Rise Up

Some People are Boycotting Booze for LGBTQ Equality

Bars and liquor stores around the country are in quiet—sometimes not-so-quiet--revolt when politics gets into their booze.

by Eric Kingrea
Oct 13 2017, 6:15pm

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

You might not know it, but bars and liquor stores around the country are in quiet—sometimes not-so-quiet--revolt. Bulleit bourbons and ryes have been taken from shelves and put into wells to be sold cheap; auctioned off to benefit charities and never ordered again; poured down the drain and dumped in the trash. Bottles have been smashed. Bartenders are pissed, and in the tribal subculture of urban nightlife, people are talking. It might be announced via a big party, or it might be a note scrawled on the mirror behind the sticks, but a boycott is happening.

Why? In July, Hollis Bulleit, the quirky, bartender-beloved brand ambassador for her family's namesake whiskey, took to Facebook with a series of posts accusing her family of persistent homophobia in regards to her and her partner of more than a decade. The details get messy.

"For example, when my step-grandmother passed I got a text," Bulleit wrote. By her account, for ten years, they were more-or-less excommunicated: absent from family photos and event invites. They had to crash a family Thanksgiving last year, and were uninvited for Christmas. Soon after, Hollis lost her job.

Bars and liquor stores around the country are in quiet—sometimes not-so-quiet—revolt.

The issue gets complicated however, because the Bulleit family does not actually own the brand or company: the job she lost was with Diageo, the British multinational beverage corporation that bought the brand in 1997. Diageo (which has consistently been named by an LGBT watch group as "Best Place To Work For LGBT Equality") has basically said that Hollis, who as an ambassador is technically an independent contractor, could not come to terms with them on a new multi-year contract, and that was that. From their standpoint, Hollis had been out as LGBTQ for ten years, and happy with her treatment. One source, unaffiliated with either party, but who had seen one of Hollis's previous contracts, claims the new deal was "very lucrative." But Hollis turned it down.

Hollis claims discrimination by her family, and that at no point did she benefit from "the departments and safeguards that are put into place to either intervene or provide mediation or educational diversity training as would be expected protocol for employees in this type of situation." Where Hollis claims that she was not invited to the ribbon cutting of the new Bulleit distillery in March 2016, Diageo says that there was a named invite for both her and Cher, her partner. If there were incidents of discrimination that required the intervention of Human Resources, Hollis's Facebook posts were the first time the company heard of them.

"Any implication that she was fired, or that failure to agree to terms on this contract was due to her LGBT identity, is simply false," a Diageo spokesperson told VICE Impact in a statement. "We are very proud of our long track record of work, through many of our brands, to support the LGBT community. We are also appreciative of Hollis's past efforts on behalf of the brand and the industry."

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The Internet, as you might expect, was quick to take sides. Hollis has been a fixture in the country's bar scene for years; indeed, she states in one of her notes that she had "5 relocations in less than 10 years to urban areas to promote the brand." Bar folk and cocktail cognoscenti know her, love her, and not a few of them think that she was integral to taking a bourbon and brand that didn't have a deep-rooted story (the company formed in 1989) or many differentiating characteristics, and putting a distinct and media-friendly face to it. Her Lewis Carroll-like millinery made her instantly recognizable in the old-boy network of Kentucky bourbons. Of course, it also made her different. For many in the bartending world, it wasn't much of a leap to take her at her word.

"Particularly in today's climate, you have to call out people in a big way or a small way."

Places around the country started dropping Bulleit. At the Cobra Club, in Brooklyn, patrons could bid at auction for the remaining bottles and dump them in the sink to enthusiastic applause (ed note: the author's wife is co-owner of the Cobra Club). The money raised went to GLSEN, a non-profit that works to stop violence against LGBTQ youth. Donation is an integral part of the protest, both big and small. Tiny Brooklyn wine store Gnarly Vines returned six cases of product (almost $1000 worth of booze) upon learning of the controversy, and will be donating the sales from the rest of their stock to the Pink Flamingo drag synchronized swim team, while Tom Coliccio's massive Crafted Hospitality restaurant group took to Instagram to say it is devoting 100 percent of the profits from remaining bottles to God's Love We Deliver.

"Particularly in today's climate, you have to call out people in a big way or a small way," said Paul Berryman, co-owner of Corvus & Co., in the Capitol Hill area of Seattle, who has never met Hollis, but knows people who hold her "in high regard."

"Today's climate" is a through line reference in interviews with bar professionals who are participating in the boycott. As is "hitting them in the pocketbooks, where it hurts." A sense of activism pervades.

But boycotts are more a broadsword than a scalpel. While Hollis has stated on Facebook that she only wishes to tell her story, and didn't advocate any action on the part of her fans, a similar boycott, instigated by another well-liked media presence, occurred in 2013.

READ MORE: In the Age of Trump, the Service Industry Must Adapt to Nonstop Politics

In protest of Russia's treatment of homosexuals, columnist Dan Savage helped promote a boycott of Stolinachaya Vodka in an effort to "hit them where it hurts." #DUMPSTOLI began trending. The problem was that Stoli's provenance was an open question, and the boycott could have ended up hurting factory workers in Latvia and Italy far more than Vladimir Putin. Still, rumblings that start on social media and grow past that format are capable of making even the biggest corporations shaky in the knees: after seeing significant losses, Stoli invested heavily in damage control, LGBTQ support, and rebranding.

So while Diageo stands by their record of inclusivity, in the court of public opinion amongst tastemakers in an ultra-competitive, niche market, their largess and vast resources becomes a liability. At this point in the controversy, it is still he said/she said. The whole thing is a cloudy rocks glass of family disfunction, small money and big money. The question then becomes who do you believe: a conglomerate with a solid track record whose name was chosen by a branding team, or a possibly disgruntled ex-employee whose word and reputation are all she has left? Hollis Bulleit claims that she legally doesn't own her name. But she might have something better: a face people trust.

If you'd like to support GLSEN's mission to change the educational landscape for LGBTQ youth, click here . God's Love We Deliver moves 6,600 meals each weekday across New York City; if you'd like to support them, click here . And learn more about your rights at the workplace