Behind the Stick: The Changing Bartender

the finishing touch

From a job to a career

The last 30 years in the booze business has seen fundamental shifts in all aspects. The industry has consolidated at all levels: manufacturer (supplier), distributor, and retailer. Consumer preferences have gone from whiskies to vodkas and back to whiskies. Mass-produced brands are losing ground to craft and micro distillers. The cocktail has reemerged with a vengeance.

Consider the arguably most important person in the drinks business chain, the influencer, the gatekeeper of choice – the bartender. In my view, there are profound shifts in motivation and aspiration that has changed the nature of bartending and the people who work that craft.

My friend Gaz Regan, in a recent interview with Tales of the Cocktail, summed it up nicely when asked about the changes affecting bartending. He points out that, so far as he is concerned, the changes began about ten years ago. “Bartending prior to that was a part-time job. Something you did until you got a real job.”

He went on to add:

“What happened was, the spirits companies began to recognize the value of bartenders. They started having [drink] competitions with big prizes, and investing money in bartenders. Giving bartenders jobs as brand ambassadors followed that. And, in return, the bartenders gave the spirits companies the exposure that they were looking for. So that’s been a fabulous marriage. I get asked sometimes, is this all going to go away? My answer is, not as long as the spirits companies are making money.”

In the past…

Some of my theatre friends have an interesting expression. “A bartender is an actor that doesn’t want to become a writer.” That’s the way it was, once upon a time.

To oversimplify, there were some basic and simple motivations. Some entered bartending as a ‘day job’ in order to pay the bills while they pursued their ambitions and life’s dreams. Others were professional bartenders whose joy, in addition to a paycheck, was the challenge “behind the stick” and in meeting and interacting with (hopefully) interesting people.

The job choices ranged from the corner bar to the lavish watering holes of the rich and famous. The lines between ‘job’ and ‘career’ were blurred.

Today…

While bartending is still a job to many it’s no longer seen as a way station on the path away from the booze business. On the contrary, it is more often than not seen as the launch of a career in the hospitality industry in general, and alcohol in particular.

Goals and aspirations are changing and here’s how the bartending profession is evolving.

 

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  1. From bartending to bar chef

Think about the changes in the culinary and food arts world. Cooks have become chefs, who in turn, have become celebrity chefs. This journey in the bartending world, thanks to the cocktail culture, has elevated the art of bartending – from bartender to mixologist to bar chef.

Regardless of the level, it’s an exciting time to be behind the stick with the craft moving beyond, “what will you have?” to “try this.” Back to Gaz. When asked what excites him about the current generation of bartenders, he had this to say:

“The creativity. The fact that they have gone so far, with [things like] molecular mixology, that has created a space for artistic people to choose bartending as their way of expressing themselves. So we’ve got more and more artistic people behind the bar, and I think that just keeps progressing and progressing and progressing.”

  1. Brand Ambassador

Back in the day at Seagram, we recognized the importance of the brand ambassadors but we looked at it from the consumer’s perspective.

We hired a (former) whisky writer, dressed him in kilts, made sure he could play the bagpipe, and sent him on his way to travel the country. With considerable gusto, he entertained and lectured consumer audiences on the basics of Scotch whisky and conducted tastings of Chivas Regal and/or The Glenlivet.

Around the same time, Diageo introduced the Masters of Whisky education program. This was aimed at consumers (at whisky festivals around the country) and, importantly, provided training to bar and restaurant staffs. (Unfortunately, this highly successful and groundbreaking program has just been unceremoniously dropped with lots of Diageo double talk about how it will become a better program in the future. Trust me, it was a terrific program and will be missed.)

In effect, for the past few decades, suppliers have realized that to generate interest in their brands and products, they need to capture the hearts and minds of the key influencer and gatekeeper, the bartender. Who better than another bartender? And so, another career path became available to bartenders.

This from Tales of the Cocktail sums it up nicely:

For bartenders looking to move on from behind the bar, becoming a brand ambassador can be a shrewd, lucrative step forward in their career, a graceful way to avoid the late nights and constant physical labor of bartending while still remaining in the industry.

