If Carrie Bradshaw taught us anything, it's that women aren't just drinking white wine anymore. It's not just cosmopolitans, either.

On a Friday night at the Loop, a happy-hour hot spot in downtown Minneapolis, you'd be hard-pressed to find a booth full of ladies without a table full of martinis. Shelly Fern, an energetic 40-year-old physical therapist from St. Paul, was sipping a grape martini there recently, flanked by a half-dozen girlfriends holding colorful cocktails.

While it's all about the hard liquor for these ladies, don't call them lushes, Fern said.

"I think we have more of a refined taste," she said. "Beer just really doesn't taste all that good. With liquor, you don't feel bloated. And with the top-shelf stuff, you don't get a bad hangover -- you can get up in the morning and still work out for an hour and a half."

Hard-liquor sales are on the rise, and women are a large part of the mix. Thirty percent of women drink cocktails primarily, compared with just 14 percent of men, according to a consumer survey. And yes, bar owners do credit "Sex and the City" for the shift in tastes, along with the ascendance of more sophisticated drinks and women's natural adventurousness.

"Women are much more likely to try a new drink than [are] men," said Jeff Grindrod, whose Connecticut-based Nova Marketing Services helped conduct the survey of 728 people last winter. "Men are more likely to stay with the old hat."

Like most restaurants and bars nowadays, the Loop offers a long list of mixed drinks -- something that became an industry staple only in the past five years. The Twin Cities is home to a plethora of restaurants known for their cocktail menus: the Town Talk Diner, Azia, Chino Latino and Solera, just for starters. And women are their biggest fans.

At Solera, drinks get the gourmet treatment. Take the Chupacabra ("goat sucker"), a mix of black cherry vodka, white cranberry juice, dried cherries, black pepper and goat cheese. Yes, goat cheese.

"It's mostly women ordering off the specialty cocktail list," owner Josh Thoma said. "Guys do occasionally, but you won't usually see a table of four guys ordering [these drinks]."

On a recent night at Solera, a table full of women had martinis lined up in front of them -- including a Chupacabra that Leah Hood, 24, of Minneapolis, was just finishing off. Two goat cheese balls floated in the bottom of her glass.

"I thought it was neat, but there were a couple other people at the table that thought it was a little gross," she said.

An Absolut boom

Flavored liquors -- especially vodka -- have fueled the cocktail boom, especially among women. From 2003 to 2007, revenues for distilled spirits rose 31 percent to $18.2 billion, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.

Jim Surdyk, owner of the Minneapolis liquor store that bears his family name, said he's seeing many more women in the liquor aisle than he used to -- women just like Fern, the physical therapist.

"I like to try new things," she said, "and if it's something I like, I'll replicate it at home."

Fern has made several cocktails she saw on TV, including two featured on "Oprah" -- a watermelon martini and a pomegranate martini ("that was a pain in the butt," she said). One of her favorites is a mojito recipe she nabbed from Chino Latino. She also likes Kahlua-and-vodka Colorado Bulldogs, "but I try not to make those so much because they're so fattening," she said.

The flavor kick "exploded" earlier this decade, said Surdyk's liquor buyer Steve Wilk. "In order to be in the game, you have to have flavors," he said. The big dog is Absolut, of which Surdyk's currently carries 10 flavors. The surprise hit: grapefruit.

Solera's Thoma said he's anticipating more flavors: "I remember when Absolut Citron came out when I was 21," he said. "It was a big deal. But now it seems like I'm waiting for Absolut Chicken to come out."

At Town Talk, the south Minneapolis spot that has led the "creative drink" movement, co-owner Aaron Johnson recognizes that for many women, "it's more about the flavor and experiencing something." On a recent night, Barbara Gates Schaben, 34, sat at the bar looking over the cocktail list. She stops at the bar about twice a month to see what's new.

This night, it's the Cranberry Manhattan. "I'm crazy about cranberries," she said. "And this tastes just like real cranberries."

The fruity drink is made from a homemade cranberry infusion that sat for a month in a 3-gallon vat. "That's commitment," she said.

A change for the worse?

While flavor may be the draw for many women, for some it's the buzz.

On a recent Saturday night at Solera, Loraine Navales, 23, and her friend Channy So were getting started on a night of clubbing. In the clubs, they said, it's all about mixed drinks. (Their favorite: cranberry juice spiked with vodka.)

"You get drunk faster," Navales said.

That attitude worries Jay Jaffee, chemical health coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Health. Traditionally, men have drunk more than women, but now "equity is coming into play, and maybe that's not a good thing," Jaffee said -- especially since women generally have a lower threshold for intoxication.

The National Institute for Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse recently changed its definition of binge drinking for women. It used to be five drinks, Jaffee said. Now, it is three or four.

"A lot of drinks have been flavored and sweetened to make it easier for people to consume larger amounts in a shorter period of time, and to appeal to people who might be put off by the taste," he said.

Heavy drinking takes a greater toll on women's bodies than on men's, he said, significantly increasing the danger of breast cancer and liver disease. Still, "we're not trying to go back to Prohibition," Jaffee said. "If people are responsible, then we don't have a problem with it."

'Soft drinks' and 'adult malts'

Solera recently added a list of cocktails that contain less alcohol, but still pop with the same flavor.

These "soft drinks," as they've been dubbed, were introduced by mixologist Johnny Michaels at La Belle Vie, an upscale restaurant run by Solera's owners. Michaels said he didn't want to see women suffering through one drink all night long because it was too strong.

"It's for people who want the fun and pleasure of trying new drinks, but at the same time might not have a high tolerance," he said.

At Town Talk recently, two young women came in from the cold and began inspecting the drink menu, specifically the "adult malts" -- dessert drinks mixed with booze.

"This one has notes of maple and pecan," the bartender told them, as if he was reading from a wine list.

The two women butted in:

"I think I'll go with the Johnny Cold Train."

"I'll have the Monkey Business."

The duo, Madison McCalley and Ona Keller, both 21, said they were just starting out in the bar scene. McCalley said she can get a normal malt anywhere, but they came to Town Talk this night for a special treat -- one with a kick.

"It's an added bonus," Keller said.

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