April 1, 2014

Women are shaking up the cocktail world

Women now own and run distilleries; work as master blenders; manage bars, brands and companies; write books, blogs and columns; and undertake just about any other job you can think of.

Casey Bond isn’t one to let gender stand in her way. The Kansas City native has owned a funeral home transportation company, been a volunteer firefighter, trained as a paramedic and done a turn in landscaping — all jobs with few female co-workers.

So, when Bond decided on a career in distilled spirits, she didn’t hesitate. She bartended at Port Fonda in Westport and Lenexa’s Dark Horse Distillery, networked like crazy and then last fall became brand ambassador for

Crown Valley Brewing Distilling Co. of Ste. Genevieve, Mo


“I feel very comfortable working in a male-dominated field,” says Bond, who leads tastings, hosts booths at beer festivals and created the I-70 Showdown, a cocktail competition featuring Crown Valley’s beers, wines and spirits. “It gives me the opportunity to stand out and be an industry leader.”

Bond isn’t alone. While it’s difficult to say how many women work in the industry, empirical evidence suggests the number is growing. Women now own and run distilleries; work as master blenders; manage bars, brands and companies; write books, blogs and columns; and undertake just about any other job you can think of.

Women are also more visible, thanks to Ladies United for the Preservation of Endangered Cocktails, Bourbon Women and other organizations, as well as Speed Rack, a national speed bartending competition created by and for women. In Kansas City, they’re integral to the local U.S. Bartenders’ Guild chapter, Paris of the Plains Cocktail Festival and countless other events.

“I don’t want to discredit the men, but women work so hard,” Bond says. “You have to go above and beyond to make a name for yourself.”

That said, women aren’t exactly new to the business. Bushmills and Tullamore Dew in Ireland and Scotland’s Cardow distillery (which became Johnnie Walker’s most important) all thrived under a feminine hand in the 19th century.

In the 20th, Mary Beam and Augusta Dickel helped build some of America’s favorite legal brands, while female bootleggers outsold their male rivals 5-to-1 during Prohibition, according to “Whiskey Women” (Potomac Books, 2013).

Women helped both pass and repeal Prohibition, and they suffered the effects of those battles. Many states prohibited them from serving alcohol until the 1970s, and industry codes of conduct restricted advertising featuring women until the mid-1980s, says “Whiskey Women’s” author, Fred Minnick.

Women have long found work on distilling lines, but as attitudes eased, they’ve expanded their reach.

“You’re seeing women just really take to the field now,” Minnick says. “There are so many women that don’t feel the societal barriers their mothers and grandmothers felt.”


Dark Horse Distillery’s

Kris Hennessy doesn’t. The entrepreneur already had a successful veterinary vaccine business when she converted a building she owned at 87th Street and Quivira Road into a distillery in 2010. It was simply a good opportunity for herself and her partners, siblings Mary Garcia, Patrick Garcia, Damian Garcia and Eric Garcia.

The company now sells its whiskeys and vodka in Kansas, Missouri, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, and it may add a second location in Kansas City. That she is one of only a handful of female distillery owners rarely crosses Hennessy’s mind.

“I’m just me,” she says. “I don’t think about it much.”

Not that the Dark Horse partners aren’t aware of industry stereotypes. Whiskey-makers have long courted male consumers by linking their brands to bull-riding, NASCAR and other manly pursuits. Women are targeted by Skinnygirl Cocktails, Little Black Dress vodka, a spate of honey-flavored whiskeys and the like.

So women prefer sweet, and men want bracing and brown. Right? Not always, says Mary Garcia, director of special events and public relations.

“There’s still a perception that women don’t drink whiskey,” says Garcia, who is just as adept at shaking cocktails and explaining Dark Horse’s grain-to-bottle process as she is chatting with brides about the building’s 6,500 square feet of event space. “People are almost shocked when I say that I do.”

Dark Horse courts both genders by being intentionally gender-neutral, not only in its products, but also in facility design, logo, labels and marketing materials, Garcia says.

“We want to be approachable for any adult,” Hennessy agrees.

Inclusiveness makes sense. Women began flexing their wine-buying muscles decades ago, and they’re now turning their attention to spirits and craft beer, says Mary Rimann, who, together with her husband, Marshall Rimann, owns

Rimann Liquors

in Prairie Village and Lenexa.

“People want better taste and more flavor,” says Rimann, who worked for KCTV-5 for 23 years before helping open and manage the Prairie Village location in 1999. “They want quality as opposed to quantity.”

