Innovators

How Chicago Style is Flipping the Script on the Cocktail Conference

Diversity, inclusion, and sustainability shared the spotlight at this new symposium, which has already inspired other events

Chicago Style
Ashtin Berry. Photo courtesy of Chicago Style.

“We’ve seen our industry’s obsession shift from ingredients, cocktail recipes, and star bartenders to the actual practice of hospitality and the need to take care of one another in order to truly take care of our guests,” says Shelby Allison, one of the organizers of Chicago Style.

Caitlin Laman, the beverage director at Ace Hotel Chicago; Sharon Bronstein, vice president of marketing at The 86 Co.; and Allison, a co-owner of the Chicago bar Lost Lake—three friends and industry vets who have known each other for several years through the Chicago cocktail scene—joined forces in 2017 to create Chicago Style—so named for the city’s unique way of doing things, from cocktails to hot dogs. The inaugural conference was held in May 2018, with the mission of providing a platform for the industry’s underrepresented voices and a place to share progressive ideas and empower those often shut out of positions of influence. Without giving up their day jobs, the three women had thrown themselves into planning four days of educational events designed to engage and inspire—and they brought some 2,250 people from across the industry to their city. And while there was no shortage of great cocktails served, this new cocktail conference offered seminars and workshops that emphasized the diverse community of people who make drinks and the ways in which their working lives could be bettered.

On Inclusivity

Industries across the spectrum are grappling with issues related to diversity in the workplace. In the era of Me Too and Black Lives Matter, women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community are demanding equality and forcing hard conversations. The hospitality sector is no different. Events like Tales of the Cocktail now feature seminars on diversity and inclusion and recognizing sexual harassment alongside sessions on the glories of Chartreuse and Irish whiskey cocktails. Brands like Bacardi promote gender equality through leadership summits. Speed Rack, the women’s bartending competition, has expanded its reach with mentoring and leadership initiatives. But the women of Chicago Style felt that these issues—diversity and inclusion, as well as sustainability behind the bar—deserved their own venue.

“From a hospitality standpoint,” says Laman, “the more representation you have in your bar, the better you can serve people. Kisira Hill [the former assistant general manager at Lost Lake, who spoke on intersectionality in the hospitality sector] said it well: ‘If I go to a bar and I don’t see anyone who looks like me, I don’t go back.’ You’re widening your guest base by having more diversity behind the bar.”

The three founders sought out a broad range of voices to feature on their panels and actively pursued representation across gender, color, and sexual identity lines. They started by identifying the issues they wanted to address, then reached out to innovators across the industry who are drawing attention to these topics. The local community was immediately supportive—40 percent of attendees were Chicagoans—and a mention in the New York Times helped the event attract national attention. By scheduling Chicago Style on the heels of the James Beard Awards and in connection with the Speed Rack competition finals, the organizers were able to build on the energy of those events. As they gear up for next year’s event, they intend to expand Chicago Style’s programming, but they will once again seek sponsors only after the programming has been determined, so as to remain as free as possible from brand influence.

On Raising Voices

It’s no secret that the cocktail community has been rather homogenous since the renaissance began back in the 1990s. At this year’s conference, the cocktail historian David Wondrich pointed out in his seminar on the history of black bartenders—at which I was a copresenter—that when we think of a craft bartender, the image of a mustachioed white man in suspenders leaps to mind. But the reality of the hospitality sector is far more diverse than that picture suggests. Much of Chicago Style addressed how the elite echelons of the cocktail community can do a better job of representing that reality.

“When I started out, I wanted someone to take me under their wing,” says Alexis Brown, a cofounder of the nonprofit Causing a Stir, which aims to support and mentor women of color in hospitality. She and cofounder Ariel Neal were part of a panel that discussed how to empower underserved and underrepresented communities. “I was looking for a woman of color,” Brown says, “someone who could relate to me as a black woman. I couldn’t find anyone. Now I want to be that person for women in Chicago. I want to be the mentor I was looking for.”

SevenFifty for Importers

Brown recalls attending other cocktail conferences and being the only woman of color in the room. Impressed with the diversity at Chicago Style, she appreciated how its aims dovetailed with her own organization’s mission. Causing a Stir’s first major initiative involved promoting a local cocktail competition among bartenders not normally invited to participate in such events. Brown and Neal recruited bartenders from Chicago’s South Side who had never been trained in making craft cocktails and invited them to a series of educational workshops designed to teach the basics of recipe development, as well as how to market oneself. One of their recruits made it to the semifinals round.

Brown and Neal are still just getting Causing a Stir off the ground, but theirs are exactly the sorts of voices the founders of Chicago Style wanted to feature. Another was Ashtin Berry, the New Orleans–based bartender and industry activist, who spoke on community accountability asked participants to consider typical industry problems through the lens of intersectional feminism. Laman, Bronstein, and Allison had at first been inclined to call on big names in the industry (like Wondrich) as a way to lend credibility to their event, but they soon realized that the notoriety of presenters was less important that the content of each seminar.

“I thought it was interesting to have a cocktail conference that didn’t have anything to do with the actual drinks,” says Christina Veira, a bartender at Drake One Fifty in Toronto who attended the May conference. As someone who organizes fundraising events for local charities in her spare time, she particularly enjoyed a seminar on how cocktail bars can contribute to a community through charitable acts. Speakers included Bobby Heugel of OKRA Charity Saloon in Houston and Ashley Novoa of the Chicago Period Project, which distributes feminine hygiene products to homeless women. Adds Veira, “It made me feel like I’m not crazy with what I’m trying to do.”

Notably, the only seminar at Chicago Style that did highlight cocktail-making advice and trends was on the topic of sustainability. One of the speakers, Claire Sprouse, who runs the consultancy group Tin Roof Drink Community with Chad Arnholt in New York City, believes Chicago Style has come at a time when the industry is taking a more holistic approach to hospitality. Creating a safe and inviting space for staff and guests is becoming as important as crafting the ideal menu. In her view, sustainability is an extension of the conversation about diversity—it encompasses ideas anyone can apply.

“There’s this assumption that being better about sustainability means being more expensive, that it’s reserved for affluent white communities,” Sprouse says. But “you don’t just institute sustainable practices because it makes you feel good; you do it because it’s smart business.”



On Practicing What They Preach

The progressive DNA of Chicago Style was put to the test before the conference even took place. After the initial schedule of events was released, the three organizers faced criticism for a few of their panel choices, including a man who had been invited to speak about intersectionality when another woman of color could have been featured instead. They heeded the feedback and made what they realized were necessary changes.

“We worked through that publicly by writing an open letter describing all the changes we’d made and why we made them,” says Bronstein. “We were really transparent with that.” The letter acknowledged missteps, above all, and expressed gratitude for the constructive criticism.

Ultimately, the three organizers believe that the criticism and their open response to it made for a better conference. “We recognize that we’re three white ladies organizing a conference that’s focused on diversity,” adds Allison. “But if we truly want to make space for [marginalized] people, there has to be some latitude to make mistakes and learn from them.”

Read our Q&A with Chicago Style.

A Montreal native now based in New York, Chantal Martineau writes about wine, spirits, food, travel, and culture. Her writing (sometimes accompanied by her own photography) has been published in VogueFood & WineDeparturesSaveur, and The Atlantic. She is the author, with Ron Cooper, of Finding Mezcal: A Journey Into the Liquid Soul of Mexico and the author of How the Gringos Stole Tequila. 

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