When it comes to alcohol, New Orleans is the most spoilt-for-choice city in the United States. The density of bars and the relationship that the city has to its libations means that you can find just about any drink on any given day, from cocktails made to the exact specifications of a century-old manuscript to nuclear-looking punches that could strip paint.
But once you leave Bourbon Street behind and head up the ladder into the rarified air of well-known bartenders, the ones who get their own cocktail books and write-ups in glossy magazines, the ones who get their name in lights (err, chalk) doing guest appearances at other bars, things start to look a little same-y. The bartenders who are frequently shouted about beyond the confines of the Crescent City tend to come up through the same channels, standing behind the same four or five famous stretches of polished wood. But even if you didn’t know where they came from, lining up the city’s most-lauded mixers would make one thing obvious: They’re almost all men.
And in a city with as many excellent women behind the bar as New Orleans, that simply cannot stand. There’s a strong network of women bartenders and pop-up creators who are pushing to change that.
Take Swamp Moves, for example. The pop-up located in the ritzier upstairs bar of Decatur Street dive Santos didn’t set out to be a place that champions female bartenders. Organizer Kassandra Montaño said that she just wanted to create a space in the Quarter that locals would feel comfortable attending. But as the relaxed weekly event has grown, Montaño has moved toward shining a spotlight on deserving female mixologists.
Montaño told us that the night began as a way to get New Orleanians to engage with the culture that people travel to the city to see.
“I said[…]I want to do a speakeasy upstairs and I want it to be really chill,” she said. “I want it to be a night that locals feel like they can come to. Because it’s not often that we go out to Frenchmen or Bourbon Street or these places to see some of the music that we’re so famous for. How can we create an environment that’s open to all different types of people from different backgrounds that maybe have never seen this type of music or been to this type of space before?”
That air of inclusivity eventually spread to the drinks program as Swamp Moves proved to be a success. She started to picture a series of guest bartenders, highlighting women around the city who were doing interesting work. And Montaño immediately ran into the ways that the industry can be narrow-minded. Her first guest was Anna Giordano of Bar Tonique who, in spite of working at a much-loved cocktail spot and placing well in various bartending competitions, had never actually been asked to hold down a guest slot.
“The same types of people get asked to do that very often,” Montaño explained. “Anna came in second for Speed Rack, an all-female speed bartending competition. But we still had to walk through it. We had to walk through the steps of what it means to do a guest shift. Because she had never been invited to do something like that before. That’s kind of incredible because she’s an inspiring, vast knowledgeable bartender.”
But rather than be discouraged, Montaño saw it as a reason to keep pushing.
“It does feel like the same types of people get asked [to do guest shifts.] Mostly male, mostly from very specific bars,” she said. “But it would be nice to go around that and have this other counter [movement].”
Montaño said that the environment that creates a mostly male upper echelon starts from many women bartenders’ first days on the job. She said that, particularly in higher-end bars, she was made to feel like she couldn’t wield the same sort of power as her male counterparts.
“I’m lucky now to be in a space where I’m trusted. I haven’t always felt like that,” she said. “When I’ve stepped into certain roles behind the bar, I was meant to have one of the male bartenders as a mentor, but then I could never really express the same type of power that they did behind the bar. Me commanding myself behind the bar would be seen as bossy or as disrespectful or insubordinate. My male counterparts could be downright rude and get away with it.”
Now that Montaño is in a venue where she feels comfortable owning her space, she’s working to give a leg up to others. That’s not surprising given where she works when not running the pop-up. She said that the family around Santos and The Saint have been incredibly supportive and that owner Benji Lee is willing to give staff the room to try out ideas like Swamp Moves.
Montaño noted that Lee’s openness is novel, but added that people who aren’t willing to cede space for the excellent women bartenders on the rise will find themselves in the city’s history books.
“New Orleans has a strong community of female bartenders,” she said. “There are a few pockets [that are missing women] and it’s noticeable. When you do not have female presence and you also don’t really have a culture of female bartenders who frequent that bar for that reason. You’re going to get left behind.”
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Header image courtesy of Swamp Moves/Facebook.