FYI Book Club Spotlights Girly Drinks and Women’s Underappreciated Influence on Our Alcohol Culture

Wednesday, November 10, 2021
The Library’s latest FYI Book Club selection is Mallory O’Meara’s Girly Drinks: A World History of Women and Alcohol. Director of Readers’ Services Kaite Stover leads an online discussion of this latest “book of the moment” on Tuesday, November 30, 2021, at 6:30 p.m. via Zoom, with O’Meara joining the conversation. 

Email Stover at for details on joining in.

The Library’s Steve Wieberg wrote the following story on O’Meara and
Girly Drinks for The Kansas City Star.
Want a read on the progress women are making in society, on where they once stood or stand now in their centuries-long struggle for equal access and opportunity?

“All you have to do,” Mallory O’Meara says, “is look into the bottom of a glass.”

Five years ago, as she was throwing herself into a newfound interest in spirits, cocktails, and mixology, O’Meara sought out everything she could on drinking and making drinks. The Los Angeles-area writer and podcaster was quickly perplexed by what she didn’t find: much of anything about where and how women fit into that realm. Most every book was written by a man. Most every account featured men. 

“I read one book about the history of the American cocktail that had one line in it describing how, during Prohibition, women started drinking in bars in public for the first time, and I was, like, ‘Hold on. That’s what I want to know about,’ ” O’Meara says.

So, she researched and wrote it herself. Her new book Girly Drinks: A World History of Women and Alcohol outlines the substantial and yet hidden influence that women have had on the world’s alcohol culture – from production to distribution to consumption.

Cleopatra, as O’Meara writes, was “a brilliant philosopher and scholar, a pragmatic military leader and, yes, a drinker.” Hildegard von Bingen, a 12th-century German Benedictine nun, popularized the use of hops in brewing, improving the taste and more importantly extending the freshness of beer. 

Thomas Jefferson’s wife Martha supervised his brewery at Monticello, and their eldest daughter took over upon her mother’s death. (During one month in 1772, Martha recorded that she opened a barrel of flour; broke two loaves of sugar; saw to the slaughter of seven ducks, a lamb, and a pig; bought six pounds of coffee and 11 pounds of butter; and supervised the brewing of one cask, or 15 gallons, of beer.)

It’s an exhaustively detailed yet breezy history set against the arc of overall women’s rights around the globe. Because, O’Meara writes, “it was impossible not to notice how strong the correlation was between a culture that allowed women to drink and a culture that gave women their freedoms.”

Released October 19, Girly Drinks is the Kansas City Public Library’s latest “book of the moment” FYI Book Club selection. O’Meara’s first book, the award-winning The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick, also was an FYI selection upon its publication in 2019.
FYI Book Group Discussion:
Girly Drinks
By Mallory O'Meara
Tuesday, November 30, 2021  | 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.

Online book group discussion.

RSVPs requiredReserve a spot and request a copy of the book.


They’re cut from the same cloth. Milicent Patrick was the history-making but too-long-overlooked creator of one of Hollywood’s most iconic film monsters. In Girly Drinks, O’Meara shines an overdue light on centuries of women’s experiences with alcohol.

“Every book I work on comes from me personally wanting to know something,” she says. “With Girly Drinks, it frustrated me that I was being denied this history that I knew had to be there.

“It’s important for me to let women know they have a legacy in this industry. There are more and more female bartenders and female distillers and female brewers than there have been in decades, but I want women to know they’ve been doing this for 25,000 years. They belong here. It’s not necessarily that they’re blazing a trail or having to break a glass ceiling. They’re just reclaiming what was already theirs.”

In fact, their footprint is growing. More women, like Becky Harris of Virginia’s Catoctin Creek Distilling Co., are heading distilleries, and Harris is the current president of the board of the American Craft Spirits Association. Maggie Timoney took over in 2018 as president and CEO of Heineken USA. Most of the senior brewmasters at Anheuser-Busch now are women. And nearly 58% of the nation’s bartenders were women as of the latest released figures from the U.S. Census.

At the same time, O’Meara points out that Anheuser-Busch is an anomaly. The vast majority of America’s brewmasters are men. While more women are behind the bar, their median pay in 2020 was nearly 18% lower than male bartenders’ earnings, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Two steps forward. One step back.

“I don’t think we’re near where we need to be, and the pandemic has made that especially difficult. It hit a lot of smaller bars and distilleries really hard,” O’Meara says. “But I do think the trends are positive. More and more women are not intimidated by a lot of spirits. They’re more interested in them. 

“I think this growth … is going to continue. And, hopefully sometime in the next few decades, we’ll be where we want to be.”

O’Meara recently spoke with The Star about Girly Drinks and alcohol’s gendered history, her own alcohol experiences and preferences (bourbon neat, please) and her conflicted feelings about the term “girly drinks.” Excerpts are edited for length.

Mallory O'Meara, author of Girly Drinks: A World History of Women and Alcohol

Q: How many hits of Buffalo Trace (O’Meara’s favorite bourbon) went into this project?

A: Many, uncountable bottles.

Q: With little previous written history to draw from, how exhausting was your research?

A: It took a few years. I read between 500 and 700 books – I wish I could buy bourbon for all the Los Angeles Public Library librarians. Whenever I would find some interesting bit of history on women and history, I would think, “I can’t believe no one has ever written this.” And I’d look at the towering stack of research materials and think, “Well, this is why nobody has done it. It’s so much work.”

