Lifestyle

Women were the first brewers, yet the history of alcohol comes with a double shot of sexism

“Wait, there aren’t any books about the history of women and drinking? Seriously?”

I was texting my best friend to complain after I finished reading yet another cocktail history book that seemed to forget women exist. Months earlier, she had introduced me to the world of craft drinks. After years of being too intimidated to ask a bartender for anything more interesting than a vodka soda, I became immediately fascinated. There was so much talent and alchemy in the making of a cocktail that, for the first time in my life, I began to think more deeply about alcohol. I wanted to try more drinks, visit more bars, and most importantly, I wanted to learn.

Anything I become interested in, I want to read about. A trip to the bookshop got me into the science and history behind cocktails and drinking. Even though alcohol is ubiquitous in our culture, I never stopped to think about how important it is. I was surprised to discover that the history of drinking is an amalgamation of anthropology, chemistry, sociology, culinary history, economics, politics and science. Alcohol has helped world leaders rise and made empires crumble. It has jumpstarted economies, spurred the writing of foundational laws, and contributed to the formation of national identities. In short, alcohol has changed the world. I was absolutely fascinated.

I was also disappointed. Each and every book I brought home was written by and about men. If there was any women’s history mentioned, it was usually a few scattered sentences, maybe a single paragraph if I got lucky. Thinking perhaps that this was an oversight on my part, I texted my best friend to ask for some book recommendations. Maybe I wasn’t buying the right ones! She told me I couldn’t buy the right books – the history I was looking for didn’t exist. No one had written the history of women and drinking.

I had so many questions. Besides wanting to know what women drank through the ages and how they were involved in alcohol production, my curiosity ran even deeper. I reflected on what I already knew about women and drinking – the stereotypes and messages I had absorbed growing up. So much of society is gendered that I had never consciously noticed how much gendered our drinking culture is. Types of bars, ways of drinking, even the drinks themselves are sorted into the categories “OK for men” and “OK for women”. I wanted to get to the root of that and find out if drinking had always been this way. Were there always girly drinks? Who decided that drinking was a gendered act? When did certain kinds of alcohol first become “respectable”? Where in the world did this happen? Why did this happen? How did this happen?

Human beings have been imbibing for thousands and thousands of years. When did we start roping off certain types of booze with a pink frilly ribbon and condemning them as “girly” drinks? And why is marking a drink as feminine a bad thing in the first place?

It didn’t take me long to discover that the truth is, all drinks are girly drinks. Not just because women have been drinking since alcohol was invented, but because they’ve been making and serving it since the beginning, too. I always figured that the concept of a “girly” drink was a modern invention, maybe formed when things like strawberry daiquiris and appletinis were added to cocktail menus. Turns out, girly drinks are older than paper money, older than indoor toilets, older even than the printing press.

Creating a distinction between “manly” drinks and “girly” drinks was (and is) also about control. Access to alcohol and judgment-free intoxication was reserved for men in power. Ancient Roman women (usually upper-class ones) were allowed just a taste, a weaker and sweeter version of the wine that the men drank, called passum and made from raisins. And so the gendered drinks began.

Despite beer being the stereotypical “manly” drink, it was women who were the world’s first beermakers. Whether it was mead, sake or beer, brewing started out as a feminine craft. Long before the myth of wine-loving Dionysus, the world’s first alcohol-ruling deities were female. Ninkasi was a Sumerian beer goddess worshipped by the brewing priestesses who sang hymns (which were simply beer recipes put to song) and quaffed beer to celebrate her. The buzz felt after a few drinks was thought to be her divine essence. In Egypt, the goddess Hathor, who ruled over, among other things, women, love and drinking, was honoured every year at the beginning of the flooding of the Nile River with a massive festival called the Drunkenness of Hathor.

Even the first known depiction of a person brewing is of a woman, an approximately 25,000-year-old cave carving that depicts a nude woman holding what looks like a drinking horn. The cliff she is carved into is at Laussel in the Dordogne, and she is known as the Venus of Laussel. Some male historians posit that it is not a drinking horn, but rather some kind of musical instrument that the woman is holding incorrectly. Imagine being so staunch in your belief that women aren’t drinkers that you think someone would take the time to immortalise a picture of the world’s worst hornblower into the side of a cliff!

