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Food & Wine Taste the rainbow: How the queer-focused booze market is growing fast

QUEER BEER (AND VODKA AND WINE) Minerva brewery, Absolute Vodka, Biagio Cru and Estate Wines, makers of Égalité, and Kim Crawford winery are some of the wine and spirits companies actively pursuing LGBTQ drinkers.

'If you've got a big thirst and you're gay, reach for a cold, tall bottle of Schmitt's Gay." That was comedian Phil Hartman, circa 1991, delivering the punchline for a Saturday Night Live commercial spoof featuring Adam Sandler, Chris Farley and a half-dozen Speedo-clad men by a pool. The skit lampooned demographic-specific alcohol marketing that sold beer by exploiting male fantasies about sexually available Swedish bikini models.

The idea that a beer could be "gay" underscored the bizarreness of gendered alcohol advertising. But we've actually had "queer beer" in real life since 2011, when Mexico's Minerva brewery launched their labels Salamandra and Purple Hand, a reference to a galvanizing gay rights protest that took place in San Francisco in 1969.

In addition to Minerva's offering, there are at least three wines that focus their branding on the LGBT market – Ontario's Chardonngay; Égalité, a sparkling wine from France; and New Zealand's Pansy! Rosé. Sweet and berry forward, the latter is widely available on shelves at liquor stores across Canada. Over in the spirits section, you can celebrate with a bottle of Absolut Mix (same vodka; new, rainbow-hued bottle) released to honour Pride month. What makes these beverages gay-friendly? Some donate a portion of sales to LGBT organizations; others, like Absolut, were launched in concert with sponsorships of specific events that fall under the Pride umbrella.

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This is a marked change in attitude from 30 years ago, when the organizers of the earliest beer tents at Toronto Pride festivals not only failed to secure sponsorship, but had issues finding a company willing to supply beer at all. When they finally found one, a certain level of discretion was expected.

"The beer had to be served in unmarked cups out of unmarked draught taps and there could be no advertising" recalls Kyle Rae, a Ryerson University professor and former city councillor who was one of the event's organizers in 1985. "And the refrigerated trucks that arrived the night before with the kegs of beer were unmarked, because they didn't want to be seen to be providing the beer for Pride."

In the mid-1980s, when Pride was still establishing itself, most alcohol was sold by playing up a fictional relationship between certain types of alcohol and conventional heterosexual masculinity. Later, negotiations for Pride sponsorships were made more complicated by the fact that Molson merged with Coors, a corporation that had funded anti-gay political groups and had discriminatory hiring practices in the United States. A decade later, beer companies would engage in bidding wars over the exclusive rights to stock the beer tent bars.

Now, between "brosé" and the long-overdue realization that women also like and drink whisky, some of those rigid associations between gender and drinking are beginning to break down. As an example, when founders of Rendle's Gin launched their pink-tinged spirit last year, they shrugged off critics who cautioned that men might not be willing to be seen drinking pink gin, remarking that they'd be perfectly happy to sell to the segment of the market that wasn't afraid of pink drinks.

Is the growing openness a gimmick? A cynical marketing ploy to dial into previously neglected and lucrative markets? Probably a little. But, given the fraught history between Pride and alcohol marketing, there's something satisfying about liquor companies doing an about-face to salvage the relationship with a suddenly coveted queer clientele.

Rae sees things a bit differently. "Well, there's a history," he says.

"I don't know if there's a relationship. But I can tell you that, by the end of the night, the representatives could not believe the amount of beer that was consumed [at Pride]. They were shocked. And they were eager to come back the following year."

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