I really wanted it to be exhaustive. It was very important to me not to just tell these stories and not just get into cocktail and drink history but also put them into context. Looking at medieval times, it’s easy to say, “Oh, women made ale. That’s cool!” But it’s very important to understand what women’s place in that society was, why they were attracted to that trade, how ale was an important part of everybody’s diet and how it was a very, very important product because of that. In order to give what I felt was a fully fleshed-out picture of all this, it required years of reading books, reading articles, doing interviews, watching documentaries, going through ancient cookbooks. It was exhausting, but it was a blast.

Q: You uncover a number of colorful, and influential, characters. Do you have a favorite?

A: It’s very hard to choose. But my favorite of the bunch has to be Bessie Williamson (who rose from a shorthand typist to manager and then owner of a distillery in her native Scotland and turned America on to single-malt scotch in 1960s). One, because I’m a huge whiskey fan. And I love the idea that Scotch, especially Laphroaig or (another) smoky, heavy, peaty Scotch, is so associated with masculinity in our culture. It’s like the manliest drink you can drink. And the idea that it was a frumpy lady from Scotland with a cardigan and cats-eye glasses who was influencing people to try it and convincing bartenders and bar and liquor store owners to serve it is the absolute coolest thing to me. 

Her story really epitomizes what the book is about, that all drinks are girly drinks. And if you scratch the surface of basically any type of alcohol, you’ve got women leading the way, whether it’s influencing how people drink it or how they make it.

Q: How gratifying is it to uncover these stories, to give people like Bessie Williamson a wider audience?

A: Getting women to know they belong and should be comfortable in where they want to be is so important to me. I’m already starting to get a little feedback on Girly Drinks from reviewers who are, like, “I was hesitant to try whiskey because I thought it was a man’s drink. I was hesitant to do this and hesitant to do that. And then I read Girly Drinks and realized I should be doing those things. I shouldn’t be hesitant. I belong in this place just as much as anybody else does.” That is the most satisfying thing for me.

Q: What’s your own history with alcohol?

A: It took me awhile – besides teenage drinking, drinking terrible beer and whatever other cheap stuff that teenagers drink. I really was intimidated by it. I was sensitive to being considered uncool if I tried something like whiskey, which intrigued me, and I didn’t like it. Or if it was too strong for me. I was so nervous about seeming like I was weak or too girly or whatever that I just kind of avoided it and I drank boring drinks for most of my early 20s – vodka sodas with lime. 

It wasn’t until I met my best friend, who’s a huge cocktail nerd, and she started taking me to cool craft cocktail bars in Brooklyn that I started to see where “wow, this is awesome. It’s not too strong for me.”

Q: How different are women’s and men’s tastes in alcohol?

A: There’s less difference than people might think. There was a study done in Japan or Korea in the ’90s and early 2000s when more and more women in those countries were joining the workforce and joining their coworkers in bars after work. There was a rush for beer and canned alcohol companies to make something for women, and they all rushed to make the most feminine-looking products they could with cans that were pink with flowers all over them, that were really sweet with extra fruit and sugar in them. And they all bombed. They found out that’s not what women wanted. They just wanted something that tasted good. I wrote in the book that when Wild Turkey released their American Honey, they finally were forced to conclude and announce that men were drinking it even more than women. 

That’s part of the reason I wanted to call the book Girly Drinks. There’s a myth that women like and can only drink appletinis. 

Q: You write that it’s “just outright silly” to consider some types of alcohol more masculine. Should the term “girly drinks” be retired?

A: The word “girly” is used so often as a pejorative. Anything girly is going to be (considered) weaker, it’s going to be inferior in some way to what else is out there, and that’s how it has been used to describe drinks. Girl drinks are sweeter. People think they’re more accessible to inexperienced drinkers or people who don’t know what they want to drink. It’s silly. Especially since so many drinks that can be considered girly drinks, like tiki drinks, require so much talent and so much skill to be creative. Yeah, we either need to reevaluate or get rid of the term.

Q: In researching the book, did come across any forgotten drinks that you were compelled to try?

A: Some of the historical recipes I write about are still influential, like Ada Coleman’s Hanky Panky (a sweet gin martini with a few dashes of Fernet Branca, dating to around 1920). But I tried to stay away from putting recipes in the book as much as I could. I wanted to make sure it was history book first.

I do have a drinks list that goes with each chapter, which I’m putting on my website. Some of them, I made. Some of them are more historical recipes. 

There are a lot of extras that go along with this book. There’s a music playlist. There’s a recommended reading list. It sort of makes up for the fact I’m not able to tour in person. There were a lot of fun events and activities that ended up having to be canceled, Kansas City being one of them.

Q: You’re now a now fulltime writer and podcaster after a long time in screenwriting and film producing. Did you foresee that?

A: Not at all. I’m not trained as a writer. I did not as a kid envision myself becoming an author. It’s something I sort of fell into. But I love it so much, and it’s worked out. 

It hasn’t been announced yet, but I have a middle-grade nonfiction book that I’m working on right now. And I’ve pitched my adult (titles) editor at Hanover Press another deep-dive, feminist history on a subject I’m interested in. Hopefully, he wants it.

Mallory O'Meara's Podcast

Steve Wieberg, a former reporter for USA Today, is a senior writer and editor for the Kansas City Public Library.
FYI Book Group Discussion:
Girly Drinks
By Mallory O'Meara
Tuesday, November 30, 2021  | 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.

Online book group discussion.

RSVPs requiredReserve a spot and request a copy of the book.