World’s First Female Bartending Champion Shakes Up The Status Quo
By Brook Bolen
The wildly popular craft cocktail movement, like every other trend, is susceptible to — and shaped by — external forces. And in this case, arguably the most obvious offender is sexism. To a large extent, the craft cocktail movement is visually represented in a very male way: vests, mustaches, sleeve garters, and the like. This (mis)representation is telling, not only because it hearkens back to the barmaid bashing days of yore, but because it paints an incomplete and inaccurate picture of the craft cocktail scene and the work women do — and have always done — in the bartending industry.
Perhaps no one has brought this incongruence into focus more clearly than 2014 Bols Bartending World Champion Kate Gerwin. The annual competition is widely accepted as the top honor in the industry.
Already well-known in the industry before her Bols victory, her achievement catapulted her to international stardom, as the first woman to ever win the title. It also enabled her to do something tangible to truly help the women coming along after her: Gerwin created a mentorship program called “Girls with Bols.”
“Winning was a huge eye-opener to me — so many people reached out to me. Personally, I was shocked,” she says. Slightly ruefully, she continues:
“Why was all this attention on the fact that I had boobs? Honestly, it was horrible. Every headline, every story was about me being female, not about my actual skill or talent. Why do I have to be female? Why’s that so shocking? I started to really see that women are not in headlines. Is it supposed to be shocking that we have brains? That seems to be the case; you never see headlines that read: ‘First Male Champion.’”
There seems to be something particularly discriminatory about bartending. Before coming into it, Gerwin worked as a wine sommelier. “When I was in wine, I think there was also some sexism, but the scientifically-proven fact that women are better tasters helps with that,” she laughs. “Wine is not as sexist as bartending.”
Which brings us to the mentorship program, a way to connect budding female bartenders with women leaders in the industry:
“The reason I started it was because everyone was focused on the fact that I was the first female bartending champion. That was the biggest thing. I was like, ‘Why’s that the biggest deal? Not that I competed and won, but that a girl had won. It made me realize that women are not seen as powerful in this industry — that sparked something in me. It seemed so odd.”
Though pronounced “bowls,” Bols looks as though it might sound like “balls,” a clever play on words that Gerwin appreciates. “The title of the organization was at first just girls joking around, playing on words, girls having balls. But then, I learned about the history of the brand,” says Gerwin.
The Netherlands-based spirits company, which hosts the annual competition, was started by a man named Lucas Bols, an American importing spices. When he passed away, his wife inherited the business. When she sold it, she put in a stipulation that the name ‘Bols’ must be kept, according to Gerwin. That’s why it’s known as the world’s oldest branded distillery. It’s not the world’s oldest distillery, but it is the world’s oldest branded one.
“I loved the idea of including ‘Bols’ in [the mentorship program] somehow,” adds Gerwin. But she’s actually paying homage to the 440-year-old brand founder’s wife, whose name, sadly, was erased from history.
“I love that it shows that in the 1500s and 1600s, women had business sense and savvy. It goes to show that women are underestimated, underrepresented, and underappreciated, which is sad because of all the things we can do.”
While Gerwin loved the name and play on words, it wasn’t as widely accepted as she anticipated:
“At first, we got some flak for having ‘girls’ in our name. And I said: I am a woman. So now you’re telling me there’s a stigma to being a girl? There’s nothing wrong with being a girl. I am not demeaning you by using that term. Being a girl is not bad. I don’t want my daughter to think being a girl is bad, that her life only has value when she’s a woman.”
As the idea for the mentorship program took root in Gerwin’s mind, she began reaching out to other women in the industry for their involvement. She says having a diverse range of perspectives is key to the program, which is why she picked major markets — cities with significant bartending cultures and communities — to be involved.
Those same cities and markets helped Gerwin and team select new bartenders to assist and mentor. This year’s program will start in April.
One of the things she’s most proud of is sponsoring Speed Rack, an all-women, speed bartending competition. All the proceeds go to support breast cancer research. Gerwin is set on giving back through the variety of initiatives she is part of: “We offer free classes to women and men in our industry. We’ve done social media training, head shots, financial classes . . . we try to do a wide range of events that benefit women in the industry.”
While it’s an amazing mentorship program, an undeniably cool aspect of “Girls with Bols” is the way it represents feminism. In a world where political and social climates are often characterized by confusion and derision, “Girls with Bols” illustrates that to be for something doesn’t necessarily or automatically mean you’re against something else. Although women run the organization and are the central focus, “Girls with Bols” does not exclude men.
“It’s not just a girls’ group, or a group of girls,” Gerwin explains. “The only place we exclude guys from is our Facebook group page. The organization is based on the idea that we, as a society and as an industry, don’t see women as teachers and role models. The idea was that women aren’t seen as strong leaders, or mentors in this industry.” Gerwin wanted aspiring women bartenders to know that they didn’t have to find a man to mentor them; there was no dearth of female mentors out there.
So, in honor of the incredible women Gerwin and crew mentor and support, she whipped up a speciality cocktail. Mix it up, toss it back, and visualize a more feminist world. Cheers!
Kate Gerwin’s Black Magic Woman
2 oz Bols Genever
.5 oz Barrow’s Ginger Liqueur
1 oz fresh lemon juice (to taste depending on acidity of lemons)
.5 oz black tea syrup (one part black tea water to one part sugar heated to make a syrup)
2 dashes angostura bitters
half bar spoon activated charcoal powder
Garnish with a Szechuan buzz button flower. The flower bud has a grassy taste, followed by a strong tingling or numbing sensation and often excessive salivation, with a cooling sensation in the throat. The flower alters the flavor perceptions of the drink, making it unforgettably delicious.
Lead image: Glasser Images