When you ask a bartender for a Pabst Blue Ribbon, a Pinot Noir, or anything else, your drink order reveals something about you. Maybe your drink of choice reflects a refined palate or shows that you can afford—and appreciate—top-shelf liquor. Maybe you drink a certain beer or cocktail because it’s what you saw your father drink as you were growing up, and it feels familiar or makes you nostalgic. All sorts of factors come into play when we’re choosing a drink, and gender is one of them.
Helana Darwin describes herself as "a chick who likes dark beer." She visits lots of craft beer bars, and over time, she says, "I started noticing that if I took too long looking at the board of beer options, bartenders—especially male bartenders—would start suggesting fruity beers and Hefeweizens to me. I’d have to cut them off and say, ‘Actually I’m looking to see if you have any bourbon barrel-aged stout.’" Darwin frequently heard men comment on her drink order as if she was making it for their benefit, as if her tastes and preferences were entirely based on sex appeal.
Darwin is a sociologist, so she started looking for research on gender and alcohol. When she didn't find what she wanted, she launched her own study. She surveyed people in four different craft beer bars in and around New York City. Among other things, she asked people to describe a “masculine beer” and a “feminine beer.” The respondents used adjectives stereotypically associated with each gender, describing a masculine beer as “dark, aggressive and strong,” and a feminine beer as “flowery, sweet, light and pretty.”
Darwin believes that we get socialized into different tastes. She says, “Bartenders are always trying to push fruity beers on me when they assume that I’m new to the beer scene. There’s this assumption that people who are new to beer need something that is really palatable and weak. That’s also the assumption for women, even if they’re not new to the beer scene, which tells you something about what people think about us and our palate.” Women drink fruity beers because they’re recommended, and then they become an acquired taste. Men are encouraged to drink IPAs and lagers a lot sooner than women are, so they begin to prefer those.
The sociologist says women in the craft beer scene feel like they have to prove themselves. “Women are under a lot of pressure not to order beers that are considered feminine beers, because that confirms the stereotype that we’re not real beer drinkers and we don’t really know anything about it—or like the taste of ‘real beer,’ whatever that means.” Men in the craft beer scene don’t have as much to prove, because all beer is considered masculine by default.
Kenyatta Mincey has been bartending in Atlanta for fifteen years, and she’s seen her share of drink stereotyping. She says, “There are so many misconceptions. People assume women like sweet drinks, and they assume African Americans will always want Moscato when that’s not necessarily the case—I hate Moscato. I don’t drink Moscato because I don’t like things that sweet. I’m a beer drinker, but I drink every beer except IPAs. I don’t like angry bitter beers that fight with me.”
Mincey also drinks bourbon, and she’s noticed that male bartenders are often taken aback when she orders something strong. She says, “As a woman, if you order something aggressive, people might look at you like, ‘Ooh?! OK.’” She says if a woman orders an apple martini or something “light, sweet and fruity,” they’ll be like, “Oh, of course you want that.” She adds, “If a woman says, ‘Let me get a Crown, neat’, they’ll say, ‘Oh?’ and assume she had a horrible day, like, ‘What woman would drink that?’”
Male customers, meanwhile, are more likely to be particular about how their drinks are served. Mincey says, “You’ll make somebody a drink, and they’re like ‘Make sure you don’t give me no girly glass.’ What’s a girly glass? I don’t know the difference.” Mention a coupe glass and she’ll refer to the legend that it was “designed after a woman’s titty.” She adds, “I think people sometimes do things for an image, because they don’t want to be seen as soft or gay or whatever over a glass. A glass isn’t going to make you look gay.”
Andrew Olsen, a bartender in Kansas City, also has customers ask how a drink will be served before they order it. He says, “My response is, ‘It comes in whatever glass you want it to come in.’” He doesn’t want to argue with them, and he doesn’t want to make them uncomfortable. He designed the drink to be in a particular glass for a reason, but if you want it in a rocks glass, so be it. He says, “I’ll put it in a red solo cup and dump it in my shoe, and you can drink it out of my shoe if you want to. I don’t care. It’s your money. It’s your drink.”
Darwin agrees, "If you order a drink in the wrong glass, because that makes you more comfortable, then it's all good. But do it because it's what you want, not because you think other people are judging you.” At craft beer bars, she often asks how they serve a beer, but she’s doing it for the opposite reason. She says, “I want to make sure it’s served in the proper glassware. I find a lot of places are so aware of this phenomenon that they have started to serve really high-quality, expensive beer in improper glassware so that the glassware doesn’t scare people away. I would get a Dogfish Head 90-Minute served to me in a mason jar. A big part of the appeal of a 90-Minute is that is smells incredible and you can savor it, but you can’t savor it in a mason jar.”
Whether it’s the idea that hard liquor is for men or that a martini glass is “girly,” how can we move past these gendered limitations and drink with an open mind? When Olsen sees people drinking stereotypically, he addresses it by encouraging them to try something new. “When they finish the drink, I’m quick to say, ‘Can I offer you another beverage? Do you want something along the same lines or do you want to get a little bit more adventurous?’” He adds, “It always works better with a second person, because they always look at each other and the other person’s like ‘Yeah, go for it.’ I will always lead with something that’s guaranteed to be a banger—something I’ve made thousands of times, and everybody’s always liked it. It’s a little more elevated than the last thing they had, with ingredients that make sense to them.” He believes that when bartenders push the envelope in a friendly way, they educate the customers, while also giving them a unique experience and making the night more memorable.
Are we moving toward a future of gender equality in bars? Darwin says that’s the hope, but adds, “There are so many different factors that either allow you a lot of freedom with how you express your gender or give you reason to be really concerned about making sure that you’re presenting in a particular way, often times out of safety concerns, because you just don’t know—especially in a setting where people are intoxicated. You need to be careful. In this political moment, people are even more aware of that, and if they are vulnerable due to one of those things, they might be even more guarded about what they visually convey when they’re in a public setting with alcohol.”
One positive sign that we’re moving toward genderless drinks is the rise of fruit-forward IPAs. Darwin says, “That is mixing the most feminine beer profile taste with the most masculine beer type, and I think that’s where we see the two gender binaries coming together.” Let’s raise a glass and toast to a future where everyone drinks what they want.