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Anneli Rufus Headshot

Gender-Specific Drinking: A Thing of the Past?

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At a bar last week, I was offered a house-designed cocktail "dedicated," its designer said, "to all the beautiful ladies." My husband was offered a cocktail that had been created, he was told, as "something for the boys."
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Mine was a sweet clear minty moonstone-colored mixture of vodka and Sauvignon Blanc. His was dark thick blueberry- and rosemary-infused bourbon with maple syrup and a lemon twist.

That bar, District in Oakland, CA, attracts a loyal and largely female clientele. All three tables flanking ours were fully occupied by women, and what they drank was not wine. The latest biggest alcohol news is that women are getting into the hard stuff. They outnumbered men at a Four Roses Bourbon tasting this week (as depicted below) at San Francisco's Elixir Saloon, which recently acquired four private barrels of the historic potion.

Obviously this is where feminism was destined to lead -- to TV liquor ads featuring female bonding and kittens. And to outfits such as BourbonWomen, which organizes bourbon-themed tastings, tours and contests nationwide.

But if that boundary has been crossed, and as women and men now swig hard liquor in increasingly equal quantities, what happens to the idea that women and men want their liquor served in distinctly gender-specific ways? Namely, that women want theirs fruity, cute and sweet, while men say Screw that?

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Such preferences, to the extent that they persist, are partly social. The sweeter, cuter, and fruitier a drink is, the less it looks and tastes like hard liquor -- the sort of stuff chugged by sad lone men in old movies -- and the more it looks and tastes like party food, friendship, freedom and fun.

Such preferences are also partly biological. Women get drunk faster and feel drunk longer than men do -- mainly because female bodies contain only two-thirds as much alcohol dehydrogenase, the enzyme that breaks down alcohol, as male bodies even of the same size and weight. Sweet, cute, fruity cocktails feel -- often falsely -- as if they contain less alcohol than, say, Martinis or Rusty Nails. Quaffing your first White Diamond or Orange Dreamsicle, you think: Hey, this is dessert! or I could handle three of these!

"Women have zero tolerance for biting alcohols" -- that is, those with a sharp hardness that sears lips and tongue, says Gena Nonini, whose Fresno, CA-based Marian Farms produces biodynamic and organic Pisco, Curaçao, brandy and vodka. "Women prefer flavors that I prefer to call 'elegant,' but you could also say smooth. I like to drink our products straight."

Elixir's proprietor H. Joseph Ehrmann pooh-poohs the gender-drinking concept.

"People still think of whiskey drinks as 'guy drinks,' and that women prefer drinks with lots of spice and sweetness, but who's to say? When you buy into that, you're falling prey to old stereotypes," Ehrmann told me.

"I think of this preference for sweetness as an American thing rather than a woman thing."

But female biology is what sparked Ehrmann's latest project: a new range of mocktails such as the Fort Point Collins, which combines pineapple juice, soda water, and muddled basil, and the Presidio Punch #2, which combines cranberry and lemon juice with chamomile-citrus-tea syrup. Future additions will include watermelon, peaches, and other herbs and fruits -- but no alcohol, of course.

Ehrmann got the idea during a recent trip to Maui, where his pregnant fiancée sought but failed to find creative alcohol-free drinks. At even the nicest bars, "she couldn't get served anything besides Hawaiian pineapple juice and Florida orange juice," Ehrmann said.

"I realized that at my own bar, I'm equally guilty. Here I've got this produce-driven cocktail program that includes nothing for women who are pregnant or who are trying to get pregnant or who are nursing. That amounts to as much as two years of a woman's life. If you've got a palate for cocktails, you're not going to be satisfied with giving them up and drinking plain orange juice for two solid years."

Biology aside, in a world of expanding possiblities, taste transcends gender. At District, my husband and I quietly switched cocktails. He wanted the light sweet one. I wanted the dark thick one. What does that say about us?

Images created by Anneli Rufus and by Kristan Lawson, used with his permission.

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