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He Drinks, She Drinks

By ERIC FELTEN

 

 

There was a time when a man was judged by the austerity of his Martini or the phenolic wallop of the peat in his whisky. But we live in less retrograde times, when the average American male can walk into a bar and order whatever he likes -- say, an Appletini or a Lemon Drop -- without fear of ridicule. The new cocktail lounge is a refuge from stale social stereotypes, a live-and-let-live oasis of choice.

 

Fat chance.

 

In the wake of the Cosmopolitan fad fueled by "Sex and the City," girly drinks have become hard to escape. Perusing the gem-colored pseudo-Martinis that have crowded cocktail lists for a decade, you'd think that Ogden Nash -- who penned the aphorism "Candy is dandy/But liquor is quicker" -- was laboring under a false dichotomy.

 

As drinks menus have increasingly skewed toward female tastes, men have grown leery of experimenting with new concoctions. Many guys eschew the cocktail list partly because they know what they want before they walk into the bar -- an example of what Anthony Burgess called the male preference for "old pipes and torn jackets." But I also think men cling to what they know for a sense of social security -- a Jack Daniel's is a safe, embarrassment-free drink, so why order anything else? Thus a vicious circle: With men hesitant to venture onto the cocktail list, menus skew even more heavily toward female tastes.

 

This isn't much of a problem for women. They can choose to indulge in the saccharine offerings designed with them in mind, or opt for more serious drinks, all without reproach. Women who buck convention and drink gin Martinis or Scotch on the rocks raise no eyebrows -- instead, they are rightly applauded for the sophistication of their choices. But for guys, the choice brings no small risk of social stigma: If men think that they're being judged by the drinks they order, they're right.

 

"There is nothing quite so disheartening for me as to see a rugged hulky man swagger in, take a seat, and grab the girly-drink menu," writes Ty Wenzel in her memoir "Behind Bars." A fashion editor at Cosmopolitan before she turned her hand to bartending, Ms. Wenzel writes with dismay of any chiseled-faced man "sitting here having a melon martini." Delivering the cocktail to one such specimen, "I made it known to him that I have no regard for him as a man." And all the poor fellow wanted was a drink.

 

Too many of the trendy cocktails created in recent years have been either day-glo sugar bombs or double-chocolate-fudge-caramel-cream desserts in a glass. Part of the blame rests with liquor companies promoting alcoholic concoctions that aren't off-putting to newbie drinkers. Imagine that the biggest trend in wine for the past decade had been boxed blush wines, and you get some idea of the state of play in cocktails.

 

Girly drinks limit men and women both. Women get lulled into the habit of drinking cocktails that don't taste like, well, drinks. And for men, it's even worse: In their haste to avoid anything that smacks of the emasculating girly-drink taint, they deny themselves the great adventure of exploring cocktails in all their variety. They're both missing out. The recent revival of interest in classic cocktails presents a long-overdue opportunity to break out of the tyranny of the girly, giving men the freedom to order mixed drinks without shame and women the chance to order drinks worthy of grown-ups.

 

 

There are men ordering trendy drinks, but they tend to be nervous and furtive about it. As Lucy Brennan puts it, "a lot of grown men don't want to be seen with a pink-colored Martini in their hand." Ms. Brennan is the owner and resident cocktail guru of Mint/820 in Portland, Ore. "I do see men having Guava Cosmos," she allows, "but they'll have it on the rocks" to disguise it.

 

That will never fool Frank Kelly Rich, editor of Modern Drunkard Magazine, a monthly tongue-in-cheek paean to the manly drinking arts. His "86 Rules of Boozing" includes this iron law: "Drink one girly drink in public and you will forever be known as the guy who drinks girly drinks."

 

All this talk of lasses and their glasses drives Audrey Saunders crazy. Proprietor of the serious cocktail joint Pegu Club in New York, she rejects the whole idea that men and women go for different sorts of cocktails. "I see women drinking a lot of sophisticated drinks," she says. True enough. The gender divide here is one of percentages, not strict sex segregation. But that doesn't mean the differences don't exist. Plenty of women like Schwarzenegger pics, and there is no shortage of men who enjoy Charlotte Bronte film adaptations; but that doesn't mean there's no such thing as a "guy movie" or a "chick flick."

 

Ms. Brennan strives to include some specialty drinks on her Mint/820 bar menu that men will enjoy without embarrassment, for example the Mr. 820, Boodles gin shaken with rosemary (which is decidedly savory rather than sweet) and served with none of that sugared rim nonsense, thank you very much. But there's no missing the cocktails Ms. Brennan has contrived with women in mind. Take the Sweet Love: Kahlua, banana-flavored rum, coffee and whipped cream, topped with Mexican chocolate and labeled with one of the amorous monikers generally required of the genre -- Ms. Brennan says it "is definitely the ladies' favorite after-dinner drink."

 

You can be pretty sure that if a cocktail's name even hints at love, it's a girly drink. The bar at the Rio Hotel in Las Vegas has its Brazilian Love Potion (light rum, strawberries, pineapple, sugar syrup and lime juice). The cocktail menu at BLT Prime in New York features Aphrodite's Potion (champagne, "fresh berry melange" and blackberries). OneSixtyBlue in Chicago offers L'amour (chocolate vodka, Chambord and Frangelico). Or how about just plain Amour (espresso, Amaretto, brown sugar and whipped cream) at David Burke at Bloomingdale's in New York?

 

Cheers, a magazine for the restaurant and bar industry, regularly does surveys to find out who is drinking what, and where. Recently it asked Middle American men and women their favorite mixed drinks. The top seven male drinks were Rum and Coke, Screwdriver, Gin and Tonic, Seven & 7, bourbon on the rocks, (Gin) Martini, and Scotch and Soda. And women's favorites? Margarita, Pina Colada, Daiquiri, Vodka and Cranberry, Cosmopolitan (but of course), Mudslide and Sea Breeze.