Not that Kansas is an easy place to indulge their enthusiasm. The state has a reputation for strict liquor laws, and 13 counties remain dry. Still, things are improving. Many municipalities now allow Sunday liquor sales, and retail stores can offer free samples under certain circumstances.

“That was an incredible step for us,” Rimann says. “It makes sense that if you try something, you might be more willing to buy it.”

She often holds tastings and events in the store’s adjacent party shop. There’s more to try now than ever, too, thanks to a growing number of boutique wholesale suppliers. And when customers want to talk to the boss? Rimann just smiles.

“As the years go by, people have come to know I’m the decision maker here,” she says.

More women are calling the shots behind the bar as well. It’s exciting to see, says Jenn Tosatto, bar manager at the

Rieger Hotel Grill Exchange


“Three years ago, if you had asked about female bartenders, I could have named three off the top of my head. That’s definitely changed,” says Tosatto, who was a finalist in the 2012


World Class U.S. bartending competition and last year was featured in Gary “Gaz” Regan’s “Annual Manual for Bartenders.”

Writer Jane Kurtz agrees.

“We’re pretty lucky in Kansas City to have some really great women bartenders,” she says. “But I’ve got to say, I drink at home a lot.”

You’d expect that of Kurtz, who has self-published two cocktail books under the name J.K. O’Hanlon and has a third due out this fall. She hosts regular gatherings, sometimes to road-test recipes, sometimes with themes like “Martini Madness” in March, always with the goal of empowering people to mix their own cocktails.

“It’s so fun to watch people get into being creative and making something they’ll own,” Kurtz says. “I love that.”

Creativity also excites Kathy Pelz, owner of

Beverages Etc. in Overland Park. She and George Vesel began the business in 2007, but it grew so quickly that they divided the company in 2010. Vesel now owns the spirits brokerage arm, called Veselbev

, while Pelz distributes nonalcoholic cocktail ingredients.

Hers was perfect timing. Craft bartenders were making everything from bourbon-soaked cherries to tonic water and pickled garnishes, and some had started packaging and marketing their creations. At the same time, other bars and consumers were seeking better quality, ready-made ingredients.

“I absolutely fell in love with the trend,” Pelz says.

Pelz’s lineup now includes Wilks Wilson elixirs; Bar Keep, Scrappy’s and other bitters; Fever Tree mixers; Monin syrups; and dozens more handcrafted products. Managing all that is not without its challenges, but Pelz can’t imagine doing anything else.

“Once you get into it and you get bit, it just stays there for life,” Pelz says.

Speed Rack, for women only

There are all kinds of bartenders, from those pulling beers and pouring shots, to high volume pros keeping pace in busy clubs, to the craft cocktail creatives. And while bartending has long been considered a man’s job, some of the best just happen to be women.

Don’t believe me? Then buy a ticket to

Speed Rack

, a speed bartending competition Sunday at the Madrid Theater. Twenty-one women (and only women) from six states will compete in this regional round; the winner will go on to the Speed Rack final in New York later this year.

“In an industry that’s male-dominated, it’s cool to have a serious competition for women,” says Jenn Tosatto, bar manager of the Rieger Hotel Grill Exchange and Speed Rack competitor both this year and in 2013. “It isn’t about looking good. It’s about incredible women bartenders making good cocktails.”

Competitors make four drinks in each round, working as quickly as possible to get each drink right. And I do mean quick: The Seattle regional winner did it in just under 2 minutes earlier this year, onstage, with music pounding and the crowd cheering.

“It’s like the roller derby of cocktail competitions,” says New York bartender Lynnette Marrero, who co-founded the event with Ivy Mix in 2011. “It’s exciting to watch these empowered, strong females in this crazy, high-octane competition.”

Kansas City will be represented by seven bartenders, most of whom have been prepping for weeks by studying a list of 50 cocktails used by judges in the early rounds, practicing pouring with water-filled liquor bottles and working extra shifts to hone their skills.

“The girls involved in Speed Rack are extremely tough, and they take it very seriously,” says Paige Unger, a bartender at Extra Virgin and Michael Smith who won last year’s regional contest in St. Louis (as well as the

Paris of the Plains Bartending Competition

) and will compete again this year. “It makes people stop and see that the best bartender in a city doesn’t have to be a man in a bow tie.”

Speed Rack isn’t just about speed, though. The event was created with a dual purpose: to showcase female talent while at the same time raising funds for breast cancer research and education. So far, more than $150,000 has been donated to breast cancer charities.

“I lost a grandmother and almost a mother” to breast cancer, says Rachel Freeman, a bartender at the Chesterfield and Speed Rack competitor. “A competition for my profession that raises money for research? I couldn’t not participate in that!”

