Behind the Bar The Business of the Bar

The Bad, the Ugly and the Good About Cocktail Influencers

Sofia Varano

Whether you like it or not, cocktail influencers have become an integral part of the bartending industry. Yes, making drinks and delivering customer service will always be the most important part of the gig, but that doesn’t negate the ever-changing way product is sold, how trends and information are spread and the manner in which customers discover a bar and learn about cocktails in the first place. So what do bartenders and industry insiders actually think of these influencers?

There’s much to be gained from such democratized platforms as Instagram and YouTube. Nowadays, anyone with a passion for making drinks and an eye for presenting them can find and grow an audience. That’s how it should be. You no longer have to live in the handful of media-sanctioned cocktail capitals like New York, San Francisco and London to be influential in the bar world, and the industry is generally better off for that diversity.

“Cocktail influencer feeds are generally great for business,” says Sother Teague, a prolific cocktail author, the beverage director of Amor y Amargo and the co-owner of Blue Quarter and Windmill in New York City. “They get a lot of content in front of guests, which in turn drives business. And the consumer is more educated.”

Many of the best influencer accounts are those that spotlight and amplify the vast knowledge of professional bartenders, such as Teague’s personal favorite, The Cocktail Portal, which features videos of working bartenders making cocktails. The folks behind these accounts are storytellers and connectors, and they allow bartenders to reach audiences they would never be able to reach working behind the bar.

Christine Wiseman, the bar director of Broken Shaker in Los Angeles, agrees, pointing out the symbiotic relationship between working bartenders who share their insight and the influencers who give them platforms, calling out Prairie Rose of “Bit by a Fox” as an excellent example of a powerful industry advocate.

“I’ve done Prairie Rose’s ‘Bit by a Fox’ podcast—it was great because it gave listeners a chance to get to know me better,” says Wiseman. “When I sat down with her, I got to express my bar and the reason why I do things a certain way. Conversely, influencers benefit by tapping the networks of the bartenders they collaborate with.”

Then there are the home bartenders, those who may not work as closely with folks behind the stick but share a mutual dedication to the craft of creating drinks. In this category, Teague recommends the work of Denver’s Elliot Clark, whose award-winning blog “Apartment Bartender” has become a fantastic resource for insiders and newcomers alike, and the Home Bar Awards, a competition spotlighting and elevating home creations.

Inoka Ho, the founder of Cocktail Co in Sydney, says that the best home bartenders often put in as much work as their industry counterparts, especially given the fact that they have to spend their own money to purchase and experiment with new products.

“Many nonbartending professionals are clear that they’re catering to the home bartender and use the platform as a way to share creations and interact with similarly minded enthusiasts, without proclaiming that what they do would be feasible in a bar setting.”—Inoka Ho

“There’s definitely a place for nonbartending professionals; many are clear that they’re catering to the home bartender and use the platform as a way to share creations and interact with similarly minded enthusiasts, without proclaiming that what they do would be feasible in a bar setting,” says Ho. “I’ve seen some shitty comments left on home-bartending accounts about how ‘that elaborate garnish wouldn’t work in a bar,’ when really that wasn’t the point.

Ho says that she trusts the opinions of many influencers who aren’t professional bartenders as they’re not as shackled to brands the same way someone working in the business is. “If you’re spending your own hard-earned money on booze, which most of them are, you’d be more likely to do the research and educate yourself.”

For all of its benefits and applications, however, social media gets complicated when it comes to who gets money for what. It can be painful to watch as seemingly random fashion and lifestyle influencers earn thousands of dollars for posing with a bottle of booze, while the bartenders who create the cocktails and use the brands day in and day out aren’t afforded the same opportunities. (The exception, of course, are the brand ambassadors and representatives, who are a separate kind of influencer.)

But that’s just capitalism and good marketing. More insidious are the booze-centric influencers who position themselves as authorities on the subject, spreading misinformation and creating terrible cocktails to just look pretty. After all, there’s a fine line between saying “everyone can make cocktails” and “anyone who calls themselves an expert should be seen as one.” It’s not specific to the beverage industry, either. Take, for example, “foodie” culture, with vapid cheese-pulling bloggers convincing us all to eat terrible food.

“While there are many cocktail influencers who have actually done the good work to research, study and respect the industry, some are also sharing content solely for the sake of it being visually ‘Instagrammable’ or having the potential to go viral.”—Tara Fougner

“With influencer campaigns on social media in some ways replacing the traditional print ad in a magazine, they can be effective in driving awareness and reinforcing brand loyalty,” says Tara Fougner, the founder of booze website Thirsty and a longtime industry advocate. “However, there are some cocktail influencers who are talented content creators or social curators but do not understand the bar world. So brands should really think about the importance of those distinctions. While there are many who have actually done the good work to research, study and respect the industry, some are also sharing content solely for the sake of it being visually ‘Instagrammable’ or having the potential to go viral.”

That’s not to say someone needs to be a cocktail expert to participate in the booze industry. After all, bartenders are trained to respect the tastes and views of the consumer. Can a fashion influencer also really love and understand cocktails? Yes. Can a travel blogger become well-versed in spirits? Absolutely. The difference is the dumbing down of the craft—the rainbow cocktails that taste awful and make a mockery of what bartenders do for financial gain. And oftentimes, when the numbers are there, brands will excuse the quality of what they’re putting out on social media.

“It’s hard to stop and reexamine yourself when what you’re doing is successful,” says Teague. “I’d like to see many of these feeds stop infantilizing cocktail culture. This is an adult space and for good reason—alcohol is a recreational drug. Furthermore, there are some feeds that are choc-a-bloc with base information. It doesn’t take much digging to find better answers before snapping pictures, rolling camera or typing copy. Due diligence in whatever you pursue is paramount to long-term success.”

The takeaway here is that bartenders and influencers both benefit when they work together. Bartenders who have found a way to connect and leverage social media can share their gospel with wider audiences. Influencers who do their homework and seek out industry expertise can present content that’s accurate and useful in addition to being beautiful and fun. At the end of the day, bartenders want consumers (including influencers) to have a good time. If they can add, rather than take away, value to the space, that’s even better.

“Taste the drinks! Gummy-bear-infused vodka is great and nice looking, but does it taste right?” asks Wiseman. “That being said, as long as people are enjoying themselves, they should continue making the drinks they’re making and sharing them how they like. This is alcohol; it’s meant to be fun.”