'Girly Drinks' upends what you think you know about the history of drinking

28October 2021

Written by Jacqui Palumbo, CNN

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The cosmo, the appletini, a glass of rosé — these are the cloyingly sweet and pastel-colored beverages stereotypically associated with women. In a culture where feminine drinks are seen as lesser and wine moms and party girls are relentlessly judged, author Mallory O’Meara has set out to topple double standards.

“All drinks are ‘girly drinks,'” she writes, because women have actually been the backbone of the alcohol industry.

“Girly Drinks: A World History of Women and Alcohol” looks at alcohol through a feminist lens, uncovering centuries-old stories of female entrepreneurs, rulers and rebels who were critical to its production, distribution and culture but have been given little credit for their contributions.

"Girly Drinks" examines how women have been the backbone of the alcohol industry.

“Girly Drinks” examines how women have been the backbone of the alcohol industry. Credit: Harper Collins

The narratives include famous figures like Catherine the Great, who catalyzed Russia’s vodka industry, and lesser-known names: Hildegard von Bingen, a nun who was perhaps the first person to document adding hops to ale; Tatsu’uma Kiyo, who built a saké empire but has been nearly forgotten; Gertrude “Cleo” Lythgoe, the formidable Prohibition-era bootlegger; and bartender Ada Coleman, who revolutionized the cocktail.

Even the so-called “manliest” liquors, scotch and bourbon, owe a lot to women, according to O’Meara. It was a Scottish woman, Bessie Williamson, who popularized single-malt scotch in the US; and an American woman, Margie Samuels, who cofounded Maker’s Mark and put it on the map with its now-iconic red wax cap.

“I love reading women’s history. I love finding these stories,” O’Meara said in a video interview.

Repeating patterns

During her research, O’Meara found the same patterns of marginalization again and again. Women were industry-making pioneers, brewing ale, fermenting fruit into wine and distilling at home before their right to do so was taken away from local legislators or colonizers.

“By midway through (researching) the book I could guess what was going to happen: Women were going to create this new alcohol or new way of making alcohol…and it was going to be taken over by men as soon as it got popular,” she said. “In every country and every time period, it doesn’t matter if it’s ale or gin — as soon as something becomes profitable or commercial in any way, out go the women.”

Author Mallory O'Meara

Author Mallory O’Meara Credit: Allan Amato/Harper Collins

She also found that women’s reputations were ruined for decades or even centuries if they enjoyed their booze. Cleopatra’s political prowess has been overshadowed by her image as a “lusty drunk,” O’Meara writes, while Lucha Reyes, a popular Mexican singer from the 20th century, has been miscast as a “drunken lady” for singing about tequila. Few objective texts exist on Reyes today, O’Meara explained.

“Her legacy was so tainted by that,” she added.

“Girly Drinks” is pioneering in its own right, as a cohesive text that tells this sprawling — and sometimes sparsely documented — history. O’Meara found herself consistently frustrated by the lack of available materials on the subject while she was writing. According to the author, her best friend reminded her, “‘The book you’re looking for is the book you’re writing; the reason why you’re writing this (book) is because it doesn’t exist.'”

“I had a feeling that women’s history was there,” O’Meara said. “I just knew people weren’t covering it.”

Girly Drinks” is available now from Hanover Square Press.

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