The drawback? Not a lot of jobs out there for this niche, and thanks to Diageo, lots of people will be looking for new jobs.

For those who enjoy and excel at a brand ambassadorship, the opportunity to expand into a spirits company can be a likely further step in career development. Particularly, since major companies are beginning to understand that brand success and even revitalization comes from the bar trade and the people who know it well.

  1. Becoming the boss

Upward mobility and career advancement is not solely in the domain of the desk bound.

I suppose this aspiration has always been there, but I notice more and more that bartenders I know and meet have become creative directors, bar supervisors and/or Food and Beverage Managers. As multi-unit establishments expand and grow, the need for qualified leadership will also grow.

The key ingredients are a passion for the food and beverage industry, managerial skills, and for some, an advanced degree. Above all it helps to have a mentor and a work environment that nurtures and rewards business talent.

Pam Wiznitzer, Creative Director of Seamstress, and president of the United States Bartenders’ Guild – New York Chapter, is a good example. Here is her story from a recent Forbes online article.

  1. The entrepreneurial spirit

Opening one’s own bar is a risky proposition, with compounded risks if food is part of the equation. Tough, but not impossible, assuming the financial and managerial resources are in play.

However, the entrepreneurial path is not limited to opening an establishment. Read the Simon Ford story. His journey went from brand ambassador (international no less) to Director Trade Marketing (at Pernod Ricard) to Cofounder at The 86 Co.

If opening a bar is risky then launching a distillery is, well, perilous. And yet, many try and some succeed. In addition to financial resources, it takes training, patience, long hours, and people skills.

Just like being a bartender.

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In the weeks and months ahead, I plan to highlight and focus on this new breed of people behind the stick. In the meantime, if you think of anyone I should think or write about, let me know.

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Gary (gaz) Regan: A Man For All Seasons

Bartender, innovator, author, publisher, educator and more

gaz regan 2012 in suit by jimi ferrara - Copy
gaz regan

I first met gaz in the early 1990s when I was Seagram. While I’ve always known him as Gary, the name gaz is his nickname and has become his nom de plume some time ago. Whatever he calls himself, he’s a heck of a guy and has made major contributions to the booze business.

Before I get into all that, here’s a story I heard from gaz. (He spells his name without capital letters.)

I think it might have been on his radio show (with Paul Pacult) in the late 90s. They invited me on and we were discussing single malt scotches in general and The Glenlivet (a Seagram brand at the time) in particular.

To illustrate the nature of the category, gaz told a story about when he was bartending in the 1980s on South Street in NYC. It seems that a particular Scottish gentleman would come in for lunch everyday, order a hamburger and ask for the “book.” It was a guide to single malt scotches and differences in brands, regions, water, grain and distillation styles. After work, the gentleman would meet with friends and colleagues and hold forth on the verities of various malts. While he sounded like an authority on the subject, the information he provided was less than 5 hours old.

To me, the story illustrated the nature of the single malt category and the focus among those drinkers on discovery and what’s in the bottle. Portend of things to come.

There are two other things I learned from gaz – the power of stories in the booze business and the crucial role of the bartender.

Regan's orange Bitters
Regan’s Orange Bitters No. 6

Writer, storyteller

Did I say writer? I meant to say prolific writer. He has written a column for the San Francisco Chronicle for 14 years, publishes three newsletters a week, has won two Best Cocktail Writer awards and written more than a dozen books. He is also a regular contributor to Liquor.com and an advisory board member.

If you want to reach bartenders, he’s the man to see. Two of his books, gaz regan’s Annual Manual for Bartenders and 101 Best New Cocktails are published annually and reach a wide audience all over the world. Oh, and let’s not forget the Joy of Mixology and The Bartender’s Bible.

New edition to be released in May
New edition to be released in May

My favorite is The Negroni: A gaz regan Notion, the second edition of which will be released in May. Not only has he made that drink famous but has also cleared up many of the myths about its origin. All I’ll tell you is the originator was one Count Negroni, the broncobuster who first created the drink in the early years of the 20th century. It’s a fun read.

