Bustin' Up the Boy's Club: Metro Detroit's Female Mixologists

Last week we ran a story about the rise of craft cocktail culture in metro Detroit and some of the key players who have pushed it forward. While forward-drinking female bartenders Lola Gegovic, Jacqueline Foucha, and Adrianne Martin were all name-dropped, the focus was all on the boys in the business. Through conversations with people interviewed for that story, it became glaringly obvious that female bartenders in metro Detroit get none of the press that their male counterparts do. 

And if there's one question we here at Metromode like to ask, it's, "But why?"

Male Competition

It's tricky to single out female anythings and discuss their being female in a male-dominated business without it being more about their gender than about them as equally skilled professionals. 

"It's tough because it's such a fine line between getting exposure because you're a woman and it being about your gender," says The Oakland's Kaytee Querro. "I don't want it to be, 'Because you’re a woman you're getting coverage,' but it's impossible to glaze over the gender issue because it definitely exists. You're treated differently. You have to choose what you want to be – do you want to be one of the guys or be a girly girl?'"

Querro has been working in bars and restaurants since she was 14. After visiting the Violet Hour in Chicago, one of the top craft cocktail bars in the country, she came back home with an interest that went beyond the vodka martinis she was making at Goodnite Gracie in Royal Oak. 

"I heard The Oakland was opening. I went in as patron and just loved how it felt," she says. "I felt like it was time for me to make a change; I didn't feel challenged anymore." 

Querro sees the challenge that female bartenders face as making a decision about the kind of "female bartender" they want to be. 

"Women are more and more getting into these positions that have been predominantly [filled by] men," she says. "It's hard to find your place – are you going to chum it up with the guys or set yourself apart by being overtly feminine in a flashy red dress? Where do you go? That's part of it finding your role in what appears to be a male competition."

As we noted in our previous cocktail culture story, industry competitions have played a significant role in pushing the local cocktail scene forward, with Fourmont and McGrath getting the bulk of their media coverage as a result of the major competitions they have competed in. But the boys aren't the only ones who have done well on the competition circuit. 

Jacqueline Foucha worked with The Oakland owner Sandy Levine when he was still the general manager of Atlas Global Bistro and had introduced craft cocktails on the menu. 

"I got my exposure earlier than many other people in the area, but I don't think Detroit was ready for it just yet." When Levine left Atlas to open The Oakland, Foucha followed. Now she can put two rye whiskeys next to each other with the same proof and the same mash bill and pick out which one is which blind. "I would never even think of being able to do that five years ago." 

Foucha competed against Fourmont in the local Master of the Manhattan competition, and ranked third in Michigan in the Bombay Sapphire competition. She also got some international press for her video entry in Bols Around the World 2013, placing in the top thirty internationally.

"I did try doing the contests and I did place," she says. "Personally for me, I'm not looking to be a corporate face for any company. I'm just looking to make a good drink for somebody."  

Adrienne Martin, another Oakland alumn who now heads up the cocktail program at Bigalora in Royal Oak, was selected to apprentice at Tales of the Cocktail in 2012, the largest cocktail conference in the world. She was the only person selected in Michigan, one of only 19 from the United States and 34 total from all over the world. 

Last Woman Standing

The history of female bartenders in general is pretty glum. In the late 1800s, saloonkeepers were prosecuted in St. Louis for employing women. In 1895, there were 55,600 men working behind a bar in the United States, compared to 147 women. Women could be found tending bar aplenty during World War II, when they had to fill all the "men's" jobs left open by the men heading off to war. But then the men returned and wanted their jobs back, leading to states like California and, oh yes, Michigan actually passing legislation barring women from pouring drinks in a bar unless they were the wife or daughter of the saloon owner. Laws such as these stayed on the books throughout the country into the 1970s. Then the Holiday Inn hotel chain realized that bar revenues increased when there was a friendly female behind the bar. With a patent disregard for their cocktail-shaking skills, women were employed as a means of shaking down men, and it has pretty much stayed that way ever since. 

Martin admits that, for a woman, being the kind of bartender who makes craft cocktails is a much different job than being the kind of bartender who pours boombas at sports bars and clears $200 tips for one bottle of Grey Goose at table in a nightclub. 

"Serving girls kind of rely on their looks," she says. "This is hard work. You don't make as much money. You make more money looking cute and making drinks quickly." 

Martin gets "better" job offers all the time. "Male bar owners have come in and said to me, 'You can come work for me; you can make Jack and Cokes all night and make three times the money.' It’s easier and there's a ton of money. This is something you have to love."

