Q&A: Girly Drinks Author Mallory O'Meara - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

Q&A: Girly Drinks Author Mallory O’Meara

With a background in monster movies and sci-fi flicks, author Mallory O’Meara has long been interested in the untold stories of women, which she explored in her 2019 book, The Lady From The Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick. For her new book, O’Meara followed her self-described nerdy tendencies and love of whiskey down a rabbit hole of drinks history that, for her, came up sorely lacking a female perspective. In Girly Drinks: A World History of Women and Alcohol, the author explores the role that women played in shaping the drinks world as we know it, highlighting key figures, from Hildegard von Bingen to Appleton master blender Joy Spence. We caught up with O’Meara about the inspiration for the book, which historical woman she would want to have a drink with, and why it’s not always about breaking barriers.

Imbibe: Your background is in the film industry; what inspired the idea for a book about the history of women in the drinks world? Mallory O’Meara: I kind of stumbled into being an author and a historian. I worked for years as a film producer and screenwriter for a production company making genre movies—sci-fi, monsters—and my first book was a biography of the woman who designed the Creature from the Black Lagoon because I’m a huge monster fan, and she was my hero. As I was writing that book, I moved to Los Angeles and my best friend got me a cocktail set as a housewarming present and I got really into cocktails. As I was enmeshed in writing this biography and doing all this research, I realized how much I loved writing about history, and I became frustrated that there weren’t any cocktail history books written by women. I’m a huge nerd, and whenever I get into anything, the first thing I want to do is read about its history. I very much subscribe to the Hermione Granger school of life. So when I started getting really into cocktails—and I realized you could get really nerdy about them and there was so much artistry and science and sociology involved—I wanted to read more about it. I started buying all sorts of cocktail history books, and it took me a minute to realize that they were all written by men, that the main character in all these history books is a white dude. There was one book that I was reading in particular about the history of the American cocktail, and there was a single line that said during Prohibition women were allowed into bars really for the first time in America because all sorts of social rules were abandoned. And I was like, “Hold the phone, that’s what I want to know about! Where are the women?”

Why do you think women’s stories are often neglected in realms like these, whether horror films or drinks history? In drinks history especially, the thing that frustrates me is that I think up until very recently, the parameters for what we looked at for cocktail history were very narrow. More importantly, everything had to happen in public. Bartending history was only about what happened in public, when so much of drinks history, for thousands of years, is history that happened in the home and in the kitchen. But because many historians, and archeologists, and writers have sort of discounted anything that happens in the home, we’ve left this massive swath of really important history behind, which is ridiculous.

How did you research the book; where did you go looking? I read between 500 and 700 books for this. I ended up having to look up a ton of cocktail history, alcohol history, feasting history, party history, and then look up a bunch of women’s history and make a sort of Venn diagram to find where it overlapped. There are a few academic books, but most of it was me finding drinks history and within it the small chapters and paragraphs that mentioned women and putting it into context. It was very important for me to not just regurgitate a bunch of cocktail history; I wanted to put it in context for people. One of the things that was very apparent to me is just how important alcohol is … for most of history it was a very important product that influenced trade and society, and was a key part of people’s diets. So it’s easy to look back and think, “Sure, women made beer, cool.” But I wanted to put into context how important that was.

Did you learn anything that really surprised you? I think the thing that really surprised me, and it was such a pattern that kept occurring, is that for so many types of alcohol— beer, sake, wine—women really were the ones to control it at the start and were really influential in the ways they were made and served. And then as soon as anything became commercially viable, men came in and were like, “Cool, thanks, we’ll take this now.” I knew women had to be involved, but I was completely shocked at the scale at which they were across the globe.

If you could sit down for a drink with any of these women, who would it be? I would have to say Bessie Williamson [of Laphroaig]. I love all of these women, and I worked really hard to choose women who were not only all over the world but represented different aspects of drinking culture. But I’m a huge bourbon drinker, and whiskey is one of my favorite things in the world. This woman who wore cardigans and cat’s-eye glasses and sensible updos was the one to really help move the needle and change people’s taste regarding scotch. When people think of scotch they think of Nick Offerman and typically masculine things, but it was really this woman who did all of that. She’s the ultimate cool girl to me. She was unapologetically herself and let her love of this spirit shine through. … There is this huge push that has been going on for several years, especially post–Me Too, to get more women everywhere, and obviously I am signed on to that 5,000 percent—more women writing, more women directing, more women distilling and brewing. But it’s so important to me for women to know that they’re not always blazing a trail— they’ve always belonged here. That was the whole idea with Girly Drinks—women’s time in alcohol started 25,000 years ago. I want women to know that while there are barriers to break, they have a history and a legacy here.

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