Chicago Style, a “forward-thinking” cocktail conference taking place next week for the first time, was born from conversations—and the goal of the event is to create more. Founders Shelby Allison (co-owner of Lost Lake), Caitlin Laman (beverage director at the Ace Hotel), and Sharon Bronstein (vice president of marketing for the 86 Company) are friends who often discuss their jobs and the beverage industry in general. “That’s how this conference came about,” Laman says, “from Shelby, Sharon, and I talking about our regular experiences, and the topics [we wanted to highlight] are the things we talk most about right now.”
It took one more conversation to get them to pull the trigger, though. “Sharon and Caitlin and I had been daydreaming about doing a conference together, and we had dinner with Lynette [Marrero], the founder of Speed Rack [a speed bartending competition for women],” Allison says. “She mentioned that Speed Rack might be looking to move from New York for the finals, and we said, ‘You should have it at our cocktail conference.’ Then we created it.” And so, for the first time in Speed Rack’s seven-year history, the national finals will be held in Chicago.
A combination of seminars, panel discussions, and parties, Chicago Style takes place from May 7 through 10 at the Ace Hotel and, according to Allison, is designed to address issues of equity, inclusion, safety, and sustainability. Discussion topics include a history of black bartenders, empowering underserved and underrepresented communities in the hospitality industry, and achieving sustainability behind the bar.
“We’ve been to so many cocktail conferences over the last ten years and had so much fun at all of them,” Laman says, “but we saw an opportunity to create space for voices that aren’t normally heard.” Two-thirds of the panelists and presenters at Chicago Style are women, and many are queer or people of color. “We’re not trying to exclude straight white guys from the conversation,” Allison says, “but they have a lot of listening and absorbing to do if they truly are allies.”
The time for a conference like this, according to Bronstein, has been right for a long time. “It’s past due, in fact,” she says. “The current climate in our country with #MeToo and Time’s Up certainly raises enthusiasm from a business side of things; it was easier to get the financial support we needed to execute this conference. I think before, companies might have shied away from having a three-hour seminar on sexual harassment training, or they might not have jumped at the chance to sponsor a seminar about community activism.”
The conference’s website describes it as “equal parts drink and think, celebration and critique, party and platform,” and the founders say the goal is to emphasize meaningful discussion as much as cocktails. Bronstein says, “I hope this is the starting point of bigger and broader conversations to come, and that it can be a catalyst for some genuine long-lasting change in our industry.”
Chicago Style includes a wide array of events in addition to three days of seminars, panel discussions, and workshops in the Ace Hotel. More information about each of the associated events is below.
Bar Fight Club: A resurrection of a long-running bar competition that historically took place at the Tales of the Cocktail conference, this Bar Fight Club has been reimagined slightly. Bronstein says that when she and her fellow organizers put out an open call for bars to enter, they asked for entries that emphasized “ways they’re actively involved in their local communities, steps they’re taking to address sustainability, how they’re building their teams—not only excelling on the cocktail and hospitality side of things, but really setting a new standard for the way that bars are run in our country.” Mon 5/7, 10 PM-2 AM, Fulton Market Kitchen, 311 N. Sangamon, $20.
Chicago Style Fitness Series: “We’re working with Alex Negranza, a queer Latino man who’s a big advocate for health and wellness within the service industry, and Equinox cycling studio to provide fitness classes each morning,” Allison says. Tue-Thu 5/8-5/10, 9-9:45 AM, Equinox Cycling Studio, 200 W. Monroe, free.
Speed Rack National Finals: The speed bartending competition raises money for breast cancer research; food and drink are included in the ticket price along with a view of the action. Laman won the national finals in season three but won’t be competing this year; national winners aren’t allowed to enter again. “It’s a really fun and really serious competition,” she says. “The best part about winning it the first year [I participated] is that I never had to do it again. Because it’s really stressful.” Tue 5/8, 6:30-10:30 PM, Revel Fulton Market, 1215 W. Fulton Market, $30.
Chicago Style Dinner Party Series: “We worked with 12 brands to use a restaurant or bar that’s owned, operated, or has food or beverage programs driven by a woman, a person of color, or a queer person,” Allison says. “They’re inviting guests of honor to drive conversations based on equity, sustainability, or safety in the workplace.” Participants include Jonathan Zaragoza, Iliana Regan, Julia Momose, and Nandini Khaund, among many others. Wed 5/9, 7-10 PM, various locations and prices.
Wasteland Paradise: A disco dance party featuring zero-waste cocktails, presented in collaboration with the Trash Collective (formerly known as Trash Tiki). The goal of the collective, Bronstein says, is to “showcase ways in which bars can make small steps to being more environmentally conscious. There are a lot of creative ways to have an anti-waste attitude in the bar community.” Wed 5/9, 10 PM-2 AM, East Room, 2354 N. Milwaukee, $5 or a donation to the Chicago Period Project.