It’s an interesting time to be a booze writer in America. The world of adult beverages is expanding at a near-exponential rate, taking cocktail culture from the urban fringes to the mainstream. At the same time, the bar industry, and the world at large, is in the midst of a social and cultural awakening. For the first time ever, people on the inside of the drinking space, like myself, are talking about sexual misconduct, gender and race equality, addiction, and the state of mental health in the workforce.
As those conversations evolve, the beverage media, including Liquor.com, has had to reevaluate its coverage. Bar and cocktail roundups might pay the bills, but are we so focused on reporting what’s new and on-trend that we’re missing the deeper social stories in the industry? In short, are booze writers doing enough?
“Our duty is the same as any other journalist: to report the truth,” says Ali Wunderman, a Montana-based travel and drinks writer (and contributor to Liquor.com). “I try to elevate POC-owned businesses and dig deeper to find sources outside the typical white, cisgender and heterosexual male profile. The beverage industry is made up of people as diverse as the drinks we imbibe, and media coverage should reflect that.”
Yet all too often, it doesn’t. There still exists a significant tone deafness around social justice issues in the booze media. One pertinent example: A major digital lifestyle publication recently ran a roundup of important whiskey bars in America. The list included Louisville’s Haymarket Whiskey Bar, whose owner has been accused by multiple women of rape and sexual assault. (The bar has since been removed from the article after publication.)
That the author happened to be a straight, white, cis male should perhaps be beside the point. Then again, a different writer might have been more alert and written the piece in a different fashion. Being the voices of an industry—any industry—means assuming the role of advocate and critic, in equal measure. We can’t see what we don’t see unless we’re trained to look at the whole picture.
“In the booze sphere, specifically, we have the opportunity to publicly welcome folks into an industry that hasn’t always been so welcoming to anyone who fell into the realm of ‘other,’” says Meredith Heil, a drinks writer based in Chicago. “There are so many ways to do that, from keeping diverse representation in mind when putting together roundups to pitching a profile of a kick-ass female distiller to a publication aimed at hypermasculine demographics to getting involved with progressive networking organizations.”
Diverse representation might sound like the latest media buzz phrase, but it’s far more than that. It’s a fundamental tenet of good journalism, not to mention a successful business practice. New York City food and drinks writer Alicia Kennedy, another Liquor.com contributor, says, “It behooves writers, not just from a social justice standpoint but from a business standpoint, to make sure you’re out and about in under-covered areas. It will make your work that much richer, your ideas that much different.”
As for her personal approach to reporting, Kennedy is unwavering. “I have always worked to bring race, gender and class critique to my reporting, whether it has been highlighting bartenders in Puerto Rico or the Bronx, making sure that I always have women as sources or covering locally created spirits to fight against the hegemony of larger operations. This, to me, is all part of being a thorough writer. If we’re all going after the same kinds of people, we’ll all write pretty much the same stories.”
Unfortunately, not all publishers are adept at finding writers outside of their static network of contacts. Likewise, not all writers are skilled at connecting with sources beyond their immediate circle. Telling the untold story, mining the underrepresented voices—that requires legwork, and legwork takes time. In today’s brutal, fast-paced media landscape, time is a luxury no one has. Luckily, there are resources to help.
New York City food and drink writer Shanika Hillocks says she constantly has to challenge the gatekeepers of content and demand inclusion of POC in the industry. “I’m often the only person who looks like me at conferences or events,” she says. One of Hillocks’ effective vehicles for change is Equity at the Table (EATT), a database of female and gender-nonconforming food and industry professionals with emphasis on POC and LGBTQ communities. “When I joined EATT, I was contacted by a few publications as a result. This group is a wonderful example of bringing out strengths and ideas together, but there’s always room for improvement and to do more.”
Once you land the right source, then the real work begins. Writing about social injustice isn’t the same as writing about cocktails and spirits. It requires a general understanding of the topics at hand and the language that surrounds them.
New Orleans–based writer, beverage consultant and activist Ashtin Berry stresses the importance of doing your research before speaking on these subjects. “It’s really important not to dilute language,” she says. “I regularly read articles in food and beverage publications where the writer clearly doesn’t understand the context of a term but has chosen to use it because it’s on-trend. That’s really problematic and dilutes language that was created to draw attention to certain issues.”
Berry’s own approach to self-education involves regular reading and research, and she recommends others do the same. “I pretty much always try to write about the overarching societal issue through the lens of hospitality,” she says. “Every week, I do a reading and breakdown of how people can apply outside models to our industry.”
Joanna Carpenter, the bar director at Town Stages in New York City, has a front-row seat to the daily issues in the bar world and calls for the media’s help. “As a woman of color, I want to see words like ‘assault’ and ‘harassment’ used in articles,” she says. “I want the media to be more willing to research the backgrounds of their features before editorializing. I want writers to be more willing to step outside of their comfort zones and write about topics that are potentially inflammatory. It all starts with a willingness to talk about the hard stuff.”
As booze writers, of course, we’re used to dealing with a different kind of hard stuff: whiskey, wine, gin and their boozy kin. But taking on the really hard stuff—rape, abuse, racial and gender discrimination, suicide—is a daunting challenge, one that requires sensitivity, open-mindedness and, perhaps most of all, the capacity to sit back.
“One of the most powerful things those of us with platforms can do is shut up and listen,” says NYC spirits writer Dan Q. Dao, the winner of the 2018 Alan Lodge Young International Drinks Writer of the Year award and frequent Liquor.com contributor. “Listen when women raise concerns about misogynistic behavior or when POC explain the way many bar spaces weren’t designed for them. And should the occasion arise, stand beside these folks in denouncing problematic behavior.”
Having a voice means using that voice for the right reasons at the right times. We can all do better at any moment. And yes, that includes us.