Anne Brockhoff, Special to The Star Who’s competing

Of the 21 bartenders competing in Speed Rack’s Kansas City regional, seven are from area bars. Speed Rack—Kansas City is at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Madrid Theatre, 3810 Main St. Tickets are $20 each (includes food and drink samples) and are available at


. All proceeds go to breast cancer education, prevention and research.

The local competitors:


Caitlin Corcoran, bar manager, Port Fonda

Began bartending:


What she loves about her job:

Developing a rapport with guests and helping them learn about agave-based spirits like tequila and mezcal (Port Fonda’s focus).

Shake or stir?

Corcoran likes doing both at the same time. “It makes me feel like a drummer,” she says.


Rachel Freeman, bartender, the Chesterfield, in the lobby of the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema

Began bartending:


What she loves about her job:

When guests give her creative license by saying “just make me something.”

Shake or stir?

Stirring. “I can talk while stirring,” Freeman says.


Carisa Lynch, bar supervisor, Bar Rosso, Hotel Sorella

Began bartending:


What she loves about her job:

For Lynch, it’s all about the people who sit at her bar. “I love giving guests a great cocktail with a great experience,” she says.

Shake or stir?

Both at the same time.


Margot Thompson, bartender, the Farmhouse

Began bartending:


What she loves about her job:

The hospitality. “What I do for a living can turn somebody’s day around completely,” Thompson says.

Shake or stir?

Shake if there’s juice, stir if there’s not, says Thompson, who is herself a fan of gin-based, citrusy drinks.


Jenn Tosatto, bar manager, the Rieger Hotel Grill Exchange

Began bartending:


What she loves about her job:

For Tosatto, “it’s all about the guest connection.”

Shake or stir?

Tosatto’s favorite drinks are stirred, but she does love to shake. “There’s nothing more fun than the spectacle of a killer double shake,” she says.


Paige Unger, bartender, Extra Virgin and Michael Smith

Began bartending:


What she loves about her job:

Working in hospitality. “It’s such a good community, with people taking care of people. I love the restaurant industry.”

Shake or stir?

Unger prefers drinks containing citrus, which have to be shaken. “Shaking is my favorite,” she says.


Katy Wade, bartender, the Rieger Hotel Grill Exchange and Manifesto

Began bartending:


What she loves about her job:

Making sure that people feel comfortable and have a good time, and also how much there is to learn about cocktails and spirits.

Shake or stir?

Wade prefers the elegance of a stirred drink, but “from a speed standpoint, I like to be stirring with my right hand and shaking with my left,” she says.


Speed Rack provides contestants with a list of 50 cocktails that the panel of four judges can request during the early rounds. Here’s a sampling:

Boulevardier Makes 1 drink 1 ounce Four Roses Yellow Label bourbon 1 ounce Campari 1 ounce Martini Italian vermouth Orange twist, for garnish

Fill a mixing glass partway with ice. Add bourbon, Campari and vermouth. Stir until chilled, strain and serve either up or on the rocks. Garnish with orange twist.

Per drink: 179 calories (none from fat), no fat, no cholesterol, 2 grams carbohydrates, no protein, 8 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber. Bee’s Knees Makes 1 drink 2 ounces Beefeater gin 3/4 ounce lemon juice 3/4 ounce Honey Syrup

Fill a shaker tin partway with ice. Add gin, lemon juice and honey syrup. Shake until chilled. Strain and serve up.

For the Honey Syrup:

Combine one part water and one part honey in a saucepan. Simmer until honey dissolves. Cool and refrigerate until use.

Per drink: 179 calories (none from fat), nonfat, no cholesterol, 8 grams carbohydrates, trace protein, 2 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber. Volstead Cocktail Makes 1 drink 1 ounce Templeton rye whiskey 1 ounce Swedish Punsch (such as Kronan) 1/2 ounce orange juice 1/4 ounce raspberry puree (such as red raspberry from the Perfect Puree) 1/2 ounce simple syrup 1/4 ounce lemon juice (optional) 1 dash Pernod Absinthe Lemon twist, for garnish (optional)

Fill a shaker tin partway with ice. Add rye, Swedish Punsch, orange juice, raspberry puree, simple syrup, lemon juice (if using) and absinthe. Shake until chilled, strain and serve up. Garnish with the lemon twist (if using).

Per drink: 158 calories (none from fat), trace fat (no saturated fat), no cholesterol, 7 grams carbohydrates, trace protein, 1 milligram sodium, trace dietary fiber.

Related content



Editor's Choice Videos