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Takeaways From Chicago Style

Chicago Style founders (from left to right) Caitlin Laman, Sharon Bronstein and Shelby Allison.

Unlike many cocktail events today, drinking was not the first order of business at Chicago Style. That might seem counter-intuitive, but in some ways it perfectly captures the spirit of this new conference, where people seem more eager to partake in panel talks than free booze.

Created by three stars of the Chicago cocktail community (and beyond)—Shelby Allison (Lost Lake), Sharon Bronstein (The 86 Co.) and Caitlin Laman (Ace Hotel Chicago)—Chicago Style launched this May with a mission to tackle a variety of issues challenging the bartending industry today. Inaugural topics included why the number of black bartenders working in bars today is relatively small, how bar owners should be creating safe work spaces for the LGBTQ community, how to identify moments of harassment and abuse from behind the bar, and how management can use their positions of power to help lift up underserved communities through charity initiatives. Conversations pushed boundaries of comfort, welcomed important perspectives into the fold and encouraged people to consider how privilege works in every aspect of the industry.

Yes, there were parties, too. An old Tales of the Cocktail classic, Bar Fight Club, returned (with Starline Social Club from Oakland taking home the gold and Navy Strength in Seattle nabbing people’s choice), Speed Rack hosted the final round of its annual competition to raise money for breast cancer research, and the closing party had Trash Tiki’s Iain Griffiths and Kelsey Ramage serving guests at a “Wasteland Paradise” with their usual punk rock flair. The conference hosted over 300 attendees and raised more than $10,000 for charity partners (Chicago Period Project and the James Beard Foundation’s Women Leadership Programs) over the course of the week.

“There’s not a single person that I talked to who wasn’t energized, or re-energized, by the amount of support from like-minded peers and professionals just being in the same city that you could run into and bounce ideas off of,” says Alex Negranza, Imbibe‘s 2018 Bartender of the Year and the Houston-based bartender who helped put together the fitness side of the programming. “I think a lot of panels and seminars can easily turn into people talking at you about things you want to hear, and there’s plenty of times that some of us feel like we’re standing on an island yelling to the skies with no one around to hear. The conversations around Chicago Style showed me that we’re not alone on this island, and that for some people that island is paradise they’re trying to get to.”

“The idea of thinking of bars as cultural institutions should be foundational to how we look at being a part of communities,” adds Ashtin Berry of Dark and Stirred New York (formerly with Tokyo Record Bar). “I think Chicago Style just set a bar for what community engagement looks like.”

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