You Can’t Grow a Moustache* - and other reasons why it’s great to be a woman in the spirits industry

by Francine Cohen

There’s a prayer, chanted by many observant Jewish men each morning, which essentially thanks God for not making them women. 

No matter the rationale behind the prayer, it’s just one example of how this community separates the sexes; assigning traditional roles to men and women from which they shouldn’t (or shouldn’t want to) stray.  Not an observant Jew yourself?  Still, you probably acknowledge (whether you admit it publicly or not) the differences between the sexes.

The music industry sure does, and boy is it thankful for women.  Ladies like Adele, and Katy Perry, whose record sales in 2011 spurred on enormous growth unseen in seven years according to an article on www.billboard.com.

Singer-songwriters can barely hold a candle to the powerful impact women have on the booze industry.  As Gina Chersevani, Mixtress at DC restaurant PS7, points out, “If it weren’t for women, there would be no cocktail bars; think about who’s in them – its women.  Women drive men to go to cocktail bars.”

Sure, they do.   But what about once they arrive and the bartenders are women too?  Then what?   In an industry that encourages women to take on marketing, production and serving alcohol roles that aren’t relegated to secretarial duty and cocktail waitressing, women are collaborating and supporting one another, and, in doing so, bettering the products, the bottom line, and determining a bright future for the spirits industry. 

Bartender Abigail Gullo notes, “I’m not fighting for what has been in this industry, I’m fighting for what will be.” 

The good fight has been going on for a while and, as anyone steeped in cocktail business history knows, the genesis of this is the work of women like Julie Reiner and Audrey Saunders on the operations side of things and Alison Evanow of Square One and Sonja Kassebaum of North Shore Distillery in the production realm. 

Meaghan Dorman, Head Bartender Raines Law Room and Vice-president LUPEC NYC shares her thoughts on how women are making a difference in the way business gets done, “Women are natural at sharing information, they often don't think holding recipes, ideas etc to themselves is beneficial. For example, Audrey Saunders has always been open to us younger ladies in terms of sharing what she's already dealt with and what's helped Pegu Club be successful, and so on.”

Shawn Kelley, Director of Public Relations at Pernod Ricard USA concurs, saying, “The women in our industry are amazing.  Julie Reiner and Audrey Saunders really carved a path and you can see how the women of the industry have taken hold.  From organizations such as LUPEC starting up around the country to events like Speed Rack, we’re seeing a real women’s movement in spirits that we’re excited and proud to stand behind.”

There’s plenty to stand behind as Kate Laufer, Director of Public Relations Sidney Frank Importing Company, notes, “I have seen a significant increase in the importance and impact of women in the spirits industry over the last few years. Much of this is due to the incredible efforts of all involved in key groups, such as Speed Rack and LUPEC, but there is also a strong sense of solidarity amongst the women in the industry as a whole.”

Unifying spirits industry women from around the county is one thing that the expansion of LUPEC chapters and the evolution of Speed Rack have been able to do.  Identifying up and comers, the future of the industry, is another.  Speed Rack co-founders Lynnette Marrero and Ivy Mix created this 10-city special event with solidarity in mind, while also looking to throw their support behind charitable efforts and shine a spotlight on new talent.  Mix says, “People like to drink and that’s why all of us have jobs.  Why not do these events, charge money for them, and have that money go to a good cause?”

Marrero points out that their equation benefits the event, the sponsors, participants and charity recipients.  She notes, “Melanie and Lizzie Asher of Macchu Pisco were the first people who used it [press distribution outlets] to let people know what they are involved in.  They are a small brand and they maximize their advantage; they tapped into PR Newswire and as a result I saw a lot of chatter going around.  And we saw our attendance spike.”   

Alba Huerta, GM General Manager Anvil Bar and Refuge and Houston USBG President, says, “There's a great synergy when women come together and collaborate on a project.  It's like we've been waiting for the call to put our resources together and make things happen!”

It’s exactly these kinds of efforts that makes being a woman in this business rewarding and creates solidarity.  But it doesn’t stop there.  It’s also about getting smarter.

Danielle Eddy, Public Relations Director at Distilled Council of the US (otherwise known as DISCUS), comments, “Women aren’t just sitting back and doing their jobs – they are getting involved, getting educated on brands and categories and more.” 

To Samantha Katz, founder of Ladies of American Distilleries (LOAD) and wife of Allen Katz, owner- New York Distilling Company, knowledge is important not just for one’s own benefit but for the spirits industry in its entirety.  She explains, “Information sharing breeds knowledge which is only going to help people in the space navigate tough waters.”  Huerta adds, “It’s important to note that as bartenders there's definitely a glass ceiling that everyone has to encounter.  I think it's important that those of us who have been in the industry for so long continue to improve our education and worth in order to become more valuable resources- men and women alike.”    

Whether the waters are tough or smooth sailing, being able to pull together as a unified crew is a secret to women’s power.  And why some bars seem better run than others.  Dorman explains how it’s done well in her bars, “In terms of getting things done, I would say one of the great aspects about women is that we are great at collaborating and getting a team on our side.  At my bar I don't pit employees against each other or constantly threaten their jobs, which unfortunately we see often in the bar and restaurant business.  I make sure everyone is on the same page, hear out their ideas/concerns and we all move forward. It’s usually quite smooth, because they respect me and love their job.”

She continues, “We all want to succeed together; it’s not just about my advancement.  It's definitely a touch of maternal instinct shining through, which is useful in building a staff.  Everyone has to feel appreciated and like they have upward mobility. We are our own family.”  Huerta has created a similar experience for her team at Anvil and attributes it in part to her gender.  She notes, “I definitely do things differently; I find myself being more subjective and organized on a larger scale rather than day to day.  I like to create a family rather than a team so that people's obligations are greater to one another and everyone feels more responsible to follow through and be a reliable employee.” 

Embracing the fact that reliability results in all ships rising is something that women excel at.  Antonia Fattizzi, Sales Manager for NY and NJ Lucas Bols USA, offers up some valuable advice that she’s developed over the years of being a woman in a man’s world (and being just fine with that fact).  She insists, “Do what you love to do and do it well, it's why we're here; for the love of the game.  Garner a stellar reputation by keeping your promises.  Always ensure the interactions you have with your wholesalers and your accounts are about how you can collectively move your businesses forward.  Everything you say and do should be about positively associating yourself with your brand(s).  The less you focus on who's a man and who's a woman and how that may help or harm the situation, the more you keep everyone's focus on the business at hand which is how you gain a good name.  And in this business, as in most, your name is everything.”

And, when all else fails, Chersevani suggest that females in the industry ignore any prejudice, including that early morning prayer that rings out in sanctuaries around the world and simply, “Speak softly, and carry a big muddler.”

*In the spirit of sharing and support it’s necessary to disclose that this headline was inspired by Ivy Mix.

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