At Wesleyan some time ago I graduated with Honors in East Asian Studies and Environmental Studies. Coming from Idaho previous to that, I basically also saw culture for the first time. Environmental racism? Squash as a sport and not as a starchy winter vegetable? You’re not supposed to smile and say hi to everyone on the street? Oh, I knew so little.
Taking my education and deep interest in sustainability as well as in East Asian Studies (okay not really, but perhaps some principles and my “heritage” as a hafu) I’ve somehow come here, to the world of spirits and bartending.
Perhaps it’s the Wesleyan “activist” in me, or perhaps it’s because I gave a shit in the first place that Wesleyan took me as a fitting member in the “activist” tribe. And then upon graduating, I proceeded to quit jobs that paid me quite well, but I found no real meaning in, and simply could not stay.
Alcohol is not really a conventional route for “activism” in the small liberal arts world (or any world, if I’m not kidding myself), like going into the field of law, medicine, or education is; but, I suppose – isn’t that the point? Isn’t that where the “change” happens? I’ve always tended to take the weird way, the way that people don’t really get unless I explain how it kind of makes sense, but sometimes still doesn’t.
I have laid out my multifaceted lens on bartending and the world of spirits; the things that I hope to share, research further, discover, and discuss with you, from gender roles to sustainability and education. If you’ve heard enough by now though, feel free to do the ‘ol skiparoo.
But if not.
Women Behind the Bar: the world of bartending/spirits is still hardly breeched by women garnering esteem (and not just the wrong sort of attention or gross comments), let alone one of color. Kind of like the White House? Sorry, I know. I don’t want to and won’t go there.
Very few females are recognized (inter)nationally in the industry, whether that be for their establishments, general gift for bartending, distilling, brewing, innovation, or published works. Perhaps there are fewer that wish to get there; years of behind-the-bar harassment can prove tiresome and sometimes insurmountable, and as the childbearing half of the equation it can be troublesome to be in the alcohol industry during a prime time in one’s career. Taking this journey myself as a “POC” can provide some personal insight, and hopefully I’ll find some cool female (identifying) humans with some good craft to share.
But even less than women is the world of alcohol reached by any sort of real environmental standards or strides.
Sustainability: Wonder why you haven’t seen the Farm-to-Bar slogan drowning restaurant menus everywhere like you have farm-to-table?
It’s in large part because it really, really depends upon a global, season-less stock of alcohols and ingredients and processes to make a bar a bar. Your local dive in nowhere-Wyoming is more dependent on the global economy than 90% of your other locales. You simply can’t have Irish whisky unless it’s been in Ireland for at least three years, and good luck with Champagne, or mezcal – you’ll also never taste Chartreuse again. And air shipping is really, really bad for the environment. But at the same time it’s just as impossible to have on-site distilleries and breweries (and the farms necessary for all of their ingredients) for the whiskey, gin, sake, beer, wine, vodka, and cider – just to name a few – that can be made state-side. You will be faced with not only state regulatory laws in basically any state banning you from one or all of those brewing practices, but it’s legitimately impossible to find a single state or reasonably-sized region where you can grow all of the ingredients necessary for a fully-stocked bar from lemons and pineapples to ginger root, corn, barley, rice, and grapes year-round.
Is it to make a very, very select “craft cocktail bar” (or whatever) that serves alcohol only made in the vicinity? If so, you may be serving the base alcohols of, say, rye and bourbon, gin, some beers and wines and ciders, plus vodka. And then only make mixed drinks/cocktails with ingredients you can grow locally (or on your roof or what have you) as well? This will be pretty limited in the highball department, because juice. And when you really get into it, it’s pretty limited in the everything-department come winter. Muddled turnip vodka on the rocks, anyone?
Well, I’m not The Earth Police and I’ll be damned if I’m not enjoying some of Mexico’s finest libations – which are tequila and mezcal, by the way.
The reasonable solution as I see it, anyway, is just kind of giving a fuck and thinking about the most reasonable choice or alternative given your holistic situation. Is it winter in Chicago? Maybe don’t put a pineapple watermelon vodka cocktail on the specials menu (or choose that for your home-bar drink tonight). Is it winter in Hawaii? Good one – you don’t have winter. Knock yourself pineapple-watermelon silly.
And in the bigger picture of it, when choosing those base spirits: it may not be store-brand-organic prevalent now, but there sure are spirits of every kind made by people also deciding to give a fuck. They’ve invested millions of dollars upfront for organic production or local sourcing. All we’ve gotta do is take a step past the Jack (sorry Mr. Daniels, no hard feelings!) and look at the other options on the shelf. Wind-powered distillery? Chill. Funding 95+ global environmental projects around the globe? Yeah dawg.
Moreover, part of the beauty of the bar is its cultural and historic richness. Sure, we can and do (in small quantities) make a tequila-like agave spirit in the US, and the same goes for sparkling “champagne” wines, but cultural sustainability has its own cards, too.
Part sustainability and part simply being a decent level of human being comes the ethics part of the equation.
Ethical Practice: Animals.
Luckily, animals aren’t intensely implicated in drink production. Not as much as they are in solid food or clothing, anyway. However, it’s still there. From the cream-based liquors that are oh-so-good in coffee at home to the low-key, super delicious Irish Coffees the bar on Main makes. That’s dairy, alright. For both environmental and ethical reasons, go organic and/or local when you can. And please do let me know if you find any liquors that are made with ethically-produced cream, because I’m really not sure that I ever have.
(Side Note on the ethics front: I know that PETA gets a lot of shit and it deserves it for its tactics at times, but I’m not kidding when I say that a five minute PETA video of a dairy facility has instantly brought me to tears, scarred me forever, and caused me to avoid conventionally produced dairy products. If you’ve never thought about the logistics of getting cows to perpetually produce milk without the male component, I’ll just say that the farmers themselves have a hand in that matter.
I half-heartedly apologize for my uncouth humor.)
Ethical practice: Humans. For some reason the internal point of reference I always have for ethical (human rights) agriculture is a clip from Ellen some years ago featuring the Desperate Housewives star Eva Longoria – no joke – to promote the making of the documentary Food Chains. We seem to have realized that we do many, many bad and irreversible and unnecessary things to the poor planet and its animals in raising and in growing our food supply, but we don’t seem to realize to the same degree (or put as much emphasis on) the ethical human labor laws in agriculture, many of which are scant or all but non-existent. Undoubtedly a product of the general political climate surrounding the demographic of the “typical” farm worker and yet again forgetting about Middle North America, it seems we have started to protect our animals (free-range, grass-fed and finished, etc.) more than our humans. This is something that’s a bit harder to derive from a label on a bottle or a producer’s website, but the general rule “imo” is that while most aren’t going to be “made by happy humans” certified, if they’re taking care of the other environmental aspects (the land), they probably give a shit about their humans, too.
Overall: I think I have simply found the confluence of my background interests and what I give a fuck about missing in bartending/the world of spirits, and think that this can legitimately be a viable and important medium for it, contributing immensely to the holistic picture of sustainability and human rights/equality issues. So I hope it’s fun (because if it’s not even slightly humorous, why bother?), Fun Factual, and that I can contribute in some enriching way. Or just, like, give you the pineapple marg recipe you came here hoping for.