Forget making drinks, this tequila competition wants to change the world

Eating & Drinking
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What would you change at work if someone gave you $50,000 for a sustainable project? Does it sound too good to be true? 

Last month, Altos Tequila did just that at a competition in Mexico and we went along to discover a new generation of bartenders who want to make the world a better place.

Georgina Wilson-Powell 18 December 2018

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Fields of blue spiky plants dot the scrubby hills, turning the landscape a distinctive tinge of dusky blue. Dusty truck towns pass by as do convoys of Toyota HiLuxes.

I’m heading out into tequila country, a couple of hours’ drive from Guadalajara to the Altos Tequila distillery, where a team who eat, sleep and breathe blue agave have created a sustainable factory from the ground up, that recycles and reuses 98% of its waste.

There’s nothing that goes into Altos Tequila other than oven cooked and tahona stone pressed blue agave and wild yeast. The old fashioned way of making it that happens here uses 50% more plants but retains the flavour. 25,000 bottles of tequila comes out one end and 2,000 tonnes of bio-rich compost comes out the other.

But I’m not just here to talk and drink tequila (although that is a pretty good perk).

Altos are changing the game when it comes to bartenders. Gone is the annual cocktail competition for the world’s best mixologists (that every brand indulges in) where the focus is on a one off drink and much backslapping. 

I’m here to follow the final of the Tahona Society (of which Altos is a part)’s overhauled Collective Spirit competition.

The brand have put up $50,000 to be won by a bar anywhere in the world who has the most impressive (and realistic) project that promotes sustainability - either for people or the planet. This is a world first for the drinks industry and for bartenders who want to step up - and there’s no cocktail shaker in sight.

“Cocktail competitions are fun and we were hyped about ones we done previously, there was great community and we’re like a family with our top bartenders but it’s very temporary. Where as this project feels like a game-changer,” says Dre Masso, Altos’ co-founder, bar owner and an award-winning mixologist.

"The guys on this trip might not have been thinking about better business practices, the environment or the circular economy but they are now. They’re going to go back to their bars and look at things in a new way and be mini local activists"

Sustainable bartender bootcamp

The 15 bartenders had two days to work with financial, marketing and business experts to come up with a seven minute pitch that would convince four judges (including a couple from Mexico’s Shark Tank TV show) that their sustainable idea was worth the grand prize.

The judges were looking for passion and personal stories but also wanted to make a prudent business decision. The winning project had to be a fully thought out one, tackling an urgent local issue where $50,000 could make a measurable impact.

What came across as we all worked our way through the week, watching the bartenders get advice from business, marketing and financial mentors was the incredible passion for subjects as diverse as mental health, homelessness and hydroponics.

Teams were representing Japan, Belarus, South Africa, the UK, Poland Singapore, Canada and Finland and brought with them dreams of setting up waste to taste circular businesses, grey water recovery systems, new ways of connecting local farmers with bartenders, using small scale farming to get homeless people back into houses and jobs and upcycling wine and beer bottles and broken glassware into new items.

“The guys on this trip might not have been thinking about better business practices, the environment or the circular economy but they are now. They’re going to go back to their bars and look at things in a new way and be mini local activists,” says Masso.

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The Collective Spirit class of 2018 at Altos' distillery in Mexico

It is a real job

Far from just serving drinks, bartending is a unique profession that has become a gateway to subjects as diverse as botany and permaculture (in developing new seasonal ingredients and flavours), technology and apps (for sharing drink info, consumer behaviour), food trends, interior design, architecture, consumer behaviour and lots more besides. To say the mindset has changed is an understatement.

“Bartenders are unique in a way that they operate a community meeting place,” says Makenzie Chiltern from Mind The Bar, the Canadian project in the Collective Spirit competition. “You can help animals, people, the environment and the biggest thing I’ve taken from the Collective Spirit, is that there’s no reason that your passion or cause can’t come into your bar.”

Will Campbell-Rowntree (the UK finalist)’s passion was a project he already had the idea to develop called Wsted Soul, which uses open source machinery to upcycle plastic waste into items that could be used in bars like napkin holders.

“It’s so important to have the sustainable angle in built into the DNA of everything instead of it being a fad so it’s considered at every stage of a drink and the ingredients and your bar set up and you’re not just preaching at people.” he explained.

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UK finalist Will Campbell-Rowntree gets the mentor's input into his upcycling plastic waste project

What was even more inspiring, the 15 teams here are just the tip of the iceberg - these guys aren’t just reflecting on what it means to have a positive space where people can relax, but how that can happen without damaging the planet, and using the drinks industry as a force that can positively impact social issues. That’s a huge leap on from a pretty drink.

Carlos Andrés Ramírez, Global Advocacy Manager at Pernod Ricard House of Tequila, said: “At Altos Tequila, we have long demonstrated the importance of being at the forefront of bartender education through The Tahona Society and promoting sustainable practices in the bar industry. We are proud of the level of high quality entries we have received from all over the world, and while there can only be one winner we do hope that many of them become realities over the next few years. We hope many more bartenders will join our familia of tequileros who want to get serious about protecting the environment and improving the lives in their local communities.”

At this level, the global bartenders at the top of the cocktail lists with award-winning bars, are often like a family. 

Altos Tequila’s Brand Ambassador Megs Miller and Carlos Andrés Ramírez spend the week cheerleading on the teams, encouraging them like coaches, while keeping an eye out for those bartenders who fit the family vibe of this brand. Master Tequilero Jesús Hernández is greeted like a long lost dad by many in our party who have been here before, while his own son has joined the distilling business.

And it’s impressive to see how strongly a bond is formed within days between the bartenders themselves. There’s a sense that at the top these guys need to look after their own, all the way back down the bar chain. Because if we don’t look after ourselves, how are we supposed to look after the planet around us?

“A lot of the Collective Spirit ideas are supporting wellbeing and what happens to the people who work in the bar industry and how we look after them. Often bartenders fall into these jobs managing people or running bars with no proper training and that’s something we want to help with - giving people the tools to manage a business and taking care of their staff,” explains Masso when I catch up with him the night before the final.

Pitch time

On the day, watching 15 people pitch ideas that were obviously close to their hearts was nothing less than inspiring and emotional. From shocking stats to personal stories, frustration at linear systems and excitement at newly discovered solutions, each pitch put forward ideas of how bartenders can positively impact people and planet.

It was impressive to see the way the teams had an impact on each other too, raising awareness of the issues their local communities are facing - from 6.2 million people out of work in South Africa to 50% of fresh produce turned away because of how it looks in Belarus to tackling the stigma of mental health in a ‘bro-culture’ in Canada.

Serving up statistics and solutions rather than drinks was a tough ask by Altos Tequila, especially when English wasn’t the first language for many on stage but each team presented a well thought out, comprehensive plan that proved that while there are many many issues we need to solve, the solutions can come from anyone, in any job.

But in the end, there could only be one winner.

Canada’s Mind The Bar team of Alex Black and Mackenzie Chiltern, stole the show with their emotional pitch around preventing suicides in the bar industry in Canada. Their project had already started, teaming vulnerable bartenders with counsellors but the injection of $50,000 will mean that they can employ a full time eam to help with urgent mental health issues, strengthening the entire industry’s eco-system.

The Tahona Society's The Collective Spirit competition will return in 2019 and will open for applications in January.


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