The Ladies Disrupting the Bartender Boys’ Club
The speakeasy trend that birthed the craft cocktail renaissance was ushered in, and remains almost wholly represented, by a particular bartender type. You know him: The mustachioed man, whose bowtie and suspenders (the go-to uniform for serious mixologists) signals his authority on how to drink.
There really isn’t a female equivalent.
But while the face of the industry may be covered with a neatly shorn mouth brow from a bygone era, creative and technically skilled women bartenders are gaining acceptance in the craft cocktail world. Still, taking their rightful place behind the bar comes with a unique set of challenges. From confronting an industry with an ingrained prejudice against the fairer sex to making hard choices about relationships and motherhood, these newly visible women are paving the way for lady bartenders to come and carrying on the fight for inclusion in the world’s second-oldest profession.
Barmaid bashing has a decades-long history. In the mid-20th century, male bartenders and the unions that represented them went after the women who they felt threatened them as potential rivals; politicians and moral crusaders, for their part, long preached that women should be prohibited from the vocation both for their own good and for the good of society (though somehow serving booze from trays as cocktail waitresses didn’t add to the moral decay).
An incomplete modern history of ladies behind the bar goes like this: Barmaids were needed during World War II, but, as with many jobs, the boys wanted their spots back when they returned. In a 1945 statement against the 1,000 women bartending in New York at the time, one union leader said, “Women should not be permitted to work as barmaids. We want them where they belong—at home."
In 1948, the Supreme Court upheld a Michigan law that prohibited women from bartending, which could “give rise to moral and social problems” unless said workers were the wife or daughter of the bar’s owner. Until the late 1960s, more than half of the U.S. states had laws on the books prohibiting women from tending bar.
The women’s rights movement meant an end to workplace discrimination for women, but the mindset that barmaids just don’t, and never will, belong still persists. It’s grounded in the belief that women lack the artistry to make a proper drink; can’t talk as well as their male counterparts; flirt too much; and have smaller, weaker frames that fail them when fights break out.
These days, women make up almost 60 percent of working bartenders. But one step into a New York City speakeasy-style bar is proof that the leaders of the craft cocktail renaissance are still too-often men. But there’s a group of lady bartenders working to change that.
Over happy hour, I met with six of New York City’s best bartenders—who just happen to be women. Jillian Vose, 29, head bartender at The Dead Rabbit; Eryn Reece, 31, bar manager at Death & Co; Natasha David, 28, co-owner and head bartender at Nitecap; Natalie Jacob, 27, bartender at Dutch Kills; Pamela Wiznitzer, 29, bartender at The Dead Rabbit; and Tonia Guffey, 30, talked with me over drinks at the bar Guffey manages, DRAM. Over a few hours and several rounds, the group filled me on on what its like to be a woman behind bars, including the lingering industry sexism, how mustaches and suspenders are ruining everything, and why there’s no such thing as a girly drink.
Is it difficult to be a woman in this field?
Vose: It’s getting better. The guys I know don’t look down on us as much anymore.
Wiznitzer: I think of it as an advantage actually. Five years ago was difficult, but now a bar doesn’t want to open unless they have an awesome powerhouse female on the staff.
David: I’ve been bartending now for almost eleven years and I got into craft cocktail about five years ago. Back then, it was really hard, but I was fortunate enough to have three amazing mentors who were all females, the first women who were pushing really hard for women to be able to bartend in these kinds of bars, these cocktail bars where the stereotype was the speakeasy with men in suspenders and mustaches. And that really was how all the bars were marketing themselves.
Guffey: A lot of us have been at our places for as long as we have because there’s an allegiance to the people that propped you up when other places weren’t hiring women, and just didn’t. Those places that were like “Oh, you guys have tits. You should be in dive bars opening beers and looking cute.” Most of us all have some mentor that didn’t have those reservations and those places are in our hearts.
So how are men and women bartenders different?
Jacob: As a woman, you have to do your job a hundred times better. You have to work harder. You have to keep your head down.
Wiznitzer: I never looked at it like a gender thing; I just thought, you put in your time and advance to the next level. Whether a guy or girl, it’s do you have the will, the desire and drive? Some people think they’re just so wonderful because they’ve read five cocktail books. Well, I’m sorry, I don’t know who you think you are, but I want to slap you and say start at the bottom and work your way up.
Guffey: It’s like trying to sous-vide an egg before you can make an omelet. You want to skip everything—like you don’t know how to make a fucking daiquiri, but you infused your own chartreuse—and it’s like why are you trying to make a cocktail menu when you don’t even know how to make a proper margarita? It’s just silly. And I feel bad for people that have only worked in cocktail bars, it’s so precious.
David: We’re in a bit of a fortunate position because we’re a few of the women who’ve been in those jobs, and someone gave us an opportunity and believed in us and let us move forward, whereas a lot of women don’t get that opportunity.
Guffey: But somebody doesn’t just walk into your bar and go, “Hey, sir, I’ve got a proposition for you!”
Wiznitzer: Everyone’s just hoping for a Cinderella story and that’s not gonna happen, like in any industry, and especially, especially not this industry. This industry is all about hard work and rewards.
