Five ways bartenders are changing the world
A new wave of ‘activist’ bartenders is aspiring to create a more socially conscious spirits industry. SB explores some of the leading initiatives shaping the on-trade’s more inclusive, sustainable and healthier future.
*This feature was originally published in the August 2018 issue of The Spirits Business magazine.
The interests and responsibilities of bartenders have evolved beyond simply making drinks as the industry becomes more socially, environmentally and politically conscious. Indeed, a new phenomenon has arrived, championing progressive change and bringing the on-trade into a thoroughly modern era: the activist bartender.
The movement comes as bartending assumes an exalted image. The profession is no longer a ‘day job’ for those looking to pursue other dreams and has matured into a calling with real and exciting prospects.
There are many more opportunities for today’s bartenders than for previous generations. They can decide to stay behind the bar for decades, open up their own place, become a brand ambassador or launch new brands. With the rise of the cocktail ‘celebrity’ and industry role models, bartending has become a truly respected profession.
Avant-garde thinkers and shakers are now striving to shape the industry and the wider world in which it operates to create a more promising future for all.
Central to this aim is to promote messages of responsible drinking. “Bartenders have a new opportunity to advise about how to responsibly enjoy alcohol,” says famed bartender Alex Kratena. “At the same time that we need to learn much more about our craft, we need to learn so much more about how we drink.”
Kratena launched the not-for-profit bartender collective P(our) in 2016 with fellow bartending luminaries Monica Berg, Simone Caporale, Ryan Chetiyawardana and Jim Meehan. The organisation and its annual symposium seek to “build a holistic community for the global drinks industry” and explore important issues such as gender and the role of the modern bartender.
The latest seminar programme for the Tales of the Cocktail (TOTC) festival in New Orleans also demonstrated the on-trade’s social awakening, covering discrimination, mental health and harassment.
Other initiatives advocating progressive change can be found throughout the industry, covering a number of important issues – some of which are profiled over the following pages.
Sustainability is a hot topic in the bartending community, with closed-loop cocktails, seasonally curated menus and eco-friendly bar practices coming to the fore.
Ryan Chetiyawardana’s White Lyan in London hit headlines in 2013 for its sustainable approach to bartending by removing the use of perishable ingredients and ice – a world first for the on-trade. Bars channelling the green movement also include Oslo’s Himkok, London’s Duck & Waffle and Scout, Paris’s Bisou and Amsterdam’s Vesper. Another initiative that has taken the global on-trade by storm is Trash Tiki, a touring project that educates bartenders on ways of using waste. Meanwhile, the Tequila Interchange Project aims to preserve traditional production practices for agave-based spirits.
In 2014, Claire Sprouse and Chad Arnholt launched New York-based bar consultancy Tin Roof Drink Community to tackle the idea of sustainability with a focus on education.
“People have become more accepting of this notion that everything we do every day has consequences,” Arnholt explains. “What you see now is bartenders investing in conscious decision making. The thought leaders and industry influencers are in a really prime position to be able to set trends that hopefully the industry at large will follow. We’re in a particular political climate where you can see a lot of industries going this way.”
As well as various consultancy projects, the duo is planning to open a sustainable bar in Brooklyn. The Hunky Dory bar will “address the goal of lowering waste, whether that’s water, electricity, disposable or organic waste”, Sprouse explains. “We’re gonna set our goals really high. The idea is to share our day-to-day learning and be really transparent. If some of these things fail, I want to find a better way to achieve them and start a conversation about how to do that.”
Irresponsible alcohol consumption and inappropriate behaviour are often seen to go hand in hand. After the tsunami of sexual misconduct allegations in various industries and the advance of the #MeToo campaign that highlighted the ubiquity of sexual abuse, bartenders and bar owners have ramped up their efforts to make their venues safer and more inclusive.
This year, TOTC partnered with Sexual Trauma Awareness and Response (STAR), a Louisiana non-profit organisation that provides support and education to those affected by sexual trauma. The festival also provided a 24-hour hotline to report sexual violence and held a seminar on the issue.
Safe Bars, a Washington DC-based firm that launched in 2016, holds two-hour bystander-intervention training for bar staff with the goal of creating a safer and more welcoming nightlife culture.
“Bars are such a core part of culture, so much happens there,” Lauren Taylor, co-founder and director of Safe Bars, says. “Bartenders are perfectly positioned to make a change in the culture of their establishment and affect the greater good as well. The training includes information about the whole spectrum of sexual violence, from key things like how to deal with unwanted staring, to sexual assault and everything in between. We talk about how it happens, introduce a framework for intervention with either the person who’s being targeted or the person who’s doing the aggression.”
Safe Bars deals with harassment “in any direction”, whether its patron on patron, patron on staff, staff on staff, or staff on patron. The “hands-on” programme has expanded beyond Washington, with ‘Train the Trainer’ schemes taking place in cities such as Baltimore, Philadelphia and Portland, as well as its first programme outside of the US in Nova Scotia, Canada. Taylor is also working on a code of conduct “that individual establishments can adopt and adapt to their places”.
Taylor notes there is “clearly a need” for the programme, adding that bars are becoming more active in the face of the #MeToo movement. “It’s a strategy that people feel really comfortable with adapting,” she says.
