The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is “Choose to Challenge”, so we are challenging some assumptions and taking a fresh look at the little-known history of women in spirits and beverages. Join us in raising a toast to celebrate these female innovators. 

“A Bar is No Place for a Woman”

There is probably no better setting for the tension and discussion of women’s social roles and expectations than in the bar. In ancient times, women were often in charge of brewing beer and wine, and just as often accused of witchcraft and executed for it. In the Middle Ages, women successfully owned and inns and taverns, but periodic legal reforms would place additional restrictions and burdens on their operations. And in the 19th century, while the barmaid was elevated to an iconic status, women who sought to patronize bars and saloons were excluded or even arrested for prostitution. 

 A Bar at the Folies-Bergère
Edouard Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère; depicting a scene in the Folies Bergère nightclub in Paris (1882).

In 1969, Betty Friedan and a group of feminists protested the exclusion of women at New York’s Plaza Hotel Oak Room, demanding equal access to bars. A series of highly publicized protests organized by the National Organization for Women followed, and, by 1973, most American bars had eliminated rules that banned women. 

Despite centuries of debate and restrictions on when, where, and how women can consume alcohol, women have played a central role in the social importance and culture of cocktails and spirits. Brewing and fermenting at home have long been considered “women’s work”, as has entertaining and serving guests. It’s no wonder that women have shaped the spirits and cocktail industry throughout history. Let’s look at some fascinating examples:

Betsy Flanagan

Legend has it that Betsy Flanagan coined the word “cocktail” in her Yorktown tavern. A fierce supporter of American independence, in 1779 she invented a new mixed drink that was incredibly popular with American and French officers of the Revolutionary Army. One night she raided the prized chicken coop of her neighbor, a staunch English loyalist, and served her mixed drinks garnished with the tail feathers of his chickens.

While the origins of the word “cocktail” remain uncertain, with many competing stories and legends, it is true that Bety Flanagan invented a drink that would inspire “all patriots to make a winter’s march” (James Fenimore Cooper, 1853). Her “Bracers” were so well known that Cooper doesn’t bother sharing what was actually in the drink, only that Flanagan was “brought up on the principal ingredient”, and had acquired in Virginia a knowledge of how to use mint. American military men at the time mostly drank gin or whiskey, while the French drank wine or vermouth, so perhaps Betsy was inspired by these ingredients.

Whatever the truth may be, it’s obvious that Betsy was an innovative and enterprising entrepreneur, who was so successful and well known that stories are told about her to this day. 

Hanky Panky
Hanky Panky

Ada “Coley” Coleman

One of the most important bartenders of all time is Ada Coleman, nicknamed “Coley”. In London at the turn of the 20th century, nearly half of the barmaids in the city were women, although there were campaigns to outlaw the practice as being damaging to the morals of young women. And they were young women: most bartending jobs were not open to women over the age of 25. When her father’s death forced her to seek a job at 24, her father’s employer, Rupert D’Oyly, gave Ada a job at his Claridge’s Hotel, and from there she was transferred to the Savoy. 

The American Bar at London’s Savoy was the first bar to serve American-style cocktails in Europe, and remains a legendary establishment. In 1903, Ada was promoted to head bartender of the American Bar, the only woman in the role until Phillipa Guy became a senior bartender at the Savoy in 2018.

Ada Coleman was the world’s first celebrity bartender, a favorite hostess for the rich and famous guests of the hotel, and a noted mixologist. She invented the “hanky panky” cocktail for Sir Charles Hawtrey, in response to his demand for something “with a bit of punch in it”. 

The Hanky Panky has its own place in cocktail history, first published in The Savoy Cocktail Book in 1930, and now popular worldwide. In 2015, the Hanky Panky was listed as one of the top 50 most popular cocktails by Drinks International.

Ada Coleman redefined the role of a bartender, challenging expectations that a barmaid be little more than a hostess and a servant. With her charming personality, innovative drinks, and worldwide reputation, she proved that a great bartender can develop their own following and carve a place in history. 

Marjorie Hillis - Live Alone And Like It

Marjorie Hillis

In Post-Depression America, the role of women in society had changed rapidly, and a new class of young, employed, independent women were finding their way in the world. In 1936, Marjorie Hillis, an editor at Vogue magazine, published the groundbreaking book Live Alone and Like It: The Art of Solitary Refinement. The inspirational self-help book quickly became a bestseller, with advice for single women on everything from bedjackets to hobbies to, of course, liquor, without wasting time on nonsense like cooking and cleaning. Hillis recommends:

Bargains in liquor, like bargains in clothes, are only for Those Who Know. While you are still learning, never buy anything but the best. (This is not a bad rule to stick to through life.)

This book is surprisingly relevant today, with advice that is sharp, witty, and classic. For example, a single woman who doesn’t have a kitchen, and therefore doesn’t have ice to make cocktails:

She made a specialty of sherry, hunting up the best and keeping several variations on hand. The glüg, a delicious Swedish drink, hot and powerful, she keeps for guests who look upon sherry as effeminate.

In a time when many of us are learning to live alone and like it, and experimenting with developing our own mixology skills at home, Marjorie Hillis remains an inspiration.

Today, a renewed interest in women in spirits has prompted a fresh look at old stories, and we are changing our perceptions of women’s role in the bar. A new generation of bars and breweries are putting women front and center, and exciting initiatives like Constellation Brands’ Focus on Female Founders promise to bring more attention to groundbreaking women in the industry. 

In honor of International Women’s Day, we suggest mixing yourself a Hanky Panky and celebrating the women who have shaped cocktails and cocktail culture. 

  • 1 ½ oz Italian vermouth
  • 1 ½ oz dry gin
  • 2 dashes Fernet-Branca
  • Mix over ice, strain into a cocktail glass, and garnish with an orange twist

Happy International Women’s Day from grapefrute!

International Women's Day