By Dana Ferrante
March 3, 2021
Wood-paneling floor to ceiling, dimmed lights, a dark mahogany bar with a scuffed brass foot rail. A man, most certainly a white dude, with a beard sports a leather apron, and slides you a menu with almost a dozen pages of whiskey. The triple-dollar-sign kind of whiskey.
This, says Kayla Quigley, is the modern day saloon: an anachronistic space that visibly excludes on the basis of gender, race, and class, in a way that actual turn of the twentieth century saloons never did. Despite their elite posturing today, in the late nineteenth century the upper echelons of East Coast urban society viewed saloons as places where the “riff-raff” went to lose themselves in beer, liquor, and vice. In reality, saloons were spaces for the working classes, especially newly immigrated folk, men and even women, to gather without the patronizing eye of “native” New Yorkers. A seasoned Boston bartender and brand ambassador for Flor de Caña rum, Quigley also studied Gender and Cultural Studies at Emerson, where she wrote her thesis on how modern day saloons have crafted—pun intended—this kind of whiskey-sipping, elite masculinity that never was.
On Thursday March 4 at 6pm, Kayla will lead a conversation on how today’s bars and liquor producers create classed spaces. Her talk is part of “The Curse of Connoisseurship,” a series of discussions on the Boston beverage landscape—and beyond—happening on Tuesday and Thursday nights throughout the month of March. The series is the brainchild of Boston University Gastronomy students Amy Johnson and Altamash Gaziyani, and features a lineup of bev folks from across the city who will speak on everything from gatekeeping to elitism, barriers to disruptions in the beverage world.
Next week, be sure to check out “Creating Hospitality Through Diversity” with TJ & Hadley Douglas, owners of the wine shop Urban Grape in the South End on March 9. On March 11, the women behind TFLUXÈ, an organization whose mission is to diversify, disrupt, and demystify the wine industry for a community of BIPOC consumers, will lead a conversation entitled "WE DESERVE." The entire “The Curse of Connoisseurship” series is free, virtual and open to the public.
If there’s one thing Kayla’s talk, and the The Curse of Connoisseurship series in general, is sure to reveal is the way in which hegemonic structures (read: white supremacy and capitalism) have coded certain products as ‘elite,’ ‘masculine,’ ‘white.’ Wine with a cursive French label isn’t inherently better than a Miller High Life, a ‘girly’ cocktail drink isn’t actually girlier than a neat whiskey—culture and structures of power create these differences.
Here’s what Kayla had to say about her upcoming talk, the history of rum and whiskey, what it (was) like working on a busy night at Fenway, and more.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
How did you start bartending?
I moved to Boston in 2010, and I started bartending to make some cash on the side. I think it's kind of everybody's general story; you go through undergrad and then you have to do something to make some money. I have a little bit of history with my family with some bar, restaurant, and hospitality experience, and so I decided to take the dive. I was working at an all domestic bar, and it was at the height of the craft whiskey, craft beer movement. I thought it was so, so interesting because the way I had to educate guests was sort of backwards… At a normal bar, you might come in and say, “Oh, can I have a Jameson [the Irish Whiskey]? We didn't have Jameson, we didn’t have imported products so you'd have to go through this long-winded thing to get them to drink South Boston Irish Whiskey from GrandTen Distilling...It was so fascinating and sparked this interest in me to take a deeper dive into spirits, the way that they're produced, and that whole side of the business. [The bar] was in Fenway, so that was the weirdest part. This was 2010, 2011, so craft distilleries were booming; in every corner that wasn't quite gentrified yet you had a brewery or some sort of distillery popping up, which is fantastic...but it was very interesting to have those interactions, when someone came in looking for something like a Scotch or Jameson.
How did you end up being a brand rep for Flor de Caña and what’s it like?
So in terms of the transition… We often joke in the industry that you either go on to be a brand rep or real estate agent; those are the two sort of career paths. We see it all too often [laughs]. I was a beverage director for the Franklin Restaurant Group for a while and there were people who had approached me [and asked] ‘hey, would you like to work with us on this particular brand? We’re a craft brewery, vineyard, distillery…’ I didn't say yes to any of those because ultimately I wanted to work for a brand I could really hang my hat on and feel comfortable doing on a full time basis. I had left the Franklin Restaurant Group as a beverage director and had gone to a distributor and was trying to be a spirit specialist, which would cover their entire portfolio...The role [then] changed...and they hired somebody who had sales experience, rightfully so, but they said wait don't go anywhere, we have a job for you, with Flor de Caña and so that's sort of how I landed with [the brand]. It was the right place at the right time. I've been with Flor de Caña now for three years.
