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A New Cocktail Conference With a Political Twist

Posted February 6, 2018 7:00 p.m. EST

Chicago will host a new cocktail conference this spring. Called Chicago Style, it will take place May 7-10, after the gala for the James Beard Awards.

While the convention’s format is familiar — seminars, parties and competitions for bartenders, bar owners, spirit makers and others in the industry — its philosophical mission sets it apart. The three founders, all women, plan to use the gathering to address social problems, including sexism, substance abuse and a lack of diversity, that the bar business has started to grapple with over the past year or so.

Its website sums up the mix as “equal parts think and drink.”

“Where we will differ from other conferences is the diversity of our panelists and participants and our inclusion of discussions directly addressing race, gender and sexual identity within these panel topics,” said Shelby Allison, an owner of the Chicago tiki bar Lost Lake and one of the event’s founders.

The other two are Caitlin Laman, beverage director at the Ace Hotel Chicago, where many of the convention’s daytime events will take place; and Sharon Bronstein, director of marketing for The 86 Co., which makes and imports spirits.

The timing of the new convention is fortuitous, just months after the founders of Tales of the Cocktail — long the world’s pre-eminent cocktail conclave, in New Orleans — stepped down after accusations of racial insensitivity. (Tales recently received a lifeline: The Solomons, a prominent New Orleans philanthropic family, are set to buy the festival.) News of the Chicago event also arrives as the #MeToo movement continues to gain steam.

But the three partners began making plans early last year, before any of those developments.

“You know, the time has been right for this conversation for a long time,” Allison said. “Yesterday was the right time. Five years ago was the right time. I’m so happy that movements like #MeToo are catapulting this into the national conversation. The next step in that conversation is to make workplaces happier, safer and more inclusive.”

Panels will include one on the “cross section between race, gender, sexuality within the hospitality community,” said Ashtin Berry, one of the panelists and beverage director of Tokyo Record Bar in New York City. Also on the panel will be Don Lee, a New York bartender and developer of barware who has long been outspoken on social issues.

Among the main events will be a party held by Trash Tiki, a group that promotes sustainability and the elimination of waste behind the bar; and the national championship of Speed Rack, a contest for female bartenders started by Ivy Mix and Lynnette Marrero. The enterprise donates about $100,000 every year to breast cancer charities.

For Marrero, the partnership with Chicago Style was a natural. “They share the same ideology as Speed Rack in many ways,” she said.

Allison anticipates that many of the other festivities will take place at Chicago bars and restaurants “that have women or people of color or queer people at the helm.”

Nandini Khaund, the beverage director at Cindy’s, a rooftop bar in the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel, who will take part in a panel, said: “We’ve been here. We are brown, we are queer, and you may not have noticed because the institutions are slower to acknowledge the shift in the paradigm.”

The convention’s intent to do things differently extends to its corporate sponsorship. Critics of cocktail conventions have complained in the past that powerful liquor conglomerates use their influence to set the agenda. Chicago Style will seek backing from the spirits industry, but on its own terms.

“We’re building our programming first and then finding partners that want to support us as we are,” Allison said. “We’re not shying away from radical conversations.”

The conference will be for-profit, with some money going to two charitable organizations: the Chicago Period Project, an organization that distributes feminine hygiene products; and the James Beard Foundation’s Women Leadership Programs, which offers mentoring opportunities to women in the restaurant industry.

A full schedule of events will be released in the middle of this month, and ticket sales are to begin March 1.

“We love the hospitality industry,” Allison said. “As an industry, it’s one that prides itself on making people welcome. There’s no way we can continue to pride ourselves on inclusion if we don’t also operate our businesses on that level.”