The Women Left Out of the History of Cocktails

by Msnbctv news staff

Cocktail history — a relatively new pursuit — tends to dwell on ancient bar manuals from the 19th and early 20th centuries, largely the works of white, male heralded bartenders like Harry Johnson, William Boothby and Jerry Thomas. The books deal with the kind of drinks that were served in taverns, where women were long not permitted.

Nicola Nice, a social scientist and spirits entrepreneur, says that presents only half of the story of the cocktail’s rise to social prominence.

“It came with this crayon mark, which says to me this was used,” she said, tracing her finger along the creases on the cover of her copy of “Bacchus Behave!: The Lost Art of Polite Drinking,” a 1933 book by the journalist Alma Whitaker. “A woman had this, her kids were around, she left it out, it got drawn on.”

The same thing happened to Dr. Nice: “My daughter, when she was 3, drew on it and probably took hundreds of dollars off the value.”

After a few years in academia, Dr. Nice went into market research, advising liquor companies on how to reach consumers. She realized that the female customer was not being properly recognized by the industry, so, in 2016, she started Pomp & Whimsy, a gin liqueur geared toward women. She has plans to offer a Pomp & Whimsy gin in 2022.

Recently, Dr. Nice, 43, has extended her mission into what might be called liquor literature.

“In the back of my mind, I knew that women were the entertainers of the home,” she said. “I felt something was missing in that story.”

That turned out to be a long line of housekeeping and home-entertainment books, all written by women, and some of them best sellers. Dr. Nice has collected more than 80 over the years and lists some of them in the library section of the Pomp & Whimsy website. Together, she asserts, they make a strong case for the role of the female homemaker in the popularity of the cocktail.

“These women probably didn’t invent those drinks, but they maybe popularized them,” she said. “If I were a woman in the late 19th or early 20th centuries, where would I have gotten my recipes?”

They might have gleaned their knowledge from Isabella Beeton, whose 1861 work “Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management” sold millions of copies, and whom Dr. Nice credits with “Kardashian levels of influence.”

Volume five of “Consolidated Library of Modern Cooking and Household Recipes,” published in 1904 by the mother-daughter team of Christine Terhune Herrick and Marion Harland, has dozens of recipes and a lengthy section on mixing drinks, as well as a chapter on “toasts and speechmaking.”

Nina Toye, an American thriller writer living in London, co-authored the 1925 book “Drinks Long & Short” with Alec Henry Adair and published drink recipes in magazines like Vogue. In “Bacchus Behave!,” Ms. Whitaker declared “Man will be the last thing civilized by woman,” and listed some “simple rules for righteous behavior.” (Number one: “Never get drunk.”)

All of these books came with a point of view distinct from those of male bartenders.

“Women think about cocktails in a different way,” she said. “They think about who’s there, what’s the occasion, what’s the season, what are we eating. It’s less about the technical — what’s the correct way to make a martini.”

Dr. Nice sees this domestic and empathic approach to cocktail writing continuing to this very day. She is an admirer of “The Craft Cocktail Party: Delicious Drinks for Every Occasion,” a 2015 book by Julie Reiner, a founder of such bars as Flatiron Lounge in Manhattan (now closed) and Clover Club in Brooklyn.

“I constantly got phone calls and emails from friends and family,” Ms. Reiner said. “‘I have people coming over for drinks. What should I make?’”

She agrees that women in the drinks-book field tend to view cocktail culture differently than men.

“It’s more about the guest than about you,” Ms. Reiner said. “With these male bartenders, it’s more about them.”

Dr. Nice intends to post PDFs of books in her collection. (Only a cover and brief description are currently available.) She hopes this will help get the authors their due — writers like Eliza Leslie, whose 1837 work, “Directions for Cookery, in its Various Branches,” contained recipes for homemade wines, punches and cordials, and sold 150,000 copies.

“I want women in the home to be recognized for the influence that they had in what the cocktail has become, is becoming and will become,” Dr. Nice said. “It’s just as important how we drink it at home with each other as it is in the bar.”

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