It was only a few years ago that Mia Kumari decided she wanted to be a bartender, during a seemingly uneventful break while on shift at Milk Thistle in Bristol. “I was eating a BLT sandwich and my manager asked me what my favourite drink was – at the time it was a Southern Comfort and lemonade. He asked what I thought of cocktails and said he could make a drink that tasted just like my sandwich. I thought he was crazy, but he came back with a drink that had tomato liqueur, green Chartreuse and whisky. I could taste every single flavour of my sandwich in that cocktail – that’s when I realised.”
It’s a testament to Kumari’s dedication and skill that in the short time since that discovery, she’s ended up wrapping up a nine-month stint behind the stick at the Savoy’s iconic American Bar, with the International Wine & Spirit Competition’s 2023 Emerging Talent in Bartending award under her belt, and a new role at industry favourite Satan’s Whiskers in Bethnal Green firmly in her pocket. She is undoubtedly one of the next generation of women blazing a trail in London’s dynamic and globally revered bar industry.
And there’s a roll call of women who proceed her as some of the most recognisable and celebrated faces when it comes to the often-overshadowed world of bartending. Monica Berg, co-owner of Old Street’s Tayēr + Elementary, tops most lists when it comes to being the most influential person in the industry; while Chelsie Bailey’s already shiny star got even brighter when she was named head bartender of the American Bar; Giulia Cuccurullo is at the helm at Artesian Bar in London’s Langham hotel; while over at The Dorchester and its new Vesper Bar has a head bartender in multi-award-winning Lucia Montanelli.
But while women represent a wealth of talent behind some of London’s best bars, there is still work to be done if we’re to see any kind of equity. Far from it being a 50:50 split, London’s bars are still tended predominantly by men, and recent times have seen the number of women in the job falling steadily. “Women working behind the bar has dropped a lot post-Covid,” Anna Sebastian tells me.
In fact, in a survey conducted by the community initiative she founded, Celebrate Her, specifically for this article, of the 320 participants who took part, 30% said that their team was made up of between 0-10% women, while 37% answered 10-30%, 25% answered 30-60% and only 9% cited more than 60%.
Having spent the latest months of her career recruiting for bars (including the American Bar), Sebastian is seeing the real-life impact of these figures on the industry. “I have seen such a significant drop of women working behind the bar or on the floor. People had time to reassess and that’s left a big gap. We’re going to have to go back to grass roots if we’re looking for a more equal industry.”
The origin stories of this next generation of women’s foray into the world of bars are all tied together by their ‘it-might-not-have-been’-ness. When Sexy Fish bar manager Cressie Lawlor dropped out of college with no qualifications, she found herself hopping on her motorbike from Winchester and driving to Notting Hill, where she worked as a waitress at The Gate for two nights a week. “Hospitality has always been my interest,” she says. “I always wanted to host and look after and I’ve always had a big interest in spirits.” A move behind the bar ignited her love of cocktails and ten years later she’s worked her way up to running one of the vibiest bars in town.
Women working behind the bar has dropped a lot post-Covid
When Emma Murphy, co-owner and creative director of agave-focused bar group Hacha, moved to London in her early twenties, she found herself working at one of the cities most revered bars, Milk & Honey. “It felt like another world, a world from the movies. Everyone was so passionate about it, it was inspiring.”
During that time, Murphy doesn’t recall there being a huge amount of women in senior positions, but witnessed the start of many of her peers’ long careers in the industry, including that of Hannah Lanfear, who has been instrumental in training bartenders and promoting diversity in the drinks industry ever since.
London is also a destination work relocating for. Shannon Tebay moved from Death & Co in New York City to start her UK career at the American Bar before turning to her current role at the recently opened Lower Third in Soho as beverage director of its numerous bars. Her introduction to the industry started in the kitchen: “I was living in New York City and attending the French Culinary Institute for pastry arts and needed a side hustle,” she tells me. She started as a cocktail waitress at Death & Co in 2010 and it quickly became obvious to her how similar the methodology in cocktails and pastry were. “I ended up taking the skills and way of working and thinking about flavour in pastry school and applying it to the cocktail world.”
Change from the top
When it comes to representation, the disparity behind the bar between men and women is something that Tebay believes needs to be addressed first and foremost by the people who have hiring power. “There is an imbalance but the struggles are the same as in other industries, starting with lack of representation. I think it is important for people in positions of power to make sure they are being responsible by hiring diverse groups of people in terms of gender and otherwise… I’m product of being part of a company which is women-owned and all the upper level managers throughout the company are female – it is just such a great company to work for.”
When Kumari moved from Bristol to London, it was a wake-up call to the gender divide in the industry: “It wasn’t until I started interacting with other cities and moved to London that it was quite a shock and took me about a year to understand how to navigate that conversation,” she explains. “There was a time I was the only female on the bar team. I never saw anyone that looked like me when I moved to London, and it was 18 months till I saw someone else with Indian heritage.”
Sadly, the industry also isn’t a stranger to the gender pay gap. Anna Fairhead-Benitez is the co-founder of Funkidory, which has bars in Peckham Rye and Camberwell. “I’m still hearing stories of my female peers seeing men being offered higher salaries for the same roles,” she says. Indeed 83%, of our survey said they’d experienced sexism at work. “Sexism is only something I’ve experienced in the last year and a half,” says Kumari. “My experiences have been hearing my gender mentioned way too often in terms of my abilities which was tough to work with.” She also says that unfortunately, these things will take a while to change as fear of being blacklisted from opportunities by speaking up is a very real fear in the industry.
