Last year was the year the cocktail and spirits world conversation shifted from pre-Prohibition recipes and the latest bitters to larger issues that test not just bars and bartenders, but the world as a whole. With the founders of Tales of the Cocktail stepping down amid accusations of racial insensitivity, many noted bartenders climbing aboard the wagon and the industry addressing longstanding issues of sexism and diversity, the cocktail community finally took a long, hard look at itself. While some consensus was reached on certain subjects, and a modicum of change effected, most of the conversation led to the conclusion that more talk and more change was needed.
To get a sense of how this recent reckoning will play out in 2018, we approached a quartet of industry leaders known for their progressive visions, and willingness to express them: Colin Asare-Appiah, a beloved brand ambassador for Bacardi who resigned in protest from his position as co-chair of Tales of the Cocktail’s Diversity Council; Don Lee, longtime co-manager of the CAP apprentice program at Tales, and frequently one of the first people to speak out on trying issues that face the bar community; and Lynnette Marrero, a co-founder of Speed Rack, the ongoing charity bartending competition that has shone a spotlight on the role of women in the bar world.
Do you think the notoriously hedonistic, devil-may-care cocktail world can finally enter into a maturity that doesn’t have to do with cask-aging?
Don Lee: [Last year] was the year when race was pushed to the forefront in the cocktail community by the founders of Tales and the rest of the world started to deal with sexual harassment/abuse publicly. It was the year when many people (mostly white men) became aware of their privilege and realized that there are problems that others (mostly women and POC) have been struggling against all their lives.
While the controversies surrounding of Tales of the Cocktail are currently the biggest headlines involving the cocktail community, the issues and conversations about them aren’t new. Ten years ago, the biggest question, aside from how to get customers to consider gin over vodka, was how to make bartending a respectable career again. Since then we seem to have won the war on vodka, but as a new generation of people joined the industry, we lost sight of that second, more important question. The people who took on that challenge of making bartending a serious career are still working on those issues, but their voices often get drowned out or are absent when it comes to social media.
The cocktail community already has maturity in it, but to use your aged spirit metaphor, we’re a blend. We’re like rye whiskey that’s been all but forgotten and what little remains is mature because nobody was looking for it. But now that it’s become trendy, there isn’t enough old stock to meet demand so it’s getting blended with younger distillate. Over time there will be enough aged stock to bring back quality but only if we are patient and demand better.
Colin Asare-Appiah: The cocktail community is going through the same reckoning that society itself is also going through. In some ways we are behind society, but in some ways I would argue that we are ahead. After all, high-profile perpetrators of sexual assault are being run out of the industry, whereas in wider society they still run for office.
But more seriously, I think these issues have been addressed for some time by various individuals and organizations who saw imbalances and wanted to address them, such as Ivy Mix and Lynnette Marrero and the work that Speed Rack has done to promote female mixology, or groups like Causing a Stir to promote racial diversity. We are also having much-needed discussions about sexism and sexual assault, and about alcohol abuse among those who serve it.
One thing that makes me hopeful is that our industry is already very diverse; women and ethnic groups are more represented in the total industry than in many other workforces. But we need to change the distribution so that these groups are well-represented in high-profile positions—bar ownership, brand ownership, liquor distribution and even the drinks press—so that those start to look as diverse as the industry itself.
What is driving the industry to address these issues is the realization that this is a job, not a lifestyle, and that you can have a productive and successful career in the bar, restaurant and drinks businesses if you take care of yourself and take care of your colleagues. This is a healthy thing and should be encouraged, even if it leads to some uncomfortable discussions along the way. But I feel that if the industry becomes a safer place to work, and promotes a more diverse workforce, this will benefit all of us in the wider community.
Lynnette Marrero: I am hopeful that the voices that are shaping the next generation can have positive impact on our community. The focus on living better lives has been helping. As [bartending] becomes more and more of a career, I think people are acting in accordance. There are still some very intense situations we will face and more peoples’ past actions might come to light, especially with the #MeToo movement. The bar community is flexible and can make shifts a bit easier than most other industries. I hope we can also share that with guests and be more aware of creating these safe spaces for everyone, including coworkers.
Responses have been condensed and edited for clarity.