Manly Men Versus Vodka Sodas: The Gender Baggage of Booze

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Last week, journalist Becky Paskin posted a Twitter thread about Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible, an influential book that’s published annual editions since 2003. In it, Paskin outlined several particularly cringeworthy lines from the latest volume.

“Have I had this much fun with a sexy 41-year-old Canadian before? Well, yes I have. But it was a few years back now and it wasn’t a whisky. Was the fun we had better? Probably not,” reads Murray’s description of a Canadian Club whisky.

And, in a review of a Glenmorangie bottle, “If whisky could be sexed, this would be a woman. Every time I encounter Morangie Artisan, it pops up with a new look, a different perfume. And mood. It appears not to be able to make up its mind. But does it know how to pout, seduce and win your heart…? Oh yes.”

For many in the industry, it’s not entirely surprising that one writer was comfortable putting his byline on casually misogynistic copy. What’s more disappointing is that multiple editors, marketers and other publishing professionals either had no problem with it or couldn’t make their concerns heard.

That might be because the language in The Whisky Bible isn’t isolated. In bars and media, alcohol often gets pegged with stereotypes that are damaging and deeply weird. To portray drinks as “girly” or “manly” may seem harmless to some writers or drinkers, but all stereotypes have consequences.

‘Real Men Drink Whiskey’

Lynn House is the national spirits specialist and portfolio mixologist for Heaven Hill brands, which include Elijah Craig Bourbon and Rittenhouse Rye, among others. She’s worked with Heaven Hill for seven years but, before all that, she was a bartender in Chicago. She created the cocktail list for the Michelin-starred Blackbird restaurant where, one day, a customer came in and asked her to get him the bartender.

“‘I am the bartender,’ ” House told him. He requested she make him something that she wouldn’t drink. “The assumption was, I guess, as a woman, or as a person of color, that I would only drink super sweet things,” House recalls. “So, I made him a vodka soda.”

She wasn’t putting him on. House is a whiskey drinker, weaned on Bourbon since her childhood in Bowling Green, Kentucky. She likes Tequila, Cognac and aged rum, too. “‘I don’t drink vodka sodas,’ ” she remembers telling her customer, “‘So I gave you what you asked for.’ ” He stuttered, and House kindly allowed him to start their exchange over.

“That’s just one of a handful of stories I could tell you about people making assumptions about who you are, what you drink and what you know.”

Lynn House Heaven Hill
Lynn House, national spirits specialist and portfolio mixologist for Heaven Hill brands / Photo courtesy of Heaven Hill

In the binary world of gendered alcohol, vodka sodas, with their low calorie counts and allegedly unchallenging-to-nonexistent flavors, are coded feminine. Other “girly” drinks often include fruity tropical cocktails, rosé and anything involving elderflower liqueur.

Whiskey, on the other hand, aligns with machismo. On the show Parks & Recreation, this phenomenon is embodied by the character Ron Swanson, a white, heterosexual, middle-aged, mustachioed male played by real-life Lagavulin enthusiast Nick Offerman. In addition to his penchant for woodworking and emotional remove, Ron demonstrates his masculinity with his affinity for Scotch whisky.

“Whiskeys and Bourbons are considered ‘manly’ spirits,” says Sarah McCoy, bartender at Tony’s Corner Pocket in Houston, Texas. Both categories have made inroads to “become more gender-inclusive…appealing to females as well as queer spaces,” she adds.

But what seven seasons of Ron Swanson’s Lagavulin or 17 editions of Jim Murray’s prose show is that this concept is entrenched. Whiskey has long been marketed as liquified masculinity, served on the rocks in a heavy-bottomed glass. Or, better yet, enjoyed neat in a room with a fireplace and many leather-bound books, per Anchorman’s Scotch-drinking Ron Burgundy.

“When I was young, I was like, ‘I need to drink whiskey because that’s what manly men drink,’ ” says bartender Justin Golash. He recalls how, early in his career, a cool-seeming male regular told him, “Real men drink whiskey.” It was formative, says Golash. Then in his early twenties, he adjusted his drink preferences accordingly.

“I’ve evolved since then,” he says.

Golash has worked at two whiskey-centric bars in Washington, D.C. He notices “men egging other men on” about whether their orders are masculine enough. “I also see cocktails getting gendered, where you have people who refuse to drink out of glasses with stems because they think that’s not manly.”

Portland, Oregon bartender Joshua Madrid has seen similar behavior among all-male groups of drinkers at Multnomah Whiskey Library, which has a 1,500-bottle spirit collection.

“Working at a whiskey bar that has a sizable Scotch portfolio, I often hear men calling each other out if one of them isn’t able to handle peated whisky,” says Madrid. “I’ve heard such things as, ‘Oh, didn’t notice you were wearing a skirt’ when their fellow male guests declined a peated whisky and instead chose from another spirit category altogether.”

