So far in this series I've talked about women making and marketing beer, the gender politics projected onto drinks themselves and women visiting bars. But I haven't yet talked about women behind the bar.
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to speak to Mindy Kucan, the lead bartender at Hale Pele, a tiki bar in Northeast Portland. Kucan has been tending bar for 10 years, but got interested in "craft bartending" (which focuses on complex, balanced cocktails mixed on quality liquors and unusual ingredients, as well as reviving classic drinks from bygone eras) five years ago, while tending bar at a Hilton in Texas. "I wanted to get better at what I did, so I just found ways to do it," Kucan told me.
In 2008, she attended Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans both to meet more people in the craft cocktail scene and to watch skilled bartenders at work. Eventually, she started entering mixology competitions. Often, these are sponsored by the makers of spirits or liqueurs, and the competition centers around (quickly) building a drink with that ingredient inclusive – but some grade on personality and aplomb as well as the quality of cocktail produced. Others are charity events asking competitors to quickly build a drink with that ingredient inclusive – such as the Iron Bartender competition I attended earlier this month, in which Kucan competed (and where she is pictured here, dressed as Angostura bitters).
I sent a note to the U.S. Bartenders Guild – a 60-year-old organization with chapters representing bartenders in many U.S. cities, which sponsors its own mixology competitions and is dedicated to elevating the craft – asking whether they track gender stats for people in their organization. As of this writing, I haven't received a response. Anecdotally, I see fewer ladies behind the bar at high-end, mixology-oriented bars. Kucan did note that she's been the lone woman on staff at some of the bars where she's worked. Before moving to Portland about a year ago, Kucan worked at Anvil, a high-volume classic cocktail bar in Houston (often there were six bartenders working at a time). "Women that were gorgeous would just be like, 'I've never seen a woman behind this bar. You're badass.'"
Kucan told me many of the competitions she's participated in have been "total bro fests" with few or no women participating, and that some female participants "play up the sex," which she doesn't judge but doesn't feel comfortable doing herself. "I try not to show too much cleavage. I try to keep it as professional as possible." (Kucan was actually one of two women facing off at the Iron Bartender event – with 23 Hoyt's Erica Namare taking home the audience-voted "people's choice" award and the Raven & Rose's David Shenaut getting the nod from the judges.)
Kucan got interested in competitive bartending because she wanted to be both really good and really fast – "I wanted to be able to bartend with my eyes closed" – and has been, by her own description, a savvy self-promoter, telling me she thinks all bartenders should think of themselves as their own business. She developed a national reputation in cocktail circles when she worked at Anvil, with former colleagues visiting other cities and hearing, "Oh, you work at Anvil? You know Mindy?" That she'd become almost synonymous with the bar, she said, was "totally due to self-promotion."
If high-end bartending is still a somewhat male-dominated world, that's interestingly consistent with history. Writer Christine Sismondo, in her history America Walks Into a Bar, notes that upper-class bars often explicitly forbade women from visiting, but lower-class taverns were likely to be both patronized and run by women (who generally, but not always, inherited them). But that is gradually changing, and Kucan is polite and professional when talking about the sexual politics of the scene, staying focused on the cocktails themselves. "I've chosen to be a bartender. I want it to be my career," she said. "I wanted to be better at it."
Previously: Beer-Loving Ladies—Rare, or Just Overlooked?
Photo copyright 2012 by Lucas Swick, used with permission