For Chris Cabrera, Bacardi’s first national LGBTQ+ brand ambassador, bars have never been just about the drinks.
“The term ‘safe space’ was created for gay bars,” explains Cabrera. Before the Stonewall Riots in 1969, police raids on popular gathering places drove many queer bars underground. “For us, queer spaces have always been about having a sense of family,” he says. “The bar is really the cornerstone of our culture.”
Cabrera, who is nonbinary transgender, didn’t always intend to work in drinks. He moved to San Francisco in 2007 to attend culinary school and started serving cocktails for extra money, before eventually ending up behind the stick. “One shift turned into two shifts turned into three shifts,” he says. Soon he was working at such venues as Novela and Wildhawk, and a decade later Cabrera was one of the most prominent bartenders in San Francisco.
He caught the eye of Bacardi, a multi-million dollar company best known for its rum but whose portfolio includes 26 spirits brands. In 2018, the company enlisted Cabrera as the New York City brand ambassador for Grey Goose vodka, which was still shaking off a white-tablecloth reputation.
Cabrera carved a niche for himself in the LGTBQ+ hospitality space, getting to know everyone from the bouncers to the barbacks at influential New York City queer bars like the Stonewall Inn and the Lambda Lounge. His method was simple: “I showed up,” says Cabrera. “I was there every day and every night.” All the work came to fruition when, in 2019, Grey Goose sponsored the annual Stonewall Inn drag pageant, Miss Stonewall, during the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots.
Cabrera’s success with Grey Goose inspired Bacardi to promote him to a newly created national LGBTQ+ brand ambassador position in 2020, and he has continued to show up. Last year, after he accepted the Pioneer Award at New Orleans’s annual Tales of the Cocktail conference, Cabrera skipped celebrations to wake up early the next morning and host an event for those affected by Hurricane Ida in the small bayou town of Galliano, Louisiana. Local drag queen Kookie Baker provided entertainment while iconic chef Linda Green served guests red beans and rice alongside cups of Bacardi Punch.
“Chris found a way to make the celebration about the community instead of about himself,” says Heidi Vargas, Bacardi’s West Coast vice president who helped identify Cabrera for his new role.
“One of my responsibilities is making sure we’re focused on giving back to the community, not just taking,” says Cabrera. As a Latinx and Indigenous person, he strives to make sure this focus includes everyone. At the onset of the pandemic, for example, Bacardi gave donation stipends to all brand ambassadors; Cabrera used his to put small grants directly in the bank accounts of 30 oft-overlooked figures in the queer nightlife community, from the DJs to the drag queens, and charitable organization Another Round Another Rally matched the donations.
“He has created a playbook for other markets across the country to activate,” says Vargas. In fact, Bacardi recently created an LGBTQ+ brand ambassador role in Texas, inspired by Cabrera’s efforts. The next step: bringing his work to markets worldwide.
Cabrera also works internally, educating employees about the importance of pronouns and the difference between sexual orientation and gender identity. “I’m learning new things everyday,” says Colin Asare-Appiah, Cabrera’s boss and the trade director for culture and lifestyle at Bacardi, citing the importance of using correct pronouns. “I’m learning new words everyday. He has expanded my interactions with people.”
The industry at large is evolving, too, thanks to Cabrera. Asare-Appiah mentions a speech Cabrera gave at this year’s Tales of the Cocktail event, in which he read a letter he wrote to his younger self. “It was such a moving moment, because the majority of the people in the room had been part of Chris’s journey transitioning,” says Asare-Appiah. “There was awareness of how much Chris has changed, and how much we’ve all changed as well because of Chris’s existence in our lives.”
For Cabrera, the work is just beginning. “I’m at a point now in my life where I’ve just come out as nonbinary trans, and so I feel if not me, who?” he says. “I understand the weight and the validity of what I’m doing, and so I will work hard, I will be tired, I will do all the things that I have to do if it means we’re building and creating a better and safer space within our industry for everybody.”