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Recognition for Pioneering Spirits Journalist Francine Cohen

Francine Cohen, photo by Gabi Porter.
You can always find Francine Cohen in a crowd. Photo credit: Gabi Porter.

Every year, Tales of the Cocktail inducts hardworking women of the spirits and cocktail industries into the Dame Hall of Fame to celebrate their contributions to the industry. Each of these women has her own story; from starts and stumbles to successes.

Here, Francine Cohen discusses her work with our founder, Ann Tuennerman.

Where were you born and raised?

I'm a bit unique in that I am a native Washingtonian. Not everyone there is a politician. I was raised in Potomac, Maryland/Norfolk, Virginia, and the "mean streets" of Manhattan's Upper West Side.

What attracted you to enter the cocktail/spirits industry in the first place?

Let's chalk it up to chefs who invited me into their kitchen at the tender age of two, and whiskey sours sneaked at bar and bat mitzvahs I attended.

Later on, as a professional journalist, I was introduced to spirits education through programs like Bar Smart and various educational programming the brands offered. Knowledge is power! And being on the cusp of a burgeoning industry is exciting as heck!

Was it planned, or was it a temporary gig that evolved into a career?

Totally unplanned to get into spirits/cocktail and wine writing. But it was never intended to be temporary; I intend to keep writing as long as my brain and fingers keep going.

What and where was your first job in the industry?

Aside from a job slinging brownies at the mall, my first job in the F&B industry was simultaneously as a writer covering the industry and as the communications director for an anti-hunger agency. The organization mounted a culinary training program for formerly homeless people that also included a full-service restaurant in which you could pay for your meal using cash, credit cards, or food stamps. That's where I first learned to serve.

Was there a moment when you decided that the cocktail/spirits industry would be your career path?

Not precisely. My career is an evolution in progress. I liken it to a boulder rolling down the hill, experiences standing in for the moss. I've been fortunate to be in the right place at the right time, and meet the right people which continues to open up doors. It's always been this way.

As a woman in a traditionally male-dominated industry, what did you find the most rewarding and the most challenging?

My professional career actually began in the advertising industry in the late '80s. Back then getting out of school with a communications degree and wanting to work on the copywriting side of things meant, hooray, you get to be a secretary! Fortunately I had bosses who just had high standards and were gender-blind (except when it came to proffering dating advice). So I learned from that. And when I started operating in the spirits industry, I think I had my gender-neutral blinders on and was probably oblivious to the discrimination female bartenders experience. Truly my only challenge — at least the one I recognized and let stymie me — was physical. I once bartended a LUPEC charity event at the downstairs bar at Macao Trading Company and couldn't reach all the glassware.

Was your family supportive of your decision?

Some are, some aren't. My husband is 2,000 percent behind me — even when it means haunting off to foreign cities without him and staying out talking shop until the wee hours of the morning. My mother? Perhaps not so much, as her comment to my husband that I drink too much indicates. (Hey, Mom, if you're reading this — of those 15 bottles on my credenza, seven of them are still sealed and the rest are missing just an inch. They, like the others in the apartment, represent product sent to me for work. And of course, it makes for appealing decor.)

How has the role of women in the cocktail/spirits industry changed since you first joined it?

In my hometown they'd crow about their employment numbers when asked this question. First and foremost, it's a sheer numbers game. There are just simply more cocktail bars, distilleries, and brands out there now than existed when I first entered the industry; hence, more room for more employees. But above and beyond that, it's a bit of a revolution. There's so much more that we are coming together on and weighing in on, and it's already impacting the workplace environment. We are insisting on being heard and shaping the directions of the conversations going on now about career development, work/life balance, health and wellness, empowerment, safety, sexual assault, and harassment — that wasn't on all our minds before. Or, at least we weren't voicing it like we do now.

For a woman who wants to pursue a career in this industry, what top three tips would you offer?

  1. Believe in yourself and respect yourself and your worth
  2. Be open and learn as much as you can, whether that's through peers, brand education, a mentor, book learning, structured programs like BAR or WSET or Cicerone
  3. You catch more flies with honey

How did you first learn about Tales of the Cocktail?

Oh, I squarely place the "blame" on my intro to Tales on my husband and his best friend, Tom. Tom introduced me to H. Joseph Ehrmann (of Elixir in SF) who introduced me to Ann and Paul when I was once in New Orleans on a press trip, and the rest is history.

Were there any challenges you had to overcome to attend Tales for the first time (financial, logistical, etc.)?

Well, we can't deny the weather's a little brutal, even for someone who grew up in sultry D.C. summers. The biggest challenge was probably the fact that journalists are not well paid, and getting to New Orleans was an expense I wasn't sure I could recoup. I didn't. And don't. But continue to attend because the connections and educational opportunities are invaluable. That's the second challenge: deciding which seminars you can cram into your schedule.

Kindly describe your first Tales experience and what it meant to you.

It was a whirlwind. Nothing I'd experienced before. The city was ripe for deeper exploration and yet strangely I felt at home there. Like I fit.

I do, with the utmost clarity, remember being at a party in a suite at the Monteleone one night. I met wonderful people with whom to share a passionate conversation about spirits and cocktails and hospitality. Those conversations and professional relationships have continued. And just today I opened my mailbox to find a wedding invitation from someone I met that night.

How did you first hear about the Dame Hall of Fame?

On a conference call or email chain when it was first proposed, saying that we put a codified name to the programming that LUPEC had initiated.

Were any of its past inductees your mentors or role models?

They were my peers.

What was it like to be inducted into the Dame Hall of Fame at Tales?

Meaningful. Because our class bonded. And it was an honor to be recognized for professional accomplishments, and to share that special day with other women who are at the top of their game.

How has it energized your career, and what opportunities have flowed as a result?

I can't say that it has energized my career or provided opportunities. It's a nice calling card. And sometimes evokes, "Wow!" Especially as I'm both a Dame Hall of Fame member and a member of the New York chapter of Les Dames D'Escoffier, which is a prominent, 40-year-old, invitation-only membership organization comprised of professional women in the F&B world.

It's still so relatively new that it's got a long way to go until it reaches James Beard Awards or even Tales Award or Forbes 40 under 40 status, and is globally recognized and begins to invite people to knock on your door or listen more closely when you call. But, we'll get there.

Kindly describe any key professional relationships that were formed through your induction.

I have a funny story about Lisa Laird and a taxi driver. And of course, Ivy and I worked together bringing spirits together for an annual WCR (Women Chefs & Restaurateurs) conference. Lisa, Ivy, and I may not have had the same level of interaction had we not all been inducted together.

Ann Tuennerman Founder of Tales of the Cocktail, Ann Tuennerman is a serial entrepreneur focused on hospitality.

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