For the heart of Gladys Althorpe

Glenda Cooper on the vogue for women's drinks
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AS THE frothy, fizzy, feminine drinks market last week mourned the loss of its guru - Francis Showerings, inventor of Babycham - it seems that reports of its own demise may have been exaggerated.

While most drinks companies have in recent years avoided marketing women's drinks for fear of the epithet "patronising", both Taunton Cider and William Grant & Son are aggressively pursuing drinks for "ladies" as a profitable niche market.

"There just weren't any interesting drinks for women," says Karen Hill, who manages Grant's Taboo and Mirage - white wine and vodka mixed with fruit juices. "Men had their designer beers and there was no specific alternative for women. These are fashionable. They appeal to the female palate."

It's hardly a million miles from the Babycham girl - light, feminine, fun, daring but not dangerous, whom most thought had given way to the glamorous, brash Mancunian Gladys Althorpe, heroine of Boddington's advertisements.

Babycham was launched in 1953, but its heyday was the 1960s, when it epitomised glamour and modernity. Despite a relaunch, and new bottle designs, sales have slipped, although 25 million bottles were still shifted in the last 12 months.

Ms Hill contends that Taboo is not a Babycham clone. Its latest pounds 500,000 advertising campaign, she says, is pitched at "aspirational 25 to 35-year- old career women". "We are targeting a slightly older woman," she adds. "They tend to be more stable in their drinking habits than younger consumers."

Taunton's Fres - a white cider at 4 per cent alcohol - goes further: "It's more targeted at the ladies. It's clean, crisp and refreshing and light," says Ann Taylor, the company's trade and community relations manager.

Apparently Fres women may drink it as a substitute for wine over lunch, or as a lighter drink in the evening. The firm has spent a lot of time and effort researching the "attractive bottle". Sound familiar? Dinky bottles which were poured into saucer-style glasses? All Fres needs is a cutesy fawn.

Taunton and Grant are happy to champion a market which, many think, has lost its fizz. "People are trying to get away from stereotypes," says Kate Oppenheim, editor of Publican magazine. "Originally they launched sweeter things they thought would suit a woman's palate, but I think many brewers are realising if they make a drink 'female' they'll alienate a lot of potential customers."

"Babycham may have been the first drink invented for women but there's a lot more choice now," adds Stephen Cox, campaigns manager of the Campaign For Real Ale (CAMRA). "Look at the economic importance of women, they're often now the decision-makers in families. Pubs have had to market themselves for couples."There have been substantial strides over the last decade: "In advertising, 10 years ago everybody who drank bitter was over 50 and lived in Yorkshire," adds Mr Cox. "Now they're portrayed as normal human beings. Boddington's has broken a lot of barriers down with Gladys Althorpe."

But maybe celebrations over Gladys are premature. The signs are that the female-male markets still aren't downing pints together. Tony Quinn, senior brand manager for Bacardi, explains that a new brand, Bacardi Spice, is being launched targeting men, with its higher alcohol content (40 per cent to 37 per cent) and added spices such as cinnamon.

"The image of Bacardi is a little bit of a female drink," said Mr Quinn. "At the moment it's 50-50 but five years down the line it could be 60- 40 or even 70-30 in favour of women."

But he concedes that there will never be a product to suit everyone. Stephen Cox at CAMRA refuses to give up: "This idea of male and female drinks is all a social construct. Don't forget, Elizabeth I drank bitter."