“As a gay woman, I’m seen as a threat,” explains Lawlor of her experience of sexism. “You can’t fuck me and I’m competition, I’m either seen as your mate or an issue. All I want to do is bartend.”
“I find myself motivated by proving something wrong,” says Tebay. “Seeing other women struggle or not get opportunities they deserve makes me want to work to make sure those people have those chances.”
Women are leaving the bar, too, to pursue other areas of the industry, with being snapped up by brands as brand ambassadors being “a real epidemic”, as Lawlor describes it.
I still hear stories of men being offered higher salaries for the same roles
Progression is an issue, and Sebastian cites it as her reason for leaving operations as the Artesian’s bar manager to become a consultant. It seems like she isn’t the only one – 71% of our survey said their manager is a man, with 27% being women and 2% identifying as non-binary. Hughes sees opportunity for progression and development as they two key areas to work on to keep women behind the bar. “Women will move away into other roles if they don’t feel there is space for them to grow and reach their potential. If the senior roles and opportunities are available and we have the chance to flourish and challenge ourselves, then that’s all that matters.”
Overwhelmingly though, 74% of the women who took part in our survey attributed the lifestyle of a bartender as being the reason for leaving the role. “I think the real reason people get out from behind the bar is about getting old and tired – it is a very physically demanding job,” says Tebay. “It does a number on your hips, shoulders from shaking all the time, you become a real night owl and after a while people, regardless of gender, want something a little more sustainable. It can also be about wanting to start a family but that applies to men as well.”
“I have friends who are mothers and are trying to make it work behind the bar,” says Fairhead-Benitez. “But it’s tough. There needs to be more structure in place, and more consideration coming from companies to move away from the culture of overworking people and respecting boundaries.” Luckily, some bars are putting in the groundwork to make themselves more desirable to a disenchanted or sceptical workforce. Sebastian tells me that a bar in Notting Hill and its sister venue is giving private healthcare to all its staff members – something 61% of our survey said would draw them to a role.
Wages are going up too as bars and venues try to fill their staffing gaps and a focus on better work/life balance might bring people back. “I think bartending in general has finally become a more viable option for a career choice in this country with the demand for fairer wages and hours that allow for a better work-life balance,” says Fairhead-Benitez.
“All of this stuff now needs to be levelled up,” says Sebastian, also citing The Ritz as offering staff cabs home if they’re working past midnight (84% said a benefit like this would encourage them to work more late shifts). Funkidory is actually working with Lillet on a campaign highlighting this issue, offering support to businesses in the form of Uber vouchers to ensure bartenders get home safely at the end of their shift. “A logistical issue is a fact of working late and women getting home safely. Safety is an issue,” says Fairhead-Benitez.
It would be remiss not to mention the incredible benefits there are of working in this industry too, as a woman or otherwise. “If I was to tell myself six years ago what I have done and where I’d gone, I wouldn’t have believed myself,” says Kumari. Indeed, bartenders often find themselves being flown around the world to work guests shifts, visit distilleries and take part in global competitions.
The opportunity for work (and life) education is limitless with numerous accreditations to gain, from learning about the production of spirits to more operations based qualifications and the chance to learn from other cultures and communities with brand events and international conferences and exhibitions, such as the annual Tales of the Cocktail extravaganza held in New Orleans.
I have friends who are mothers and are trying to making it work behind the bar, but it's tough
It’s also an industry where the point of entry is incredibly accessible and success is the result of hard but rewarding work. “Bartending is very much a career where you’ll get merit on true grit,” explains Lawlor. “A lot of us didn’t do well in school or found it hard, but like making people feel good and like being on a stage. If you’re wise and don’t fall into alcohol and drugs, it is an opportunity where you can start from fuck all and be travelling the world in your twenties and you’re being paid to go.”
It’s also a career that can be shaped to suit your ambitions and has been the launchpad for people starting their own businesses and gaining some financial freedom: “You don’t need to be making anyone else money… hospitality is a lucrative career,” Lawlor continues.
Luckily, women coming into the industry now will have a cohort of women to look up to and Lawlor is keen to be an open book when it comes to offering advice. “I do have people coming to me for advice, which is very humbling, but it’s about being humble about that growth, sharing as much knowledge as you’ve gained. I don’t believe in secret keeping.”
Similarly, Tebay has become more aware in her role not just as a beverage director but as a figure to look up to for women beginning to navigate their own careers. “I hope to be an influence in the way that I work every day. I bear in mind that other younger women in the industry are watching what I do and how I carry myself – I’m constantly reminding myself that it is important to set a good example and represent anyone identifying as a woman as well as representing myself well too.”
With role models like Lawlor, Tebay, Kumar, Fairhead, Murphy and more, working in the bar industry would be an exciting role for any woman looking to take the plunge. In fact, 75% of the women who took part in Celebrate Her’s survey would recommend the industry to other women, with a further 13% saying they would too if circumstances for women changed.
For Lawlor, more equity behind the bar is holistic in its advantages. “It adds a much needed balance, gets people to grow the fuck up and holds men accountable for how they talk about women… When you have that synergy you have mutual respect, and women also realise the difficulties men have in their lives too – it’s an amazing point of education that naturally happens – and results in a mutual understanding.”