Whiskey and Women

The Cocktail Craze Changes Demographics on Both Sides of the Bar


     On a typical early weekday evening at District Oakland, an after-work crowd throngs the semicircular bar, basking in the streaks of sunshine that play across its caramel-colored wood surface and shoot sparks from bottles and ice. Under a lofty black ceiling hung with swirling fans and diadem-shaped lights, patrons clamor around sleek booths and tables too. Cue clinking glasses, laughter — at least half of it clearly female.
     Having opened in April, this Old Oakland offshoot of a popular SoMa restaurant-bar offers savvy, sophisticated whiskey flights and seductive cocktails created by District’s co-owner Caterina Mirabelli. One popular example is the Breakfast of Champions, comprising Fernet Branca, house-made bacon-infused bourbon and ginger beer. Another is the Bluegrass, a rich mélange of bourbon, fresh blueberries, lemon juice, maple syrup and rosemary.
      “Women are drinking more hard alcohol these days, although they’re not leaving behind their passion for wine,” says Roman-born Mirabelli, who chalks up this change to the fact that women are working more, earning more, becoming more independent and taking on challenges “that in the past were considered part of the man’s world — that world of whiskey and cigars. Women would now like to be part of that boys’ club. They don’t want to be excluded. So now women are realizing how many types of whiskey they can appreciate.”
     This revelation is blooming at bars throughout the East Bay and beyond as, breaking free from the sangria-mimosa doldrums, women are at long last learning to love liquor — and to say so.
     It’s happening on both sides of the bar: More women than ever are ordering hard-alcohol drinks, and more women than ever are mixing and serving them. Some of the East Bay’s most popular mixologists — such as Summer-Jane Bell of Oakland’s New Easy, Jessica Maria of Albany’s Hotsy Totsy Club and Nat Harry of Berkeley’s Revival Bar + Kitchen — are female.
     Stella Davies, who as the bar manager at Jack London Square’s Bocanova is renowned for creating cocktails whose seasonal produce, house-grown shrubs and exotic spices complement the restaurant’s edgy Pan-American fare, says more women are getting into the hard stuff because there’s more of the hard stuff around — and because the hard stuff just keeps getting better.
     “The cocktail scene is booming. There’s so much small-batch distilling going on now all over America,” Davies explains.
     While whiskey has traditionally been virtually the only liquor made stateside, “great gins, great vodkas and even great rums are now being made in this country. These things used to all be made in Europe and Latin America,” Davies says. But with many new North American distilleries springing up — the greater Bay Area alone is home to several, including Alameda’s St. George Spirits, Belmont’s Old World Spirits and Soquel’s Osocalis — “the cocktail thing has become part of the locavore thing,” which redoubles its appeal to drinkers of both genders, she says.
     “They’ll walk into the bar and say, ‘I want to try something local,’ or ‘I know what a Manhattan is, but what other whiskey drinks do you have?’ or ‘I usually drink Jack Daniels, but do you have something new and different that I could try instead?’ or ‘What do you make that I can make at home to show off to my guests?’ ”
     Davies’ cocktail craftery derives from “a little bit mad science and a little bit accident. I work closely with our pastry chef. He tends to be really experimental with his desserts, so we bounce off each other about what’s in season and what goes with what. I’ll get an idea and I’ll ask him, ‘Have you ever put balsamic vinegar and rose petals together?’ ”
     Such chats result in signature cocktails such as Rosa the Beautiful, which combines tequila, mezcal, cava, rose petals, strawberry and habañero shrub. Another is El Vaquero, a remarkably macho mixture of pisco, smoked paprika, beef bouillon, Burlesque Bitters, Barolo Chinato and beef jerky.
     “I learn something new every day,”Davies beams.
     Jennifer Colliau tends bar at Berkeley’s Acme Bar and, as owner-operator of Small Hand Foods, produces orgeat and other syrups best known for their use in pre-Prohibition and World War II–era cocktails such as the pisco sour, Sazerac and mai tai. (The latter, Colliau is quick to note, was invented not at some exotic island outpost but at Trader Vic’s in Oakland in 1944.)
     At Acme, which is renowned for its array of 150 different whiskeys, “women seem to be getting more adventurous lately, and more likely to order things other than vodka, which is nice,” Colliau says.
     Because vodka has a reputation as the lowest-calorie hard liquor, “and because American culture wants women to be completely obsessed with the way they
look,” she says, vodka is the liquor most aggressively marketed to women: Think Skinnygirl and Appletinis.
     But other spirits are gaining ground.
     “Women will walk into Acme these days and say, ‘Hey, I normally drink Glenlivet; can you suggest something else I might like?’ So maybe I’ll turn them on to some Japanese single malt and they’ll say, ‘That’s great. I love that.’ We’ve been starting to get some good Japanese whiskeys, and I find that women really like them.”
     This spirit of adventure is part of an evolution that Colliau feels is long overdue and applies to both women and men.
     “As Americans, we have not been taught to drink. Most of us grew up with a very Puritan attitude toward alcohol” that mainly consisted of warnings against it, she says. “Maybe at age 16 — especially if we are female — we were poured our first Midori sour. We liked it because it tasted like concentrated lemonade, and we couldn’t taste the alcohol.”
     Such introductions to the world of liquor left many with a lasting taste for candy-sweet cocktails: It’s part nostalgic, part playing it safe, part pretending that it isn’t really drinking.
     But as if to make up for lost time, both men and women are getting serious about spirits the same way, not so long ago, they learned to get serious about wine.
     “Americans are making a concerted effort to develop their palates for alcohol. Through repeated exposure to more and more flavorful things, they learn to seek out more and more nuanced flavors. It’s fine that we still have a lot of rich, sweet cocktails,” says Colliau, who specializes in crafting sweet pre-Prohibition classics — gin fizzes, Negronis, Tom Collinses — that were invented in an era before women were even permitted in bars.
     “Even sweet cocktails,” she notes, “are now being balanced properly and crafted with care,” so that self-respecting men and women can sit side by side, sipping local, seasonal, sustainable Singapore Slings.
     Or can they?
     “If anyone is feeling threatened about gender roles these days, it’s men,” Colliau observes. “At the bar, guys often ask me to put their cocktails into more ‘manly’ glasses. And some won’t order anything containing grenadine because they think it will be pink.” 

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