but they grade on personality and aplomb as well as quality of cocktail. Others are charity events asking competitors to quickly build a drink with that ingredient inclusive – such as the Iron Bartender competition I attended earlier this month, in which Kucan competed (and where she is pictured here, dressed as Angostura bitters).
As for the consumption of spirits per se, it's true that cocktails became more popular in the 1920s than they had in previous years, and both men and women drank cocktails enthusiastically. In fact, historian Catherine Gilbert Murdock, in her phenomenal book Domesticating Drink, argues that Prohibition had a dual effect on the way women and men socialized. Where previously men had gone to saloons to drink beer (or whiskey) alone, during Prohibition, women – either with partners or friends – went to speakeasies without fear of social retribution.
Etiquette books for women, and women's magazines, urged "respectable" women to serve drinks and to drink themselves; one advice writer suggested courting couples each have the chance to see each other "unpleasantly drunk" before tying the knot. Department stores and catalogs pushed cocktail shakers and glassware during the 1920s, since cocktail, uh, paraphernalia was not illegal (nor, for that matter, were home winemaking kits); books of cocktail recipes were marketed to the home bartender, not the pro. Punches (eggnogs, grogs and milk punch – which I had the opportunity to try this weekend and which is far tastier than it sounds) were around in the 19th century, and so were some drinks we'd call cocktails now (like the mint julep). Cocktails – and the cocktail party – didn't really become part of the American drinking scene until the 20th century, though. The rise of the cocktail both influenced, and was influenced by, shifting gender politics in the United States – but also by liquor control laws.