For bartenders and sommeliers, sitting down with coworkers after a long shift, double fernet in hand, can feel like an expectation; you’re not part of the team unless you decompress over a drink. For wine and liquor distributors, checking in with bar accounts might carry the expectation to drink a cocktail at each stop. The ubiquity of alcohol in the hospitality business is part of what’s given the field its allure, but recently, there’s a shift in what’s celebrated in the trade.
“I was tending bar, and I quickly and clearly realized it wasn’t a healthy environment to be in,” says Laura Green, a licensed mental-health counselor who recently gave a seminar on alcohol and moderation at Bar Convent, a trade show in Brooklyn. “I was drinking too much, spending too much money, my relationships were suffering. I had dreams of opening bars but I wasn’t confident I would thrive.” She considered leaving the industry, but instead went back to school to study mental health counseling. Now she works as the Midwest spirits specialist for Winebow Imports, while also seeing clients and speaking on substance abuse and mental health at beverage conferences.
With their easy access to alcohol, bartenders and sommeliers haven’t always been comfortable talking about how their work relates to substance abuse. But at Green’s Bar Convent seminar, there was a roomful of bartenders with hands raised, waiting to share their stories and ask questions. And the conversation is happening more frequently across the country. Tales of the Cocktail, an annual beverage conference held in New Orleans, recently launched a foundation to award grants for research projects on wellness in the industry. This year’s conference also included several seminars on substance abuse and mental health offered by licensed therapists and counselors, as well as free yoga and meditation classes.
Mark Goodwin was a recipient of a grant from Tales of the Cocktail in 2018. A bartender based in San Francisco, he used the grant to found the Pin Project, which launched this past June. It’s a bartender collective that provides pins for fellow restaurant workers to communicate their intention not to drink. Goodwin got the idea as he struggled with his own relationship to alcohol and what it meant for his career. He had worked in hospitality since he was a teenager, eventually becoming a bar consultant. Although he was thriving professionally, he says, all too often he’d find himself taking a shot during a shift and feeling inebriated four hours later. Changing careers didn’t seem like an option to him, as he’d already put so much time and effort into hospitality—and he also realized he wasn’t the only one with an issue. “I want to help,” he says.
Both Green and Goodwin will tell you that if sobriety is what you need, then by all means, find the ways to sustain it and work with a professional; but they believe there is a middle ground. “Sobriety can be necessary if alcohol is getting in the way of what you need to do,” Green explains, “But we need to teach people to understand themselves and how they drink. We need to learn how to monitor ourselves and normalize non-alcoholic drinking. We also need to keep social accountability for each other and say these things out loud.”
Brenna McHugh, a licensed substance-abuse counselor who serves as manager of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, was on a panel at Tales of the Cocktail that aimed to do just that—to help industry professionals become more aware of their own boundaries and behaviors. McHugh also contributes to a wellness group, Jigger & Dash, in Northern California, that sponsors hospitality-driven mental health roundtables to discuss and dig in to the root causes. “There’s an excess of food and drink in our industry: I can drink more. I can eat more. I have an expense account. This type of lifestyle can take its toll.” she says. The movement toward sobriety is the industry’s response to that, to help people sustain a rewarding career. McHugh says, “It’s about checking in with yourself. Be honest with the pleasures and the drawbacks. Drinking is not the piece that brings me here. It’s the people. The alcohol is not the community. I want to be around these interesting and dynamic people and I want to remember it.”