Gender Specifics

The French have a saying, "vive la difference," which basically means "we surrender" but is often translated as a celebration of the dissimilarities among people and cultures.

Americans, for some reason, strive to eliminate perceived flaws and unique qualities from our consciousnesses. Accordingly, we try everything from plastic surgery to striking vaguely damaging words such as "Indian" or "girl" from popular use. The French, meanwhile, accept differences--as long as you exhibit the proper rudeness, smoke during meals and bathe only on occasion. America's inability to deal with human distinction deserves several pages of explanation and at least one trip to France, or so we thought when this week's Burning Question hit our in-box. Unfortunately, we found our editor reeling from a night of peach Bellinis and he shot down our bold attempt to redefine journalism.

So instead, we must concentrate on the question at hand.

It's widely assumed, and backed by anecdotal evidence, that men prefer beer and hard liquor while women opt for white wines and fruitier drinks. Certain concoctions, such as the peach Bellini, even acquire labels--women's drink, gay drink and so on. Will Morgan at Champps in Las Colinas refers to this as "the shared consciousness of the bar," where patrons learn cues from other patrons. Location also determines acceptability. The margarita, for example, is a Texas staple appreciated across gender lines. A man ordering the lime cocktail in rural Minnesota, however, risks being ostracized. Or so we've heard; our editor also turned down a planned trip to Bimidji, and we settled for a barroom discussion with some people who were either from the gopher state, had visited there or had seen a dead rodent (possibly a gopher) on Northwest Highway. Can't really remember which.

Anyway, drinking habits probably originate in childhood. "My father used to drink scotch," recalls Danny Versfelt of Al Biernat's, "and I learned from him." Popular culture also shapes our understanding of drink; witness the cosmopolitan phenomenon spurred by Sex in the City. "With men, there's more experimentation at first, stealing from their father's liquor cabinet, that sort of thing," says Curtis Cheney, bartender at Carson's. "Women like to hold something different than a beer bottle or a highball glass. They want something attractive."

"Women tend to accessorize more with their drinks," agrees Jordan Lowery of Whisky Bar.

Some turn to science for an explanation of this gender gap, citing evidence that men and women simply experience flavors differently. Unfortunately, a more complete discussion of this assertion requires a trip to a location without "bar" or "tavern" attached to its name. In this instance, the Burning Question crew convinced our editor that such an excursion--he had suggested the library, among other things--violated several principles of timely journalism. Besides, we were too drunk to find our way out of the bar. We recalled, however, a study in which Australian psychologist Robert "Bruce" McBride reported only slight differences after subjecting men and women to a taste test of several products, including beer. According to McBride, men and women rate the taste of beer equally. Men, however, grant additional points for the effect (or "perceived enjoyment," in his terminology) of alcohol.

In other words, various social factors contribute more to gender-specific drinking habits than biology. As Rus Miller, bartender at Jeroboam puts it, "Your taste in liquor is predetermined by the amount of experience with alcohol, cultural values and a number of other factors." American cultural outlets traditionally allowed male drunkenness while denigrating inebriated women as "lushes." Thus we expect women to prefer lighter drinks, such as white zinfandel, even though a recent study of female drinkers in New York revealed that 57 perfect opt for the red stuff.

Bartenders suggest that age is a greater factor than sex in determining the drink of choice. "The older people drink martinis or whiskeys," says Bruce Bauman of the Green Room. "The younger ones--21, 23--they're more in the experimental stage." Thus while male drinking patterns remain relatively constant, climbing through different quality levels of the same liquors, women experience a more dynamic progression. "At first it's a cosmetic attraction," Cheney reports. "But as women get older, their level of sophistication changes." Indeed, the Burning Question crew found two quite sophisticated women, Lou Michaels and Michelle Downey, sipping martinis at Jeroboam. "I know a lot of women who drink martinis," they explained (we really couldn't recall which was which, and at one point thought we were interviewing four women). "Cosmopolitans are a variation of the martini, and a good summer drink, and should not be sneered upon by men."

Or, as Bauman says, "Sex in the City liberated the martini for women. A martini shows a woman in control, sophisticated."

Interestingly, men respect women who order traditionally male drinks. "The women that order whiskey, they're the keepers," observes Lenny, a bartender at The Dubliner. "A lot of Irish and Scottish women drink whiskey, but not a lot of Americans. You want a woman who can stay the course." Others concur. "When a woman orders a scotch, that's the sexiest thing a woman can do in a bar," adds Cheney, who apparently doesn't get out much.

"I notice men react differently if I order a martini than if I order white wine," the Michaels-Downey foursome remarks. "There's a check of respect in their eyes."

In answer, then, to this week's Burning Question, we can only suggest that peer pressure, upbringing, media, tradition and all the elements of culture define our drinking patterns. Chris Michaels, formerly of Bali Bar and now bartender at Nikita, points out that on Bali Bar's Latin night, every male drinks Bud Light. Many bartenders add that wealthy white men typically order high-end vodkas while black men order Hennessey and Coke.

Yet things are changing. Chris O'Hagan, Dallas aficionado of all things alcoholic, believes drinks have been neutered. And if Sex in the City liberated martinis and other male drinks for women, perhaps it accomplished the same for our editor and his beloved Bellinis.

We hear he owns the complete first year of HBO's hit series on DVD.

(Editor's note: As the proud grandson of Italian immigrants, I'm not sure why Dave associates the Bellini, an Italian cocktail, with effeminacy, but would be happy to share his home address with any paesanos who wish to "discuss" it with him.)

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