Evan Watson, a Canadian barman, led the boycott movement in 2016. He tells us about his motives. This interview was conducted in early 2017.
Rumporter: Who are you. Where do you work? Personal Background
Evan Watson: I’m Evan Watson, Partner and Bartender at Bar Clementine, Canada. I have a degree in Sociology from the University of Alberta, am a Certified Spirits Specialist, and have worked in the restaurant industry for 12 years.
R: How have you heard of the Chichigalpa CKDu Epidemic?
EW: 2016 is the year of brand transparency, and our bar community is quite closed. Issues like these often get brought up when more than one bartender get together. Vice did an article a while back that gained quite a bit of traction, but any quick google search turns up handfuls of articles published in media outlets around the world that address the issues of CKDu in Chichigalpa.
R: There are still lots of questions on the cause of this disease and its dramatic spread in this town (region). Though no study yet has clearly connected it with the sugar cane harvest. What made you stand out against Flor de Cana? On what basis?
EW: There is a significant amount of on the ground journalism, NGO research, and first-hand accounts of FDC historically fabricating the nature of their working conditions. While I’ll leave the conclusions of the research in the hands of those more capable of speaking on it than I am, I must say that a large portion of the research I’ve read does in fact clearly indicate a link between a lack of hydration, rest, and shade, and the prevalence of CKDu.
It’s important to consider that this isn’t a situation specific to FDC, as the entire rum industry suffers the endemic problem of dealing in low wage work in hot conditions, but FDC’s response to this has come across as repeatedly disingenuous. I’ve had members of their PR team contact me to discredit the journalist I’d quoted in my public post, and provided a “counter journalist” who wrote a more favorable piece on the conditions at their sugar cane mill. What they failed to disclose, was that this journalist was sponsored by FDC to visit the mill, and has since wrote favorable to FDC “travel journalism” style PR pieces in some of Canada’s leading publications.
Enormous brands have enormous power, and the irony is that the most powerful thing FDC could do is to say, “I’m sorry, we were wrong, we are going to fix this.” Instead, an enormous amount of money is being spent attempting to say, “We have always been right, we have always been fixing this.” It is clear for anyone willing to do even entry level digging that this is not the case.
R: The company claims they have invested a lot in research toward a solution, in social welfare, in information and improvement of the workers’ labor conditions. What makes you doubt that?
EW: I don’t doubt the research. They are very public about it. Unfortunately, a large portion of their research has been to historically try and draw connections to genetic causes of CKDu, obfuscating the research so that it appears inconclusive, and so that the “fix” doesn’t affect them financially.
It is important to consider that, if one could profoundly claim with no uncertainty that working conditions are the primary promulgator of CKDu, it would likely be more expensive (and be more damaging) to overhaul the entire sugarcane chain that FDC pulls from than to sponsor the research that they currently carry out. As for the conclusions drawn from the research, their ‘objectivity’, and claims towards social welfare and responsible working conditions, I’ll let those who’ve witnessed this firsthand speak to that.
One can find their own answers in any of the current available research online. One must remember that even if the current working conditions have improved, I’ve yet to see any apology or admission of guilt from FDC regarding the “old” practices, or even an explanation on why these “improved” practices only came into effect following overwhelming pressure from the bar community at large.
R: How did you stand out “against” Flor de Cana: social media? The press? Lobby groups?
EW: FDC was sponsoring a bartender competition in Canada that operated in a video format. Essentially, contestants would upload a video of themselves making a FDC cocktail to the FDC Facebook page and the online community would vote on them.
I made a public post calling on Canadian bartenders not to enter, citing the available research/journalism, and the post was shared all across Canada in the bar community. Many of Canada’s leading bartenders and brand ambassadors reached out with their support, and as a result, numerous liquor stores, customers, and, importantly, leading bars have stopped stocking FDC on their shelves.
R: Have any officials of the Pellas Group (including brand ambassadors) contacted you after your call for a boycott? How was their approach (aggressive? educational?)? Were they convincing?
EW: Yes, I was first contacted by their head of PR in Canada, as well as by their brand ambassador. They were insistent that I speak with their “research experts” to clear up any misunderstanding. Frankly, objective analysis is never properly achieved by relying on the words of the source of what you are trying to objectively analyze. They clearly have an agenda that they want to push — namely, that their conditions are great, that they are the leaders of research, and that all current journalists (aside from the one they quoted to me, whose trip was sponsored by FDC) are currently misinformed or committing bad journalism.
Very obviously it seems to be a hearts and minds campaign, and I don’t waste my time engaging with that. I enjoy straightforward, honest conversation, and FDC would do well to start by admitting where they fall/fell short, rather than attempting to construct a reality in which they’ve always been the industry leader.
R: I recently asked the question, should we boycott Flor de Cana?, to Ian Burrell. His answer was: “if we boycott A then we have to boycott B, C… D and all those who purchase molasses from Nicaragua.” What is your opinion on that assertion?
EW: As bartenders, we owe it to our customers to be informed about the spirits we use. Increasingly, this involves not just flavor and historical considerations, but also social ones. It is imperative that we stock our bars with products that reflect the world we wish to live in, and because of this, Ian is certainly correct in his assertion, (though perhaps we draw different conclusions?).
It is important to note that FDC is being boycotted by bars because of two reasons. The first is the obvious issue pertaining to CKDu and poor working conditions, though the second involves the form of the company’s response. They’ve repeatedly been given the chance to “do the right thing”, and they’ve made it clear that their enormous capital is better spent to construct a company image that represents them as industry leaders, rather than admitting where they fell short.
FDC has perhaps taken the brunt of the criticism because of sustained reporting on the topic, and while it makes them no less guilty, it is important to acknowledge where other brands fall short as well. We must always remain open to the idea that all brands, even ones we truly treasure, do not deserve a place on our bar shelves simply because of their flavor.