Chicago Style and the New Cocktail Conference

By Ashtin Berry | Jackie Rivas


Ashtin Berry
Jackie Rivas

Until now, cocktail conferences followed a pretty simple model: technique classes plus parties equals a great time. However, we’ve watched the social climate in the cocktail industry transform, alongside the national narrative, and many people are asking that the conversation widen beyond cocktail and bar programming. Chicago Style heard that longing this year. At their inaugural conference, several days of programming promised to revolve around the mantra “equal parts drink and think.” They delivered just that.

For those of you who may not know me, my name is Ashtin Berry, beverage consultant, novice writer, and hospitality activist. The implications of programming like Chicago Style are impactful for an industry still in the beginning stages of looking at how businesses can be both fiscally and socially responsible. I presented an interactive workshop at Chicago Style focused on community accountability. The class was only an hour long with the goal of beginning conversations about steps that we can all take to prevent abuse and other problematic behaviors. The next day, Green Dot training led a follow-up, providing buildable content that allowed conference attendees to hear connecting information. This practice is important to reinforcing messaging and normalizing the importance of how we approach thinking of our businesses.

The founders of Chicago Style—Sharon Bronstein, Caitlin Laman, and Shelby Allison—are all in their own rite, forces of nature. Their leadership and planning was a perfect illustration of why having women in leadership is not only important to creating more diverse spaces, but also why it’s necessary to think about programming differently. The conference covered discussions on racial diversity, bars as community allies, intersectional feminism, and bystander awareness. While these topics may seem heavy, by landscaping the space in a non-hierarchical way, the conference created a platform for bar owners, managers, bartenders, and distributors to discuss these issues as peers.

Bridging conversations about bar operations with discussions on sustainability is another way the conference effortlessly asked the industry to consider socially conscious practices. Chicago Style rounded out these educational sessions by carrying that theme throughout their partnered events like Speed Rack and Bar Fight Club. Bar Fight Club was revived this year with a new setting and a new way of looking at what makes a bar great. The bars were asked to speak about how they engage with their communities and how sustainability is built into their programs. Oakland’s Starlight won the competition with Seattle’s Navy Strength following behind with people’s choice. The wins showcased a change in bar competitions—both bars champion social issues. Diversity among cocktail competitions isn’t a new conversation either, but the showcasing of queer, brown bodies, and sustainability was heard clearly. We can only hope that the emphasis on diversity will empower more and different people—who rarely see faces that look like theirs—to apply for future competitions.

Likewise, Chicago Style’s socially conscious vibe translated into their dinner series with thoughtfully curated conversations, including one on the importance of music curation led by Moni Bunni and Jacyara de Oliveira. It also created a space for newer voices, such as Keena Marie, who spoke about being a parent in the bar industry.

Visibility is a point of access for inclusivity and change. And as a theme, this was expressed throughout the conference and in its roster of presenters. While this may not seem revolutionary it in fact is. The coordinators managed to give a platform to a variety of women with different narratives and passions showing what intersectional feminism looks like rather than just talking about it. Women in leadership is still something to be gawked at rather than normalized. So when we give visibility to women, people of color, and queer identities, we create spaces inherently inclusive, and we combat performances of inclusion that create monolithic identities of marginalized groups.

Now that the bar has been set, the question is: what are the metrics for making sure these conversations not only continue, but are impactful beyond Chicago? Also, do we need to begin to bring in outside voices in discussions about social justice? The beverage industry is in the infancy of social reform, but I’m excited to participate and watch its transformation. I have no doubt Chicago Style will continue to be a platform on what that could look like.

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