Typically, speaking brands are built in what we call ‘on premise,’ the bars and restaurants. You are more likely to try to buy a bottle in your local retail store if you've tried it because some bartender was like “This is my favorite!” So you need that communication and that buy-in from whoever is behind the bar or servers, so that [has been] a huge challenge for any brand, I would argue, during the pandemic, because we're trying to build brand recognition, but we don't have that onsite...It's slowly trickling, people are opening back up, but there's a million problems with what the pandemic portion of all [that entails]...
Later this week you’ll be giving a talk called “One Foot in the Saloon: Recreating Classist Spaces.” Can you give a little preview of what you hope to cover on Thursday?
The original concept was to discuss the ways in which craft distilling has created classist space[s], for largely white, white masculine consumption, and how these products are heading more towards premiumization, which ultimately has a price tag. There's a class divide, a socio-economic divide there. The original title was supposed to be something like “Jim Beam [bourbon whiskey] versus WhistlePig [an expensive Rye Whiskey]." We have these two great whiskeys, but one you will find in a very particular type of bar, with very particular type of people drinking it, versus Jim Beam...This was a good starting point, [to compare] this huge brand with a long history that everybody knows, Jim Beam, [with whiskey] from the craft world.
But, my master's thesis was on masculinity in bars and the contemporary resurgence of saloon aesthetics. It had a very particular focus in terms of theory, social space, and culture... And so, [Altamash, one of the conference organizers] wanted to know if I would speak on this. Instead of taking a deep dive into brands, we’ll be taking a deeper look into where this whiskey is being consumed.
Who's actually drinking them? And so that’s the goal, to [bring] a critical eye to: what are people drinking in which spaces? And what does that mean?
That’ll be the focus…
Putting this into context with something like rum… I associate it with, I don’t know, ‘girly’ drinks? Could you speak a little bit more about rum, how it's consumed, by who, and when?
In terms of rum, I think that there’s a huge common misconception that rum has to be served in these overwhelmingly fruity drinks. The cocktail lexicon doesn't really allow for anything other than like, a frozen daiquiri right? I think that has to do with the lack of education on rum... Rum is one of the most unique spirits in the world, simply because there is no geographical indication for how it’s produced. The laws vary from country to country, and there are very few laws about how it's packaged in terms of age statements… I think that's why we have that misconception that rum has to be in these big tiki drinks...these sugar bombs! People have this misconception that rum is overwhelmingly sweet and it's not, many rums drink very similarly to a whiskey because of their aging. So I think that's the first challenge, kind of changing the perception of rum as a gendered drink...It doesn't have to be that fruity, beachy, ‘feminine’ drink.
Is there any history as to why rum is looked down upon?
That's a really interesting question. Historically, if we look at the cultural context of the US, which is what I can speak to, rum was huge, especially in New England. Rum was huge because of the slave trade, because of colonization, and I think we do [the liquor] and the people who have produced this product a disservice by not knowing this portion of [its history].
When the Caribbean was colonized...the English were the ones who were huge into sugar cane...so it became a monoculture on a lot of the islands, and it was catalyst for a lot of not only indentured servitude, but slavery… I think there needs to be acknowledgement of the dark history.
In terms of how [rum] falls into whiskey’s history in the US, that is [also] really interesting. The byproduct of refining sugar is molasses, which is what most industrial rums are made from. The British were shipping it to the Thirteen Colonies, and said “here you go, we don't want this trash.” That’s how we ended up getting molasses as a sweetener [in Boston], which was used for baked beans and those sorts of things. An insane amount of rum was being produced in the colonies, [but] the problem was [the British] were taxing these products. It’s like this weird double jeopardy, where [they taxed] the stuff [they didn’t want] and then [taxed you if you sold it again.]
So then [the colonies ask] ‘where else can we get this?' [And so they look to] Martinique and the islands [colonized by the French] who don't make rum, they fresh press sugar to make Rhum agricole [a French term for rum made with sugarcane juice] and so they're like 'you can have the molasses, no problem.' And [the colonies] begin buying it cheaper from the French islands, and this huge rift ends up happening between the French and the English. When all of this was going down, people figured out that they could distill grain as well, and they weren't going to be taxed on [it] the same as the imported molasses, so you start to see the boom of bourbon and rye, particularly rye. It was a very interesting transition and [around this time] you start to see cocktails made with whiskey instead of rum. Rum became synonymous with the islands and this ‘bad blood’ in terms of import-export.
