Dissent and distribution: Jill Cockson’s boozy Bechdel test

Swordfish Tom's owner calls on the bar industry to take a public stance on Roe.

Jill Cockson at her flagship Kansas City bar, Swordfish Tom’s. // Courtesy Jill Cockson

Like many citizens, Jill Cockson woke up Friday, June 24 to a different country. Her partner told her the news: Roe v. Wade was overturned. Waves of stupefying shock and anger gave way to frenetic processing and a search for answers.  

Cockson is one of the region’s, most celebrated bartenders and business owners. She owns Swordfish Tom’s and Chartreuse Saloon in the Crossroads along with minority ownership of Drastic Measures in Shawnee, KS. She decided to use her outrage to do something tangible and combat the Supreme Court’s decision.

“I don’t care what unicorn you pray to, religious beliefs should have nothing to do with human rights issues, because we don’t live in a theocracy,” says Cockson. “Even if you’re a misogynist who doesn’t give a shit about women’s lives, this will affect everybody—from extra taxes for support services to the 18 years of child support that a bunch of these dudes are about to get slapped with.”

Cockson decided to exclusively offer the products of women’s reproductive rights allies. She went through her inventory and list of distributors, but the culling search yielded disappointing results—few in the liquor world had even made a public statement. So, Cockson called her current distributors and applied some pressure. 

“We [service industry & the arts] are silent and I don’t get it; we have the power because we’re the ones that make the things,” says Cockson. “If you like craft cocktails and specialty cuisine, there are only so many places you can go in this town.”

Something of a booze-infused Bechdel test was born: Has the company made a statement publicly affirming women’s and human rights?

If yes, Cockson would stock her bars with their product. If no, she’d find a replacement. 

“Money is the only thing that matters to these people,” says Cockson. “We vote with our dollars, and often those dollars trickle up to create super PACs. So, we all better wake up and pay attention.” 

Only three distributors in Missouri—Vintegrity, Aspect, and Pinnacle—have made public statements refuting the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade. 

Local liquor and distributor laws break down like this:

  • Missouri requires bars and restaurants to purchase alcohol from a third-party distributor and not directly from the distillery or brewery (taxing alcohol an extra time along the way).
  • Large distributors in Missouri have a legislated monopoly on certain products (i.e. if a bar wants Bud Light, there’s only one distributor from whom they can purchase).
  • Kansas requires bars and restaurants to purchase alcohol from a liquor store.

“I don’t have options and they know it,” says Cockson. “All the giants like Southern Glazers, Republic National Distribution, and Breakthru Bev think, ‘Why run the risk of supporting something,’ because they know there’s nowhere else to go.”

Swordfish Tom’s can get by with the short list of allied distributors as the establishment is a specialty cocktail speakeasy. Not carrying major labels isn’t as much of a problem as Cockson’s creativity can compensate for a limited selection of products. 

Chartreuse Saloon is another story. The Crossroads location is a hybrid of an inclusive dive bar and a historic western saloon with pool tables, darts, cards, and canned beer.  

“None of the beer distributors have made a statement that I’m aware of,” says Cockson. “Nothing but silence from Central States, North Kansas City Bev, and Craft Republic, so I’m in a real pickle with the Saloon.”

Not carrying beer is untenable for Chartreuse Saloon. A few local breweries like Crane, City Barrel, Big Rip, and Servaes Brewing Company have made strong statements of dissent to the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision. But again, in Missouri, those beer offerings must be ordered through distributors who’ve chosen silence.

In addition to the breweries, Cockson says that establishments such as Tom’s Town, Union Horse, Ragazza, and the Brick have all released strong statements. She says that supporting a business means supporting the people at their helm.

“I’ve been telling my bar guests, ‘Hey, thanks for supporting Planned Parenthood,’” says Cockson. “If you don’t want to support what I stand for, then you shouldn’t spend money with me, and at least I’m transparent about it.”

“I don’t know if I can handle writing checks to silent oppressors,” says Cockson. 

Silence on the subject of Roe goes past distributors and extends to many local restaurateurs. Cockson says that gobs of businesses and business owners in the metro have also remained silent, which to her, rings of a tacit acceptance. This frustration caused Cockson, for the first time, to consider selling the bars.

“It’s been almost dead silence from producers, distributors, and even leading bar and restaurant owners,” says Cockson. “In my opinion it’s disgusting; God forbid, you jeopardize your award platform.”

Cockson herself was nominated for a James Beard Award via her cocktail program at The Other Room in Lincoln, NE—the 2015 nomination was a first for the state of Nebraska. Such awards are highly competitive and generate big business for winners and nominees. 

“I wish [the bar and restaurant] industry wasn’t so full of people who are just so greedy to win fucking awards that they can’t say the right thing,” says Cockson. “They don’t want to risk losing that giant house or not being able to drive that Beamer.”

The hospitality industry has long been known to actively hire and support women, minorities, and LGBTQIA individuals. But Cockson says that is mere lip service if the industry doesn’t go to bat for human rights. She surmises that if the award winners and fiscally successful establishments use their platforms to push their distributors, they could at least get public statements.

“I’m calling out our industry in general,” says Cockson. 

Cockson has dropped all silent distributors, ordering the absolute minimum until more allied options are available.

She calls on others in her industry to do the same. 

Categories: Food & Drink