That man might just opt not to order a whiskey that night. Or, he might disavow the one-upmanship of whiskey culture for life. For whiskey brands, this presents a serious disadvantage in a competitive industry where vodka is the top-selling spirit with nearly a third of domestic market share. Whiskey, always the bridesmaid, comes in at 24%.

Women Who Whiskey
Julia Ritz Toffoli, far left, at a Women Who Whiskey Kilbeggan event / Photo by Daphne Youree

Whiskey Women Will Break Your Heart

The intricacies of booze-adjacent masculinity create complications for female whiskey drinkers. The inverse of the Scotch-swilling manly man is the whiskey woman. She’s hard-drinking and hypersexualized, a knockout with a rocks glass in a perfectly manicured hand.

In her essay “Let Us Now Retire the Whiskey Woman,” Courtney Balestier describes the titular archetype as “eternally sitting in a bar with leather armchairs and flattering lighting, waiting for you to ask if she wants to get out of here. Or maybe she asks you, because she is drinking whiskey and therefore she is tough (but not too tough) and powerful (but not more powerful than you). She is always sexy, always game, always thirsty.”

The stereotype celebrates heterosexual and femme women for liking a so-called manly spirit. Their proximity to manhood makes them seem cooler and worthier of respect than if they’d stuck to feminine predilections, like vodka sodas or needlework. As Jim Beam and Johnnie Walker spokespeople Mila Kunis and Christina Hendricks intimate, whiskey amplifies sex appeal, too—though generally only if the female drinkers in question would already be considered attractive by patriarchal conventions.

This Jessica-Rabbit-with-a-dram fantasy has real-life ramifications.

Julia Ritz Toffoli moved to New York City ten years ago, and was excited to explore the local bar scene. Whenever she ordered or expressed interest in whiskey, however, she received unsolicited comments from male patrons.

“They would say things like, ‘Oh that’s a strong drink for a little lady! Are you sure you can handle it?’ or ‘Wouldn’t you rather have some wine?’ or even the more sexist versions, ‘Oh, if you like whiskey, I wonder what else you like?’ ” she recalls.

It was off-putting, but Ritz Toffoli was determined to create space for herself in whiskey. She already knew she liked the spirit. So, she formed Women Who Whiskey, a community of female-identifying whiskey enthusiasts, and hosts bar crawls and educational events. The group now has 10,000 members worldwide.

Houston Bartender Sarah McCoy
Bartender Sarah McCoy. Photo by Sebastian Gutierrez / Photo courtesy of Sarah McCoy

Drinking whiskey is meant to be enjoyable, and yet few females can do it without unsolicited commentary or unwitting participation in a reductive meme. It’s a lot of baggage for one drink order to carry.

“I chalk the heteronormative perceptions the same way I perceive ‘You throw like a girl,’ ” says McCoy. “It’s meant to be demeaning, or a negative reference toward females. I usually respond with, ‘Thank you.’ ”

Ritz Toffoli believes that being sexualized, tokenized or otherwise put upon turns some potential female whiskey drinkers away from the category.

“If you’re the product you can’t also be the consumer,” she says. “That’s something we’re trying to get away from because we are the consumer. We’re consuming whiskey and we’re enjoying it. And we’re not here for anyone else’s consumption of an idealized woman, who is only idealized because she defies expectations of what a woman is.”

Cancellations and Renewal

The stereotypes that accompany whiskey are also bad for business.

“As an industry, we have historically overlooked everyone but the straight white male,” says House. “That’s the perceived audience of who whiskey drinkers are.” But groups like Black Bourbon Society and Bourbon Women present strong counterarguments, she notes.

And the buying power of other demographic groups is staggering. According to Nielsen data, Black Americans have $1.3 trillion annual spending power and Latinx consumers in the U.S. wield $1.5 trillion. The Advocate reports that LGBTQ spending power topped $917 billion in 2017.

To ignore or alienate such sizable markets is a political decision that affects companies’ bottom lines. Critics might decry Paskin’s tweets as “cancel culture,” but unexamined paradigms hurt the drinks business more than Twitter ever could.

Since Paskin tweeted, prominent brands and like Beam Suntory issued statements that disavow Murray’s sexist language. It’s heartening to see this support, if unfortunate that a freelance writer without the formal backing of a publication or institution had to initiate the response.

The Underground Spaces Where Drinking While Female Was a Radical Act

What comes next? Hopefully, companies will remember The Whisky Bible controversy and think more pluralistically about the marketplace. Hiring, promoting, representing and engaging with people of different gender identities, ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientations will only strengthen the industry.

It will make it easier for bartenders to earn their living, too.

“If you have a guy in the bar who thinks he has to drink the heaviest overproof rye you have, and then he can’t hang?” says Golash. “He only has one drink and leaves. But he probably would have crushed, like, four strawberry daiquiris.”

Published on September 28, 2020
Topics: Drinks