Vose: Just put the time in. I’ve loved where I’ve worked. I’m not really proud of everywhere I’ve worked, but I wouldn’t be bartending today if I didn’t do all those things, take all those steps: you know, cleaning the puke and the bathroom, breaking up fights, I’ve done it all.
Whoa. Breaking up fights?
All: Oh yeah. Yes.
Vose: Breaking up fights is the best. It’s like, “C’mon, you’re not going to hit me.”
Wiznitzer: I love kicking people out. You can always get between two guys ‘cause they’re not gonna hit a girl. It’s actually a huge power move, and I’ve done it many times where I get in between two guys, where he was about to wind up, but he stopped. And it’s “Bye. Get out.”
So are you going to be bartenders forever?
Guffey: The awesome thing about craft bartending is that there’s always somewhere further for you to go. Whether you want to manage a bar or own your own bar or work with friends or write about it. It’s not like it used to be, where you told your parents, “I’m a bartender” and they were like “Yeah, that’s fine, you’re 24, but what are you going to do when you’re 30?”
David: Bartending is a career now. Not to brag, but I just bought a house. My husband and I, we’re both bartenders, and we just bought a house. This is a viable career, and you can have a future. There’s a misconception that we’re always all drunk, living paycheck to paycheck and we don’t have any structure in our life, and that is not true. You can have security in your life.
Vose: You can have kids, own a car, you can have a 401K. You can do all those things.
Guffey: And it’s about knowledge now, not just looking good. Your age doesn’t define how long you can last as a bartender, for a girl especially. You don’t have to be a 25-year-old kid.
But okay, you’re all beautiful women…
Wiznitzer: But you don’t have to be good-looking! Makeup and dark light looks great on anyone. At the end of the day, it’s more about your personality. When you’re looking for bartenders, you’re not necessarily looking at aesthetics. And I know some gorgeous people who are horrible, just absolutely terrible. Terrible.
David: I would actually argue that looking a certain way in the craft bartending world as a woman makes it harder.
Vose: You get judged, like “You can’t make a drink because you’re cute.”
Guffey: The outsider does see it that way. Even some of the clientele don’t trust a female behind the bar. People will go up to my barback, or the chef, who is clearly cooking, and ask questions about the menu before they’ll come to me.
Reece: I still have people who will ask me to go tell the bartender to make me something, and I’m like, “I’m clearly standing behind the bar.”
Jacob: It’s because there’s a perception that women can’t do as good of a job as a man. And that’s not just in bartending; that’s in everything.
Wiznitzer: But if you go to Death & Co, you know there are always females behind the bar, but some people who might not know that would be like “I’m going to see those mustache guys” because they have this perception of what our world is like and they don’t actually know.”
Vose: If any...Even if our mustache guys acted like a mustache guy, I would slap the shit out of them.
What’s with the mustaches?
Guffey: It’s a media thing. When the industry did break out, when this small thing became so trendy, the media played up the speakeasy—mustachioed man, vest, armguards—and so that’s the image that people have. They have no reference point other than seeing the Mad Men dudes, or reading one article on Milk and Honey, and like a mustache.
David: This whole conversation is just “Mustaches are making it really hard for us.”
Wiznitzer: F U Tom Selleck.
Guffey: I make fun of the vest thing, but that’s only because I worked in it for two and a half years. Then [DRAM] opened, and we were like “Fuck this, fuck your mustaches, and we’re gonna wear fucking metal t-shirts and play fucking Wu-Tang and still make really amazing drinks. And that trend has actually really taken off. Now even the more precious bars are starting to have more indie music instead of fucking jazz or boring, elevator music, and like a more relaxed vibe where the staff is drinking, and hanging out. It’s nice.
And more women are working in these less precious bars?
David: Well women bartenders are in such high demand, but it’s really hard to find them. I just put my staff together, and I wanted to have women behind my bar. It’s incredibly important to me, and I’m finding it’s really hard.
Wiznitzer: It is hard. Even though there is extremely high demand right now. When the Dead Rabbit opened, they were extremely adamant that the downstairs staff be comprised mostly of females and the upstairs have a few females on staff, like very very adamant about it.
Why is it so hard to find them?
Vose: They don’t quite have the level of skills.
Wiznitzer: When I talk about women behind the bar, it’s important to know that it’s hard for us to create a career out of this. For instance, a wonderful, amazingly accomplished bartender in Kansas City had a baby last year, and I followed her journey. She bartended up until like six months into her pregnancy, but at some point, you can’t do that with this big bump here, and then afterwards you’re pregnant and take time off. When you’re a bartender, you don’t have vacation days, so if you choose not to do work, you don’t get paid. If you’re a bartender and you have a child, it means that you are without work.
Reece: Then you don’t have a job when you come back, and most of the time, they’ve given it to someone else.
Wiznitzer: Some bars are willing to say, “Of course, you’re part of the family,” but some bars, it’s like that’s it. If you decide to have a child, it changes everything, like who’s going to be there for the child if your hours are odd. You can’t be there at nighttime when the kid needs to be fed and rocked to sleep. It creates this whole other level of dilemmas if you want to be a female bartender career-wise.
