Sitting at H Bar, in the Post Oak Marriott Hotel in Houston, Texas, my face gradually becoming beet red from the hops in the beer that was slowly, but surely, revealing my Asian body’s inability to effectively process the alcohol, I started to ponder.
Why was I having a beer anyway, knowing full well that I lack the enzyme in my body to properly breakdown the alcohol in this specific class of intoxicant?
It’s not like I very much like the taste of beer, but perhaps I’ve been conditioned to believe the golden elixir is the "proper" inebriant for a "real man." Where a "real man", especially one who drinks, but may not necessarily enjoy beer, fits in the modern context is perhaps an increasingly unclear proposition.
There was a time when a "real man" worked with his hands, his sweaty body requiring the refreshment of a nice-cold beer after a hard day’s work, typically outdoors and exposed to the elements. Today, most men work with their hands still, in anonymous open-plan offices or shared workspaces, hammering away not at nails, but keyboards.
In centuries past, the liberalisation of women could arguably have been the focus, but the past several decades could possibly be seen as the "liberalisation of men". Whereas women were deservedly breaking out of their gender-specific roles, that sea change also afforded men the opportunity to redefine what it means to be a modern man.
For men, giving up their careers to dedicate themselves to domestic roles as the key caretaker of home and offspring is no longer seen as something to be concealed but celebrated. And many of the stereotypical qualities associated with so-called “toxic” masculinity have started to be chipped away at, replaced with more fluid concepts that appear increasingly tolerant of various interpretations of what being a man is.
Yet despite the progress made in redefining the modern man in virtually every area of life, one area which appears to remain “Old Fashioned” is at the bar—there’s even a drink named after it!
Disagree? Attempt a first date by ordering a lychee martini for yourself from the mixologist and look out for the noticeable flinch from your date. That tropical cocktail with the little umbrella? You might not be looking at a second date.
As much as it ought not be the case, we can’t help but at least form an impression of each other by what we wear, do for a living, and of course, order at the bar.
Scotch and soda? Safe, staid, if not a little bit boring.
Blue Curacao? A Pandora’s box.
The same way a man in the eighties and nineties could have been judged for ordering a salad on a first date, similarly, would a date not judge a man based on what he orders from the bartender today?
To be sure, change is afoot, as evidenced in the advertising of the liquor companies, with a subtle shift towards more “friendly” beverages, many of them mixed. But one can’t help recognising the predominant message is of a certain brand of masculinity when it comes to most male-targeted spirits. Backdrops of hunting and the Scottish countryside certainly seem to suggest the beverage was intended to be imbibed by men, sans mixers of any sort.
Yet there seems one representation of a man who is partial to a cocktail—Ian Fleming’s creation of James Bond. While Bond may have preferred white spirits, his cocktail of choice, a vodka martini, shaken, not stirred wasn’t always served in the most “manly looking” stemware. Which brings us down to the question of glassware—does the vessel imbue its beverage with so-called “manliness” or lack thereof? In a lineup of various glasses to serve drinks, would one argue that a whiskey glass is decidedly more manly than say, a martini glass?
A wine glass possesses more machismo than say a champagne flute? But if so, who became the judge of what manly glassware is?
Yet somehow, and at least this is something I know I am certainly guilty of, in the back of our minds, there is an unwritten hierarchy to glassware for drinks and a beer mug must certainly rank quite high on the testosterone scale. And if it’s not the glassware that matters, surely the colour of the cocktail makes a difference too?
Is a blue curacao necessarily less manly than a whiskey sour? I would think there are more than a few who would believe so.
A Midori cocktail, more effeminate than a vodka tonic?
Unwittingly, there are so many of us, myself included, who pull up to a bar and especially if we’re getting a drink alone, would scarcely dare to order some cocktail in a neon green or blue hue.
If we as a society are to break gender stereotypes wherever they exist, then this must surely extend to the cocktail bar as well.
So as my mind drifted to these thoughts at the H Bar that summer afternoon, I gulped down what remained of my beer and motioned for the barkeep, not for the bill, but to whisper, somewhat conspiratorially, “I’ll have a mai tai please, and oh, if it’s not too much trouble, could you put an umbrella in it?”