For bartenders whose livelihoods were put under lockdown by the pandemic, having a creative outlet was often more than just a hobby—it was a saving grace. In the midst of the industry’s worst crisis since Prohibition, pursuits of all stripes took on new meaning: providing a source of identity when jobs were furloughed, a backup plan that paid the bills, a form of expression that gestured toward hope when good news was in short supply.

The 2021 Tales of the Cocktail Foundation Canvas Project, presented by BOMBAY SAPPHIRE, is designed to celebrate that spirit of inspiration, fostering a national conversation about creativity focused on bartenders and the communities they serve.

“I think in this day and age, to be a truly outstanding bartender, you have to come with a perspective and a voice that is unique to yourself,” says Ryan Wainwright, the North American brand ambassador for BOMBAY SAPPHIRE. “Our whole goal was to say, what is your creative outlet outside of bars? How does that color what you do behind the bar, and how has it helped you get through an intensely difficult time?”

This year’s Canvas Project is about showcasing the imaginative arts in all their diversity. Bartenders can apply by submitting a 90-second video about their creative passion; up to 20 applicants will be selected from across North America, with three to four drawn from each region. There is no cocktail competition and no single winner; instead, using grant money provided by Tales of the Cocktail Foundation, Canvas Project participants will create tangible projects—anything from a fashion show to furniture—to showcase at regional events this August. Each bartender will also personalize a Gin & Tonic cocktail to be served at the gallery-style fêtes.

“We want to bring people together and celebrate a community that has been killing it, creating some amazing art and surviving on that outpouring of expression,” Wainwright says.

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The first class of Canvas Project alums were selected for the program’s launch during the pandemic from the pool of national finalists from 2020’s Most Imaginative Bartender competition. For them, the creative ventures honed through the program offered ballast and structure during a deeply unsettled year. Just as importantly, participants came away with a network of close friends.

“We still have a WeChat group with all the finalists, and we talk pretty much every day,” says Milo Salehi, a Bay Area based bartender and videographer . “We really support each other.” Working out of San Francisco, Salehi’s venture was focused on his popular Instagram account Equal Parts, where he posts videos of the art of drink-making. When the pandemic hit, Salehi was able to use the grant money from the competition to build the account into a business that kept him afloat when he was furloughed from his bar job. He was even able to buy a new camera as work picked up from an infusion of clients.

Keyatta Mincey-Parker also found seeds of hope in the crisis, using her time to focus on growing a community garden for Atlanta bartenders. “This garden has just exploded into something beyond my dreams,” she says. “I’m able to keep it going and make this my new life, and still be impactful in hospitality and have a voice.”

The business plan Mincey-Parker created in the competition provided a roadmap when COVID-19 put her bartending career on ice. Fellow furloughed bartenders helped her clear the overgrown garden plot, taking solace in working together and being outdoors. She used project funding to hire an accountant who had been a regular at her bar. Now Sip of Paradise Garden is flourishing under an all-female board of directors and fielding requests to expand the concept to other locations.

In early 2020, Alex Jump could not have guessed just how relevant her project, Focus on Health (FOH), was going to become. The website and podcast she developed, dedicated to mental health resources to help bartenders find balance, became a center for assistance when the pandemic hit. FOH gave hospitality workers dealing with a range of challenges, including substance abuse and anxiety, a place to find tools and fellowship.

“I’ve gotten so much support from the BOMBAY SAPPHIRE team since the competition,” says Jump. “They are a huge sounding board for ideas and decisions.” When Jump’s roles as a head bartender and bar manager in Denver resumed, she decided to take her own advice. To avoid falling into the trap of overworking, she sold the business to her FOH partner while staying on as a consultant and podcast host. “You have to practice what you preach.”

Originally, Valentino Longo had planned for his project, Shōshin Art Club, to be a brick-and-mortar center in Miami where service professionals could gather to take and teach classes on the craft and business of bartending. COVID-19 forced him to pivot to replicate the educational concept online—which in turn has allowed a broader base of users to take advantage of it. “I’m 100 percent happy … we went into the digital world,” says Longo.

For Longo, the biggest benefit from the Canvas Project was the way it pushed him outside himself, encouraging him talk to and learn from others—a concept he ended up instilling at the heart of the Shōshin Art Club. “The state of mind of putting the ego a little outside the door and being open really gives you an infinite possibility to learn.”

It’s a testament to how creativity and community go hand in hand, catalyzing the kind of constructive energy that the 2021 Tales of the Cocktail Foundation Canvas Project hopes to capture and spread as the bar industry begins an era of rebuilding, change and growth—ideally, for the better.

Registration is open now until July 26, 2021 for the Tales of the Cocktail Foundation Canvas Project, presented by BOMBAY SAPPHIRE. Sign up by submitting a video that highlights your creative outlet—all entries will receive a $50 gift card from Tales of the Cocktail Foundation.