Bartending may be one of the world’s oldest professions, but the bartenders of today have a much different career trajectory than those of yesteryear.
As the cocktail and spirits revolution marches on, the industry has evolved to meet ever-growing demand for innovation. These days, the once-humble bartender is sought-after talent representing billion-dollar spirits brands, curating hotel and restaurant beverage programs and shaping what and how we all drink. And while the ability to craft a quality drink remains the essence of the career, there’s a lot more successful bartenders can do to move ahead in the game.
Enter the brand ambassador. These top-tier bartenders come from a variety of backgrounds, having worked in, owned or consulted on various bar projects. They often serve as the literal and figurative face of a spirits brand. It’s a highly coveted position. Perks of the job typically include a corporate credit card with a generous budget to spend on entertaining clients, media and other bartenders, all with the goal of increasing brand awareness.
“At the time we were bartenders, brand ambassadors were like rock stars. It seemed like the natural next step,” says Kyle Ford, a former brand ambassador for Cointreau. “Brand ambassadorship gave us an understanding of how the industry works outside of the bar.”
Kyle and Rachel Ford
Ford’s partner in business and life, Rachel Ford, a former brand ambassador for Tanqueray, echoes the notion that a brand ambassadorship is a crucial turning point in a bartender’s career in which he or she bridges the gap between behind-the-stick work and corporate responsibilities. She has some advice for forward-thinking brand ambassadors who are anticipating what may come after.
“You’re given the gift of seeing how sales teams and agencies interact and how marketers work with sales people to push products out to accounts,” says Ford. “You will be successful in the long run if you pay attention to what people need and learn how to cater to each of these groups.”
But while there’s no denying the value of a brand ambassador role for anyone looking to better understand the production and business side of the industry, it’s certainly not the last stop for bartenders who want to move up in the spirits world.
“It definitely shouldn’t be the end-all,” says Chris Patino, who served as a brand ambassador in the early 2000s for what was then the Absolut Spirits Company. “The shelf life for a brand ambassador is two or three years. It’s great experience, but you’re married to one brand. You live and breathe one brand. At some point, you’re going to look back and say, ‘Wow, that was tough.’”
Chris Patino (image: Hal Wolin)
When Pernod Ricard acquired Absolut a few years later, it eliminated the brand ambassador role, and Patino found himself with a title he never expected to have: field marketing manager. It was a job he hated—his first corporate desk job and one that required flying weekly from his home in New Orleans to Dallas—but Patino put in his time, learned “a ton” and kept his eyes open for opportunities, eventually creating his own role as director of trade advocacy and brand education.
“That was a position that didn’t exist, and if it did, it was helmed by someone who had never bartended or actually worked with the product,” says Patino. He believes that it’s up to bartenders to show large brands what kind of roles belong in the hands of people who know how to make drinks.
Patino has since parlayed that extensive experience—from working on marketing campaigns to spearheading event activations to providing input on new products—to start his own trade-focused marketing agency called Simple Serve. And he has also come full-circle, with plans to open a bar in San Diego with fellow bartender Erick Castro.
Though consulting gigs are a natural next step for many brand ambassadors, those with more production-side chops can sometimes find an on-ramp into the distilling world.
While serving as global brand ambassador at Bols genever and brand ambassador for G’Vine gin, Philip Duff launched such initiatives as the Bols Bartending Academy, G’Vine Gin Connoisseur Program and the Bols Around the World trade engagement program. His massive success landed him in the top 10 for drink ambassador at the 2008 Tales of the Cocktail, the first of many recognitions he would receive from the awards organization, for which he has also since served as director of education.
But it was Duff’s experience working on Bols’ core product line that proved to be the crucial stepping stone for him to launch his own genever product, Old Duff, last year.
“Brand ambassadors interact with every single person important in the chain and often have a wide range of contacts,” says Duff, who’s producing Old Duff as a team of one. “P.R. agencies, national and international sales teams, distributors, design firms—having those kinds of contacts means you can create your brand in a fraction of the time, for a fraction of the cost and with many fewer people.”
Giuseppe Gallo, a vermouth expert and one-time brand ambassador for Martini & Rossi, also launched his own award-winning product, Italicus Rosolio di Bergamotto, last year. Taking home the prestigious Best New Spirit or Cocktail Ingredient award at the 2017 Tales of the Cocktail, Gallo was similarly a one-man show responsible for both the conception of the liquid and its distinctive green packaging. For young bartenders who’ve dreamed of one day producing the next great cocktail ingredient, Gallo says to take a step back and look at the big picture.
“Bartenders at the beginning of their career should learn to think beyond their network,” says Gallo. “It’s consumers who will make your brand successful in the end. Innovation takes courage, so never stop dreaming, and give your vision enough time without rushing it.”
With the advent of digitally oriented business models, the booze industry is subject to change, the same as any other. The future is full of possibility for bartenders entering the game now. And as the veterans who’ve come before have learned, you’re never just a bartender if you take the time to understand all the business that takes place beyond the bartop.
“The future is unwritten,” says Patino. “I think there’s only more to come.” Remember that if you want to be a brand ambassador, you have to live and breathe that brand. But make sure you’re always representing your own personal brand. It should be 51 percent you and 49 percent the brand you work for. You can’t give away your brand.”