For decades, the ranks of the world’s most decorated bartenders consisted mainly of men, with women notably under-represented in top bars and competitions.
One competition carrying the message of female empowerment is Speed Rack, an all-female contest that puts women up against the clock while raising money for breast cancer charities. The competition focuses on creating quality cocktails with speed of service and will this year head to Canada, Australia, the US and the UK.
“It’s always good for us [women] to get together,” says Lynnette Marrero, who co-founded Speed Rack in 2011 in the US with Ivy Mix. “There should be spaces for us all to come together and talk about how we deal with things like #MeToo, and what are the next steps beyond where we started. How do we come out of the community and change things for good? We’re just starting to get there, but I do think these initiatives are really important.”
Marrero also notes that there are “very few women owners” in the 50 Best Bars and 50 Best Restaurants. “We need more women who are established and who have vested interest, not just working for someone else. I think the next step is figuring out access to capital, not just for women, but for minorities and a lot of others who are marginalised.”
The issue of discrimination is not just limited to women. Jake’s Bar in Leeds, UK, hit headlines earlier this year after it reportedly turned away a man because he was not “in a mixed-sex couple”. The venue later said it welcomed guests of “all sexual orientations, races, genders, religions and cultures”.
The Equality in Pubs Accreditation (TEPA) aims to eradicate racism, sexism and homophobia in UK pubs. The initiative supplies venues with window stickers and certification that show they have a zero-tolerance policy on abusive behaviour. To keep the accreditation, staff are required to act on any instances of discriminatory behaviour on their premises.
Founder Jessica Mason has worked in partnership with the British Beer and Pub Association and the British Institute of Inn Keeping to launch a website dedicated to the accreditation, as well as organising a training scheme for staff working at pubs that wish to apply.
“I’ve always believed that pubs are for everyone,” says Mason. “There isn’t always a solution to people being horrible to each other, but there is potentially a way for decent venues to become recognised.”
Today’s politically fraught environment has led to the rise of the so-called ‘philanthropub’. Following the US election, Death & Co founder Ravi DeRossi said there was “a lot of unrest and despair” in New York City. This led him to open Coup, a bar that donated a portion of its profits to organisations under threat from the current Trump administration.
“The idea came from taking this anger we all had and turning it into something more positive and productive,” he says. DeRossi took inspiration from Houston bar OKRA Charity Saloon, which opened in 2013. All of OKRA’s profits go to local non-profit organisations or social causes.
DeRossi explains: “I think everybody felt this sort of unease, this tension with the election, and wasn’t sure what to do, and wanted to do something but didn’t know how. So we gave everybody a place where if they’re gonna go out drinking anyway, they might as well come to us and a portion of the money they spend is going to a good cause.
“Everybody calls it ‘the anti-Trump bar’, but it really is just a charity bar. The idea behind it is to just find organisations we want to give money to.”
However, Coup closed in September 2017. “We were not a legal not-for-profit, so we still had to pay our taxes. We couldn’t get people to volunteer their time legally and we couldn’t legally receive stuff that was donated. We realised we were essentially giving more money to the government than we were donating to organisations.”
Now DeRossi and the team will turn Coup into its own non-profit organisation that will pop up at cocktail bars across the US. “We’re in the process of setting up; we just haven’t got it [legal non-profit status] approved yet.”
If it does gain approval, DeRossi’s plan is to “take it on the road. It’s really to reach out to all the people that reached out to us and just run it, as long as whoever is offering these spaces want us there, and as long as people are coming and spending money there, so we can keep going and donate”.
Health has always been an issue in the hospitality industry. In a career that operates outside of regular working hours and with the normality of the after-shift drink, it’s easy to see how bartenders might neglect their well-being. And, with an increasing number speaking out about their battles with mental health issues, this has become a frontline topic that needs addressing urgently.
Bartender and former Bulleit brand ambassador Tim Etherington-Judge launched not-for-profit organisation Healthy Hospo following a breakdown that saw him diagnosed with severe depression. He found that his role as a brand ambassador, with its constant travelling and partying and ensuing loneliness and lack of sleep and exercise, “proved to be an incredibly demanding job”.
After speaking publicly about his illness, Etherington-Judge says he was flooded with hundreds of messages from people with similar struggles.
“There was no one who had set up a company with the aim of trying to improve health and wellness in the industry,” he says. “I grew up in an industry with 24-hour partying and drinking, and thinking without consequences. The next generation shouldn’t have to learn the hard way.”
He says the on-trade needs to make small changes to become a “much better and healthier industry”. His examples include making “good quality sleep a priority”, making better choices with food and exercise, finding a hobby and connecting with people in an industry that he says can be “incredibly isolating and lonely”.
Along with huge interest from major bar shows, Healthy Hospo was also one of 11 recipients of TOTC’s first grant programme, which allocated US$250,000 to organisations that benefit the spirits industry.
The grant will go towards the first project, dedicated to improving sleep, as well as help the nonprofit to create videos and “spread the message broadly to increase access for the community”.
“Healthy Hospo is hopefully just beginning the conversation; we can’t change everything on our own,” says Etherington-Judge. “We need other people looking at other aspects of the industry and creating a much bigger movement for health and wellness, because it’s a serious subject.”