 

It turns out that women's taste for sugary drinks is in keeping with the general female taste for sweets. "The majority of foods women crave -- some 60% -- are sweet," says Marcie Pelchat, of the Monell Chemical Senses Center, a research institute in Philadelphia. Only 40% of the foods men crave are sweet. And women also have a greater sensitivity -- and thus aversion -- to bitterness and irritants. Since alcohol is perceived as both bitter and burning, it's no wonder that many "women like a sweet masking-agent," says Dr. Pelchat.

 

As women get older, however, they tend to kick the sugar habit. It is those of childbearing age who crave sweet things, which leads Dr. Pelchat to think "there may be a relationship between ovarian hormones and sensitivity to bitterness." There is some sense, then, in the slang "girly drink," with its imputation that these concoctions are preferred not just by women, but by young women.

 

Ever since modern American women started drinking in public about a century ago, there have been cocktails designed to appeal to them. The Cafe des Beaux Arts opened in Manhattan in 1913 as a bar specifically for women. The drinks the ladies ordered were not the same ones in demand at, say, the Men's Bar at the Waldorf: "The women differ from the men in this -- they don't care so much about the taste of the drink as they do about the color of it," the cafe's owner, Louis Bustanoby, told the New York Times a few months after opening. "They want it to match the color of their costumes or the color of their eyes."

 

So, too, today. Kim Haasarud runs Liquid Architecture, a cocktail consultancy in Los Angeles. She recently created a roster of drinks for a party being thrown by "Vagina Monologues" author Eve Ensler. The guests were almost all women, and the cocktails were conceived accordingly. Among the concoctions was a sweet, bright pink "Martini," garnished with a flower. "At any event, people spend a lot of time with a drink in their hands," says Ms. Haasarud. "It helps if the drink looks good with what they're wearing." The cocktail's name? The Vagini.

 

In her 1930 cocktail book, "Shake 'Em Up," Virginia Elliott bemoans the "tender young things" of her sex, who "prefer complicated pink and creamy drinks which satisfy their beastly appetite for sweets and at the same time offer an agreeable sense of sinfulness." Dry Martinis are wasted on them, she suggests: "If you have any creme de menthe or creme de cocoa about the house, make them up some kind of a mess of it and push them under the piano to suck on it."

 

Esquire's 1949 "Handbook for Hosts" included a pair of lists: "Something for the Girls" and "Something for the Boys." The masculine cocktails all involved whiskey; the feminine selection leaned heavily on cream, fruit juices and creme de this-and-that.

 

There are plenty of modern girly drinks with cream, but the template for our times is the Cosmopolitan, which inspired a whole generation of like-minded girly-Martinis that have dominated cocktail lists for a decade. The Cosmo was invented in the mid-1980s by Cheryl Cook, a bartender in Miami's South Beach. She noticed that "women were ordering Martinis just to have a drink in that classic glass," but they didn't actually like how the drink tasted. So she set about making a drink that was "pretty and pretty tasty too." The cocktail she came up with was citrus vodka, triple sec, Rose's lime juice and a splash of cranberry served straight up.

 

The near-ubiquity of Cosmo-inspired girly drinks can make them hard to avoid. "Suave gentlemen are canvassing a menu for anything that doesn't scream Sissy-Boy -- but can't find it," laments Ms. Wenzel, the bartender/author.

 

The feminine influence over the drinks menu isn't exactly new, nor does it need to be regrettable. "It was indubitably the inquiring, adventuring quality of the female mind and the roaming and ravenous interest of the feminine palate that brought the cocktail out of its swaddling clothes into this present vast wardrobe of drink," wrote Crosby Gaige in his 1941 "Cocktail Guide and Ladies' Companion." "Had the cocktail been left to muddling males it would probably have achieved its alpha and omega with the Dry Martini, the Old Fashioned, the Manhattan, and the Daiquiri."

 

Indeed, the feminine palate is capable of far more than "girly drinks" give it credit for. Annabel Meikle leads tasting panels for the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in Edinburgh. Though she admits that women "generally have a slightly sweeter tooth," she finds that once they give whisky a chance they "have a more discerning palate, which makes them better equipped to pick up more subtle nuances of flavor." They're also more perceptive of the whiskies' other qualities. "Women look at, and care more about, the color of the dram," Ms. Meikle says. Asked to describe the color of a given whisky, men tend to give "rubbish descriptors," she says, "like 'whisky-colored.'" By contrast, women will make fine color distinctions, and "generally use hair-color terms, like blonde and auburn."

 

Francois, the bartender at the old Cafe des Beaux Arts, would have agreed: "Women are the only people who understand the artistry of mixed drinks. Men pretend to, and use a great deal of language explaining how a mint julep should be made or how much gin should be used in this or that kind of cocktail, but they are all bluffers," he said back in 1913. "But the women are different. The artistic sense that is inherent in all of them extends to drinks as well as to everything else."

 

We may finally be witnessing the last gasps of the Cosmo and its progeny. More and more bars are anchoring their drinks lists with classic cocktails, the best of which -- whether a Manhattan, a Negroni, or an Old Fashioned -- are balanced enough to bridge the gender divide. But there's always room for new cocktails, and the challenge isn't just one for the bartenders. Women who have indulged their sweet tooth at the bar can make an effort to join their more sophisticated sisters who have learned to appreciate cocktails that actually taste of alcohol. And men who have sought safety in the same old same-old can take a chance on the new -- giving mixologists more reason to take masculine tastes into account.

 

With any luck, men and women will find it easier to get together over a drink -- the same drink, that is.