There have been female brewers, but also female distillers, bartenders and most importantly drinkers in every part of the world since alcohol was first created. Women have always been there, not just alongside men, but usually one step ahead of them. Their inventions and ingenuity have shaped every era of alcohol and drinking culture. From massive innovations that changed the industry of every type of alcohol, including wine, beer and whisky, to inventing the bar itself, the world wouldn’t have drinking culture as we know it without women. They have been marginalised in the annals of alcohol history, but their contributions are far from marginal.

In the early middle ages, Hildegard of Bingen was the first person to write scientifically about the preservative properties of hops in beer. Her widely read writings on the subject helped popularise the practice, which was the biggest innovation in beer technology since the invention of brewing. Before the advent of hops in beer, the beverage spoiled far too quickly to be exported anywhere. Afterwards, beer could become commercialised and turn into one of the most lucrative products in the world.

In the 19th century, the Widow Clicquot became nearly single-handedly responsible for internationalising the champagne market and for inventing the remuage sur pupitres method of removing yeast debris from wine bottles. In Ireland during this time, women’s contributions and innovations helped build some of the most successful whiskey distilleries, including brands such as Bushmills. Scottish and Irish women were so skilled at distilling that they were in demand as American mail-order brides.

Even the bar itself, a long counter for serving drinks, was invented to serve female customers during the Gin Craze in 1700s London. The taverns at the time were for male customers, who liked to sit a while and enjoy an ale. The new gin shops (also known as dram shops) did not have this masculine tradition attached to them, and were more female-centric, usually with female owners and female customers. Working women didn’t have time to sit at a table and drink their gin, so gin shops began installing counters where a busy factory worker, housewife or maid could walk up and quickly down a dram before getting back to her business for the day. The design was wildly popular and is now a staple of drinking establishments the world over.

Besides the technical innovations, women have also been instrumental in shaping the culture of drinking. In the 1950s, it was businesswoman Sunny Sund who made tiki bars into an international craze and created an empire out of her restaurant (yes, her), Don the Beachcomber. If you’ve ever sipped on a zombie or a mai tai in a bar covered in bamboo and tropical flowers, you can thank Sunny. In the 1960s, it was Bessie Williamson who ran the scotch whisky Laphroaig distillery that helped start the mania for single malt scotches and Islay scotches in particular. Until Bessie, blended scotches were all the rage and the whisky world thought that the peaty whiskies from the island of Islay were too strong to be sipped on straight. Nearly 1,000 years before, one of China’s greatest poets was a woman named Li Qingzhao, who became both famous and infamous for her poetry about drinking wine. Those wine poems showcased the feelings and experiences of women, a revolutionary act for the high middle ages in China.

Throughout all this history, it is impossible not to notice how strong the correlation is between a culture that allowed women to drink and a culture that gave women their freedoms. A drinking woman is an uninhibited woman, something that patriarchal cultures have deeply feared for ages. Patriarchal oppression and misogynistic societal expectations play the biggest roles in a culture’s drinking habits. The double standard that drinking women face – that alcohol makes men stronger, more powerful and more masculine, while making women weaker, wanton, disreputable – is deeply rooted in male anxieties about control.

Since the days of Mesopotamia, alcohol was said to make women dangerously immoral. Dangerous? Well, dangerous to their husband’s or father’s estate. If a woman – whose reproductive abilities were considered property – got drunk and had a fling that resulted in the loss of her virginity or the conception of a child, that was a direct financial blow to the man who controlled her. Gendered drinking culture was formed because of a male fear of women acting like people, not property.

If you want to know how a society treats its women, all you have to do is look into the bottom of a glass. In today’s #MeToo world, it’s been so satisfying to see the long, long overdue push to get more representation for women in all industries, whether in politics, entertainment or in business. In the alcohol industry, however, women have always been here. They’re finally being hired and recognised (if not quite getting paid as much as they should). Now, I can’t imagine a history of alcohol without them.

No matter what you’re having, you can toast knowing that women had a part in its history. Women can look around a brewery, a vineyard, a distillery, a bar and know that they belong there just as much as anyone.

Girly Drinks: A World History of Women and Alcohol by Mallory O’Meara is published by Hurst at £14.99. Buy a copy from guardianbookshop.com for £13.04

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