Spirits: Pittsburgh's bartenders of the other gender

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Men, it's fair to say, are the majority force behind Pittsburgh's most ambitious restaurant kitchens. But behind the stick, it's women who are driving many of the city's ingredient-inspired cocktail programs and spirits menus. Perhaps that seems like groundless gender trivia in this, an enlightened millennial age, but then again, perhaps it is not when set against the back-bar of America's complicated imbibing history.

For women bartenders, it's been a long path; through much of the last century, bartending, like so many other occupations, was off-limits. Before World War II, women rarely tended bar. When the men left for battle, women took their places for a few years -- but when the men returned, they wanted their jobs back, and they were supported by a strange political alliance of trade unions, religious folk and lawmakers, all of whom thought that women ought not be pouring whiskey and serving beer.

Michigan in 1945 passed legislation making it illegal for a woman to mix drinks, unless she was a relative of the bar's owner (a law that did not seem to contemplate the notion that a woman may actually someday own a bar). Chicago's American Federation of Labor chapter got women barred as bartenders in 1946. In 1948, Ogden, Utah, town fathers ruled that women bartenders appealed to men's "lower morals" and were outlawed. California, until 1971, had a law that barred women from "pouring whisky," according to Eric Felten, cocktail expert and the author of the "How's Your Drink?" column in the Wall Street Journal.

Other cities and states did the same, only to see the rules overturned by courts. In 1972, Kentucky's ban on women bartenders was declared void -- the same law prohibited women from ordering a mixed drink at the bar (but they were allowed to drink one at their tables).

But "by the mid-1970s, women had conquered any question of their suitability for the noble profession of bartending, especially when the Holiday Inn chain discovered that bar revenues went up when a cheerful young woman was doing the mixing," Mr. Felten writes, and their exclusion from American bartending duty began to slowly unwind itself.

Still, it was often considered a novelty when it happened: In 1971, the Milwaukee Sentinel reported that a Milwaukee suburb had put its "first female bartender," 31-year-old Judith Ann Mulhern, on the tap ("She has a real nice photograph," the chairman of the licensing committee said). In Atlanta, a newspaper reporter marveled at a "small, dimly lit bar that has one major distinction: It has a woman bartender ... an attractive, 24-year-old brunette [who] is only five feet two and a slim 105 pounds." Pennsylvania, which banned women barmaids in 1941, lifted that ban in 1967, at which time the Associated Press lamented that taverns had gone "co-educational," and that men could no longer count on the bar to be a place to kvetch about the wife, "a second refuge, [a] home away from women."

But that was then. Today, maybe regarding the female "craft" bartender as a noteworthy species is sexist at its core -- "Say, look! Women can mix drinks, too!" Yet it's hard to escape the notion that some trades are historically more male-dominated than others, and bartending is one of them, here and elsewhere (you'll note that Delhi, India, lifted its century-old ban on women bartenders just two years ago). And while women have been mixing gin gimlets and cracking open bottles of Coors Light for several decades in the U.S., their elevation to the position of mixologist, or bar chef, or bar director (or whatever it is you'd like to call the bartender-in-chief these days) is, in fact, a relatively new development -- if partly because the "craft" cocktail scene is nascent as well.

"Anyone can be a 'career' bartender, even if that means pouring 25-cent drafts at a VFW, and there is no shame in that game," said Summer Voelker, bartender at Salt of the Earth. "A 'craft' bartender just spends more time researching, looking for the perfect spirits, creating syrups and tinctures, sourcing markets for local or exotic produce, measuring everything to the dash and quarter-ounce, and spending days on perfecting one balanced cocktail."

While there is indeed no shame in slinging beers, being a "craft" bartender implies a certain wide-ranging knowledge about liquor, cocktails and modern mixology -- a knowledge, many people still suppose, that young women don't have, or don't care to obtain.

"I can't tell you how many times I've been approached by a customer who said, 'You probably don't know how to make a Manhattan, do you?' " said Kiersten Schilinski, bartender at Meat & Potatoes and Dish Osteria. Or, " 'You don't look like an IPA girl.' ... 'Let me tell you how to make a gin martini.' It's incredibly frustrating, and a bit offensive.

"Customers, especially middle-aged or older men, see a woman behind the bar and automatically assume we know nothing, we're just there to sell booze and look pretty," she said. "It just makes me work much harder to produce great drinks."

Women can be additionally handicapped by their age in that they have less time to learn the craft. It's acceptable to see a man of any generation behind the bar -- Angelo Cammarata, whom the Guinness Book of World Records recognized as the world's longest-serving bartender, poured drinks at his West View bar for more than seven decades -- but "there sometimes is a negative perception of older women bartenders, and I think that may cause a lot of women to quit the profession before they truly have a chance to master their trade," said RaeLynn Harshman, bartender at Dish Osteria in the South Side.

And then there are the unavoidable anatomical handicaps.

"Our boobs get in the way. We've all knocked over bottles of liquor with them, I promise you," said Jessicarobyn Keyser, the general manager at Union Pig & Chicken. More seriously, she noted that "I honestly think women are held to a different -- if not higher -- standard than men, however sweeping a generalization that might seem. ... Our bars should be cleaner and more organized, we should always be chirpy and friendly, our drinks should be delicate. No one ever seems to be prepared for the fact that a female bartender can accurately describe and recommend a good beer."

The women interviewed observed that, while some of these career hurdles doubtlessly exist, they may exist to a lesser degree in Pittsburgh, where the cocktail culture is not yet as mature -- or, perhaps, pretentious -- as in other cities, said Heather Perkins, who has tended bar in other cities, and has been in Pittsburgh for two years. She is now the restaurant and bar manager at Spoon and BRGR, and is running the new cocktail program at Manor Theatre in Squirrel Hill.

"Nobody really takes themselves too seriously, especially with all the 'mixology' hype," she said. "Yet everyone is trying to progress the cocktail culture" and improve the scene.

As a result, Pittsburgh's cocktail scene isn't particularly fixated on gender and handlebar mustaches (though it may be unfair to accuse other cities of the same, given the wealth of fantastic women bartenders, from Lu Brow in New Orleans to Audrey Saunders of New York City's Pegu Club to Boston's Misty Kalkofen to London-born Charlotte Voisey). Notably, the first president of the newly formed Pittsburgh chapter of the U.S. Bartender's Guild -- now with 50 members, 18 of whom are women -- is Maggie Meskey, bartender at Salt of the Earth.

"Our industry has an enormously supportive community here in Pittsburgh," she said. "I've also seen the same thing from my friends in the industry in bigger cities. We all know that we can grow and better ourselves and our careers by learning from our peers, our mentors and our role models."


Bill Toland: btoland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2625. For spirits and cocktail news, follow him on Twitter @btoland_pg. First Published June 7, 2012 4:00 AM


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