The consummate bartender

Credited by many as one of the godfathers of the mixology movement, gaz is a bartender’s bartender. In addition to books and bartending appearances (The Dead Rabbit in NYC), one of his newsletters is devoted to job opportunities around the world. Mention his name to any professional bartender and their eyes will light up and a big smile will appear. Along with other famed bartenders like Dale DeGroff, gaz has been a judge at Diageo’s World Class bartending competition.

In fact, companies like Diageo and Pernod Ricard have been smart enough to avail themselves of his services. I think it’s because he has his fingers on the pulse of the bar trade – consumer and bartender. That is, of course, when his finger is not stirring one of his world class Negronis. (Check here and here for more about this.)

Just One Shift

gaz came up with the Just One Shift idea to help raise money for a charity called Wine to Water, which has been bringing potable water to thousands of people all over the world since 2004. Doc Hendley, a bartender from North Carolina, founded Wine to Water.

Each year gaz organizes and promotes a campaign for bartenders to contribute the tips from ‘just one shift’ and 100% of what they raise brings clean water to needy people worldwide.

Great idea. I’ll let you know when the next campaign comes around.

Cocktails in the Country

Cocktails in the Country Workshop
Cocktails in the Country Workshop

This event, which you can learn more about here, ran for seven years from 2001 until 2007. He has decided to bring it back this year, and from what I’ve heard from bartenders, that’s really good news. Cocktails in the Country 2015 is a Master Class that focuses on the importance of service in the hospitality business and much more.

Held in Cornwall on Hudson NY, it’s a two-day bartender workshop that covers a wide range of issues for the trade and even culminates in a special certification for bartenders. It runs all summer and the first workshop is coming up on May 11 to 12. (See Schedule)

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I think the best way to sum up a story on gaz regan is to show the headline from the Food Republic written by Simon Ford, founder of The 86 Company and formerly a top notch on premise guru for Pernod Ricard:

Gary ‘Gaz’ Regan Knows More About The Culture Of Drink Than Basically Anybody

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King Cocktail’s New Venture

Dale DeGoffDale DeGoff is a booze business entrepreneur and somewhat of a renaissance man. His latest endeavor moves him from behind the bar into the realm of a manufacturer. He’s been credited as the inventor of the Cosmo and, more important, is a really nice guy.

I first met Dale back in the day when he was tending bar at some great places, most notably the Rainbow Room. From that point on, he was at the forefront of what’s been described as the gourmet (or mixologist) approach toward cocktails, particularly the classics.

I suppose that’s why he’s known as King Cocktail, although I think of him as a booze business equivalent of Wolfgang Puck – a celebrity barman (but without an accent).

The man has a list of awards, including the James Beard Award for Wine & Spirits and has written a number of books about cocktails. But wait, there’s more – he’s a partner in the bar training program called Beverage Alcohol Resource (BAR, get it?) and founding president of The Museum of the American Cocktail. He also tours the country with a one-man show called “ON THE TOWN! A Tribute to Bars, Speaks, & Legendary Saloons.”

You’d think that would be enough to keep him busy, right? Wrong. Dale has recently launched his own brand of bitters called Dale DeGoff’s Pimento 2bottles-3inchlrAromatic Bitters. It’s designed to be very similar to Pimento Dram, an ingredient Dale often used, but is no longer available. He joined forces with Ted Breaux, of recent Absinthe fame, to produce it.

I think that before I go any further, we should talk about bitters and their use in cocktails. If you’re a booze maven, you probably know this but indulge me anyhow.

According to Wikipedia (my go to information resource), bitters is an alcohol beverage (DeGoff’s is 90 proof) flavored with a range of herbs and spices. He uses select botanicals and allspice, which is made from the pimento berry (not to be confused with the little red things stuffed in olives). Adding a little bit of bitters to cocktails and you won’t believe how it enhances the flavor and taste.

Check out these recipes from his website .

So, Mr. DeGoff jumps over the bar and joins the ranks of other bar personalities and companies making commercial bitters, including Gary Regan (Regan’s Orange Bitters No. 6), Angostura, Peychaud and others.

Welcome to the producer’s side of the bar, Dale.

 

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