According to Dale DeGroff—2015 James Beard honoree and the godfather of fresh ingredient cocktails—women are to thank for the present day popularity of cocktails. And DeGroff specifically credits the late-'90s era television show, Sex and the City, which made crafted cocktails, like the Cosmopolitan, a thing.
DeGroff himself introduced the U.S. to fresh ingredient cocktails in 1986 when he began to build drinks with ingredients not from a can or box. Though ubiquitous now, in the '80s fresh ingredient libations were unimaginable, with most drinks made from canned juices and imprecise measurements. Flair bartending was hot (remember Tom Cruise’s Cocktail?), shots like the Kamikaze were a popular cocktail conveyance, and pour-and-dump potations like the Alabama Slammer and the Long Island Ice Tea graced every bar.
Not only were muddled fresh fruit and jiggered ingredients unheard of at the time, but women—who are currently considered influential adult beverage consumers and make up 70 percent of alcohol purchasing decisions—rarely attended bars unaccompanied. During the 80s, bars were where men went for hard liquor, camaraderie and loose women.
"The idea that it’s not a date without cocktails was created by Sex and the City." -DeGroff
In fact, it wasn’t until a certain ‘90s New York-based television show debuted that the idea of sipping on beautiful drinks was launched into the mainstream consciousness as the perfect girls’ night out. "I think women have been driving the cocktail revival to a great extent. In part because of Sex and the City, which captured the imagination of every young girl in the world who has a TV set," explains DeGroff. "The idea that it’s not a date without cocktails was created by Sex and the City. Women ordered cocktails, men ordered cocktails because they were with women who ordered them."
Audrey Saunders, owner of New York’s iconic Pegu Club and DeGroff’s longtime friend, agrees. "Dale has asserted this for years, and I have always wholly agreed with it. But I would also add that at this date in time, Sex and the City is no longer around and yet women who have no connection whatsoever with that series are ordering cocktails, without influence from that reference. Cocktails are sexy and full of intrigue … and they speak to a woman’s creativity to a strong degree. Women have always been the creators, the ones who experiment ... Cocktails are like a creative, visually beautiful, delicious accessory that we have our choice of, whenever the mood suits us."
But martini glasses and pastel-hued drinks weren’t the only appeal. Per DeGroff, it was options on actual, physical menus which elevated cocktails’ appeal: "Cocktails are sexy, they’re pretty, they’re decorative, they have tremendous variety and there’s a menu of them. You can read it and you can find something you like, you can actually have something in front of you. Women will order from a menu."
"Cocktails are sexy and full of intrigue … and they speak to a woman’s creativity to a strong degree." -Audrey Saunders
David Wondrich, cocktail historian and author of Imbibe! and Punch is in accord, yet feels there's more to the story: "As a historian, I'm of course going to say it's more complicated than that, but Dale's not wrong—women drove the Cosmopolitan craze, and that got people used to drinking things out of V-shaped, stemmed glasses again. Even before the Cosmo, though, there had been a yuppies-in-suits craze, where the guys drank gin (and vodka) martinis [but] the Cosmo brought the wider appeal and the creativity and showed the way for a lot of people."
It seems like a provocative statement to make in this day and age where there's immediate backlash against girl-driven marketing ploys like Eva Longoria's (former) lady-friendly steakhouse and Heaven Hill's pink whiskey. But, according to fellow cocktail historians and esteemed bartenders, DeGroff may have a point.
"... women drove the Cosmopolitan craze, and that got people used to drinking things out of V-shaped, stemmed glasses again." - David Wondrich
New York bar star Julie Reiner is responsible for opening one of Manhattan's first accessible cocktail bar, Flatiron Lounge, 12 years ago. She recollects, "What I found in opening that spot was women were and are more adventurous when it comes to trying new things in the cocktail sense than men are ... women had read about what we were doing at Flatiron and because they had read that the cocktails had been made by people who knew what they were doing and that we were using fresh juices and whatnot they were really more apt to order off of the menu. It really helped to drive what we wanted to happen there for people to order cocktails so the women were really the ones to push that forward."
Men stuck to their old stand-bys while women were more open to trying something new. Not to say the world wouldn't have discovered the craft cocktail based on the merits of pioneers like DeGroff, Saunders, and Reiner alone, but it certainly helped that women, and in particular Carrie Bradshaw and gang, made going out for some well-made cocktails look so good.