And so this American spirit comes to be, which is bourbon rye, or just whiskey in general… The Old Fashioned cocktail was first documented in the late 1800s, and that was made with whiskey, but you don't see rum really in the cocktail world until after the depression when the tiki boom hits… which is its own made-up, horrible situation. They had their hey-day, and now we’re starting to see the resurgence of tiki of course.
Tell me more about your master’s thesis.
So the concept was that there is a very particular type of masculinity being created and reinforced within these spaces that emulate a saloon, or what we picture as a saloon [today].
Today, we [sometimes] think of the saloon and think dust bowls, swinging door, cowboy/frontiersman aesthetic. But, historically speaking, a saloon is kind of a dive bar. It's a working class space. And for whatever reason, we have this misstep in our collective memory of what a saloon looks like...it's got that brass foot rail or hand rail, mahogany wood, it's dimly lit, a bartender with a big beard and leather suspenders. Sort of like heritage hipster, for lack of a better term. And it's fascinating that [these spaces] keep reproducing this type of masculinity, so my thesis was to figure out why that particular type of masculinity was being created.
What I found is that [because of this] gap in our collective memory, the masculinity that is being created in this contemporary resurgence is more aligned with frontier masculinity. It doesn't quite line up with urban masculinity with the rise of industrialization [in the 1800s]. In terms of today’s resurgence, I blamed it on tech. You don't have these traditional markers of masculinity: you're living in the city, you have a swanky apartment, you're graduating from college with a potentially six figure salary, you do not have a particular marker of masculinity in your career… And so you recreate this false space that is identified as being masculine...
The original saloon served as a space that was for the urban lower class. It was called the poor man’s social club. Part of the misstep that we made when recreating these spaces was that they are [now] not welcoming to anybody less than middle to upper classes, because you need to have the money to spend $18 on a pour of whiskey. Why are [bars and people] choosing that particular whiskey? It really just brings up a whole slew of questions that I hope to address [Thursday].
Why do you think it's important for both industry folks and generally people who drink to have these bigger conversations on issues like race, gender, class? Can these happen from behind the bar as well?
If we're not looking critically at what we're doing and what we're consuming, how we're behaving, we're just kind of being passive and accepting the market forces. I think it's really important for us to take that step back and think: Why do I drink the brands that I drink? Is it because I actually like them?
I think it's really important...to ask that question, who holds the power in the room? I think that's where we're starting with these more academic approaches, we can kind of take a step back, figure out how the space is coded, and figure out if we are having the right conversations within those spaces…. Not only does the consumer have purchasing power, but the bar has purchasing power on a different level, to say: these are the products that we're going to serve. This is what we want to have to offer to our guests, this is a type of space where we are… If [a] bar says, “hey, we don't serve this, and this is why," then.... people will go, “Okay, what else is out there?”
That’s an interesting way to put it… A bartender can be a trusted person in the neighborhood, and someone who could get you to think about things in a different way.
That's the thing, if nobody challenges you, then you're just going to keep doing it. If no one asks you why you drink what you drink then you’ll drink the same thing.
Coming back to your point of drinks being gendered, and certain glassware being gendered and things like that… Anecdotal stuff...when I was working at Citizen…I worked behind the bar with a good friend of mine who also identifies as female, we’d be behind the bar, slammed busy [on a] Red Sox game night with two, three people deep and somebody [would see us and say] 'Oh, I’ll wait for the bartender.' We’d be like 'ok.' And just walk away. That's fine, you can wait as long as you want for your drink.
And then, occasionally, we would have [people who would ask], 'Can I get a Manhattan? But I don’t want it in a tall, stemmed glass. Can I do it in a rocks glass?' I would ask 'why? If you can give me a legitimate reason as to why you want it in that—maybe you spill, that’s no problem!' But if you’re like 'oh, that's like a lady glass…' I’d be like what are you talking about, that makes no sense at all...
But if you don't challenge people in that, I mean don’t be rude about it, you know, obviously keep hospitality in mind, but if you don't challenge people with the brands that they're drinking and things like that then they’re not going to ever change it.
Red Sox fans.
They're fun, boy do I miss them!