David: That’s my biggest conflict in life.
Guffey: That’s the trajectory though. It puts a lot of pressure on you as well as a female in this industry because you feel like [you] have a timeline and that you have to follow it. If I want to have a child, I know that in the next five years, I need to own a bar, or have some kind of move in my career where I’m a consultant or something.
David: I know I’m going to have to take time off. I know I’m not going to be able to bartend at nine months pregnant. I want to take maternity leave. I want to be with my baby and not have to go to work.
Wiznitzer: I’m gonna have a bar baby.
Vose: For me, it’s like shit, well, I’m still single, because I work so much. I can’t even find a guy--
Jacob: Me too.
Vose: That worries me a little. I don’t want it to jeopardize my future as being a, maybe a mom or getting married.
Jacob: If we don’t get married, it’s going to be okay. I already have too many cats.
Guffey: My boyfriend’s in the industry. He’s a chef and he doesn’t think about that stuff. It’s definitely something that is only a big burden on women.
What’s it like for women outside individual bars, in the overall industry?
Reece: There’s Speedrack, which was a reaction to Rematch Beeyatch, which is essentially a male-dominated speed competition, a bunch of men getting together, getting fucked up in a bar, trying to make drinks really fast, straining things with their hands. The ladies got together and they decided to do one that showcases women and shows how awesome they are, how well they can do it fast. All the proceeds go to breast cancer, so it’s pretty awesome.
Wiznitzer: There’s a lot going on in the industry to showcase women and to get them more involved. There are even certain brands that just don’t want to work with men at all. I just did a stint with Bailey’s, and they want a woman standing behind it.
David: But on that note, something that makes me really angry is that there’s this perception that women only drink Bailey’s. I sit in on a lot—I won’t name who—but I sit on a lot of meetings about branding spirits. It makes me really angry that they think women consumers and women in general, all they care about is low-calorie alcohol because all they care about in the end is how they look. Like we don’t drink to enjoy something. We live in this very small world where we’re all women and we drink bourbon and blahblahblah, but in Middle America, women are being targeted with low-cal, flavored vodka.
Jacob: When a woman comes up to me at my bar and says, “Give me something girly,” I’m like, “That’s very sexist of you.”
Guffey: I’d put a shot in their hands. Shit, that’s what I drink.
Wiznitzer: I say, “I can give you a drink, and it’s gonna appear in a glass, and you’re gonna love it. What are you in the mood for?” and that’s all I ask. There’s nothing gendered about any of it. Unfortunately there are books like Cocktails for Him and Her and there’s a martini with a flower on the cover of the “her” book and a bourbon drink [on] the guy’s, and it’s horrible.
David: I drink white wine spritzers and I’m not embarrassed about it.
Is there some truth to the idea that women and men like different drinks?
David: Well, women are made to believe that they’re supposed to drink certain things.
Guffey: Men, too. There was a couple drinking at Gin Palace and they ordered two cocktails. His drink comes out in a coupe, and the dude’s like “Hey man, I don’t want a girly glass.” But, I’m like, “It’s shaped like a boob! Or it’s shaped like a vagina, so why don’t you want to get in there?”
Jacob: My comeback is always that a coupe glass was supposed to be historically shaped like Marie Antoinette’s breast, so if you don’t want to drink out of a breast, I don’t know what to tell you.
Wiznitzer: How women feel when they drink, power perceptions of themselves, why they reach for another drink or why they don’t, it’s all psychologically linked. A lot of it has to do with us. When a female says to me, “I want a bourbon drink or something with scotch in it,” I don’t even react like it’s weird, or cool, or anything. When everyone makes a big deal about it, it validates the fact that it’s not normal. Instead, I just say like “How would you like it?” You can drink whatever the heck you wanna drink.
Jacob: The last time I was in Atlantic City, I sat at the Sex and the City slot machine and I ordered cosmopolitans.
Vose: It’s a good cocktail when made right.
Guffey: As long as you're not ordering bourbon to be the opposite of girly. Like, “I ordered bourbon to be a badass.” You shouldn’t feel that way either, you should just order what you like. And it’s the same for men. Like, we push men on what’s supposed to be a manly thing where they’re uncomfortable to drink out of a certain glass because they’re told that’s what girls drink out of.
Vose: It goes both ways.
Guffey: It’s hard to figure out, even with things like this, whether it’s good that we’re sitting down and talking about women in the industry or whether it’s making a point that we’re different, just reiterating the fact that we’re not the same.
Reece: We aren’t.
Wiznitzer: Well it’s interesting and wonderful because women do have a continuing presence. We’re very necessary because there are still a lot of boy’s clubs in the industry, tons of boy’s clubs.
Jacob: I’ve been the only female bartender at Dutch Kills in my three years.
Guffey: I was talking to a guy at one of these bars and he said, “We don’t hire women because you have to go through the apprenticeship. You have to barback for two years, and you have to carry kegs and stuff,” and I’m like “Um...you guys don’t even have draft beers.” But their go-go dancers? They’re definitely female.
This interview was edited and condensed.