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Community Through Cocktails: Stoli's Nationwide Effort to Unite

by Matthew Wexler

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday August 4, 2020

Rocky Collins, Stoli Key West Cocktail Classic 2016 winner.
Rocky Collins, Stoli Key West Cocktail Classic 2016 winner.  (Source:Stoli)

Shaken. On the rocks. These are how we often request a cocktail at our favorite bar. Still, for many members of the LGBTQ community, the phrases describe the often-turbulent feelings related to coming out, acceptance and the resilience required to live with pride and dignity, regardless of our sexual or gender identification.

For the past seven years, Stoli vodka has canvassed the nation to seek out the country's best LGBTQ and ally bartenders as part of the Stoli Key West Cocktail Classic. But the jubilant crowds and flair bartending is the sparkle on something much more substantive, according to Stoli LGBT Manager and Brand Ambassador Patrik Gallineaux, who conceived and launched innovative partnerships between the heritage brand and the nation's most acclaimed nonprofit organizations, events and advocates.

"I've not only met some of the nation's best bartenders throughout years but some of the best people," says Gallineaux. "When we seek out contestants, we're looking for mentors and community leaders. The kind of person that has a smile on their face when you order a drink and approaches their work with a sense of inclusivity. That's what our country and our community need right now."

2016 North American Champion Rocky Collins exemplifies how the Stoli Cocktail Classic can change lives. Collins had already broken through the glass ceiling in Dallas, Texas, when he became The Round-Up Saloon and Dance Hall's first black bartender. Within six months, the owners suggested he compete in Stoli's regional competition. Collins took the title, and the following June flew to Key West (glassware in hand, to ensure it survived the flight unbroken) to compete.

"I was nervous; how was this city gonna take me?" recalls Collins. "I'm fun and playful. I was hoping they'd embrace me. From the moment we landed at the airport, the whole city was like one big happy family."

But that year, the energy quickly shifted after Collins won. It was the night of the Pulse nightclub shooting, and celebration turned to prayer.

"It united us. I thought about my gay friends whose parents have kicked their kids to the curb. It pushed me to connect with younger contestants, and now I'm the official Stoli Cocktail Classic coach," says Collins. "I take them under my wing and make them feel comfortable — to let them know that we're here for you. We're family."

Jo McDaniel
Jo McDaniel  

Jo McDaniel followed Collins' legacy, taking the 2018 title as North American Champion. McDaniel manages D.C.'s A League of Her Own, one of 16 lesbian bars left in the country, though McDaniel is quick to say that the space welcomes all members of the LGBTQ community.

McDaniel was initially reluctant to compete, knowing that if she won, the finals would conflict with D.C.'s Pride celebration. With 15 years of bartending experience in queer spaces, Pride had always been an annual event that anchored her to the community. But she also realized that, as a lesbian, more representation was needed. She won the regional competition and became the first woman to represent D.C. at the finals.

"The notoriety changed my life," says McDaniel, who has maintained deep connections with fellow competitors, including Chicago's Joe Lewis. McDaniel says they're now able to "signal boost" for one another, helping to empower a greater sense of unity within the LGBTQ community. "It's very empowering and removes the idea that we live in an echo chamber, especially right now during the civil rights movement for our generation. We're in different cities but like-minded, sharing stories and creating safe spaces for the queer community."

McDaniel also recognizes the importance of authenticity. Throughout her career, she's seen plenty of companies hoping to capitalize on the LGBTQ dollar. Through Gallineaux's vision, Stoli has put representation front and center, committing resources and funding to nationally recognized organizations, including the Brave Space Alliance, Harvey Milk Foundation, Trans Lifeline, and many others.

Flawless Shade
Flawless Shade  

Flawless Shade didn't win the North American title the year the newly emerging drag queen participated, but was a fan favorite as the first drag queen to make it to finals. The Stoli Cocktail Classic was a stepping stone for the Portland, Oregon-based performer, who said, "My experience with Stoli changed my life. When I went there, I was just a bartender who only did drag; I was just starting out. It was cool to come back having done well and then having other opportunities to work as an emcee and event producer."

Since competing, Flawless Shade has flourished, and what the performer has learned from the competition extends far beyond perfecting Shade's signature drink, the Summer Stoli-stice.

"Everyone that worked that event was so professional and organized. The people behind the scenes — that's the foundation of a good production: A skillful, strong backbone. I flew across the U.S. as a brand new drag queen to a queer bartending competition," says Ms. Shade. " I felt part of a moment in history. Stoli's doing it for the right reasons and changing a lot of people's lives."

In addition to its impact on participants, the Stoli Cocktail Classic has also been a game changer for its host city. Alan Beaubien, director of sales and marketing at Marriott Key West Beachside and President Emeritus of the Key West Business Guild, has traveled to cities from coast to coast for preliminary rounds to remind the younger LGBTQ travelers of Key West's queer legacy. It's been 20 years since the city adopted the tagline "One Human Family' — a philosophy that beautifully aligns with Stoli's LGBTQ initiatives.

From a winner's event at New York City's Club Cumming to Bruce Vilanch's laugh-out-loud commentary at the finals in Key West, Beaubien has seen it all. Like Gallineaux, though, he recognizes that whether it's a global brand like Stoli or a storefront shop on Duval Street, actions speak louder than words: "If you don't get involved, it's not going to happen."

Matthew Wexler is EDGE's Senior Editor, Features & Branded Content. More of his writing can be found at Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @wexlerwrites.