All of the women interviewed for this story agree that there just aren't many females working on this end of the industry. If we're talking about representation in media, in The Daily Meal's slideshow of America's 25 Best Bartenders (a list our Shane McGrath made), only five on the list are women. On the one hand, 20 percent sounds like a terrible ratio. On the other, it might actually be representative of the percentage of women doing this kind of work.  

Martin remembers, "At [the event] Cocktail Culture I looked at every booth and, aside from some girls who were assisting, I was the only one heading a booth. There was literally not one woman heading a station and creating the drinks for the event." 

When Lucy Carnaghi worked at Sugar House, she was the only woman there. She had worked there on and off for the last couple of years but left last December to focus on opening her own place, a from-scratch diner on East Jefferson called Rose's Fine Food scheduled to open this June. 

"I am, to date, the only female bartender who has worked there who has lasted [at Sugar House]," she says. " All the guys there are so sweet but in that environment, as we all know, it's fast and loose. I'm as lewd as any of them; that's why I get along, because I'm not bothered by that behavior. But it's basically like a frat house."

Lola Gegovic was among Detroit's early cocktail pioneers in 2007, when she moved back from San Francisco and worked alongside Eric Welsh at the recently-reopened Cliff Bell's mixing classic cocktails in the bar's classic Art Deco environment before Travis Fourmont showed up at Roast with his bottle of bitters. Gegovic now works at the Detroit Athletic Club, where the famous classic cocktail The Last Word was invented. She is the first female bartender in the Club's 100-year history. Women weren't even allowed in the Club until the 1980s. Now they host a dinner just for the Club's female members once a month, where Gegovic teaches them how to make cocktails. 

"It is a very male-driven career," she says. "Even back then in the '20s and '30s, it was always a male bartender. In general there's not really that many females. It takes a strong woman to go behind a bar and serve 50-100 people every night." 

Gegovic admits that as a female bartender, they have to continually prove themselves. "We sit at home and read cocktail books. We're at work in the morning making syrups and shrubs. We're doing just as much as the boys are doing." 

Foucha says, "We cut the ice, keg the kegs, carry liquor to basement, take the garbage out. We do all the same work as the male bartenders do. We do equal work, just as hard." 

What a Girl Drinks 

Much of the gender stereotyping that exists within the bar industry today has less to do with a woman's ability to do the work and more to do with the perception of palate sophistication. Women are supposed to like wine, not whiskey. "Girly" drinks are the overly-sweet, fruity variety made with an array of candy-flavored vodka. Even in wine, women are more aligned with sweet whites than heady reds – the latter is the domain of men. The stereotypes even exist in the craft beer community. XO Jane nailed it in "Ladies Be Confused By Beer: Please Stop Trying to Identify What a Person Will Drink Based on Their Genitals." 

Society has plenty of prejudices regarding what it means to drink like a woman. The understanding is, generally, sweet equals girly, everything else equals manly. And that mentality is also applied to the person behind the bar.

Martin says, "If it's a male guest, I'll be standing there with nothing going on and they'll look at the busser or the guy I'm training and order an Old Fashioned when I'm literally right in front of them. I'll say, 'I can help you with that,' and they'll say, 'Well, do you know what's in it?' That happens weekly." 

Carnaghi's clientele at Sugar House rarely treated her differently, but she says, "There's douchebags who would come in and it wouldn't matter what bar I was behind, they would treat me like a little girl no matter where I was at. They don't expect you to know what kind of whiskey is what, or they have a super-pompous amount of knowledge that's totally incorrect and look to you for confirmation of what constitutes a bourbon or a single malt and you have to correct them. No one expects you to know and when you do, [they're surprised]. But it's more fun to surprise people and break their prejudices down."

Some of the more "masculine" drinks on The Oakland's menu that Foucha has created people assume were made by a guy. Now Levine includes the bartender's name next to each drink he or she made, which not only helps customers build rapport with their bartenders, but also helps break down some of those gender stereotypes and legitimize the women behind the bar. 

David Wondrich, renowned cocktail culture author and authority who lends his expertise to publications like Esquire and Imbibe, recently came into town and picked out one of Foucha's drinks from the menu. "He kept complimenting it as one of the most balanced cocktails he's had in awhile," she says. "David Wondrich loves my drink. You can't get a better compliment than that!" 

To all of the wonderful women in metro Detroit who are bucking stereotypes while shooting whiskey, we raise our glasses. It's about time you got to know them by name. 

Readers might know Nicole Rupersburg primarily from her former blog, Eat It Detroit. She lives in Las Vegas now, where she is Deputy Editor of VEGAS magazine, but she still enjoys lending a bit of Detroit culinary anthropology to Metromode.

http://www.davelewinski.comAll Photos by David Lewinski Photography