The first time I ever heard the term "brand ambassador" was in 2006 at Tales of the Cocktail, when I first met Charlotte Voisey, then new to the U.S. and a rep for Hendrick's Gin. It's not surprising the English Voisey should have been one of the first I encountered. The brand ambassador trend began in England and Voisey and the-Plymouth-Gin-man Simon Ford, another Brit transplant, were among the first high-profile ambassadors in the American industry. Both former bartenders have moved up the ladders at William Grant and Pernod, respectively, fairly quickly.
I've seen dozens of bartenders become brand ambassadors since then, of course. And with every year, it seems more bartenders are recruited by the large liquor corporations. The profession's prospects as a career have altered dramatically. A person who becomes a mixologist these days isn't a slacker who wants to avoid having a "real job." They're someone with a business plan and a career trajectory in mind. I've come to naturally assume that any mixologist of note that I know will eventually make this career transition—or at least be offered the chance to do so. (It's a surreal creature, I have to tell you, the Ambitious Bartender. Such a seeming oxymoron. Not sure if I'll ever get used to it.)
I wrote a piece about the phenomenon for the New York Times recently:
UPDATE: This is my first liquor article in the Times to be picked up by the International Herald Tribune. Gotta love the headline they came up with: "Set 'Em Up Joe, I've Got a Little Corporate Pitch I Think You Should Know."
From Bartender to Liquor Brand Promoter
By Robert Simonson
AT the recent Tales of the Cocktail, the liquor convention held every July in New Orleans, Erick Castro was working hard pouring drinks. Nothing new there. A San Francisco bartender, Mr. Castro has a decade’s experience doing just that, most recently at the tippling den Rickhouse.
But at Rickhouse he poured all sorts of liquors, while at Tales he was more focused, making drinks only with Beefeater and Plymouth gins. The reason is that Mr. Castro now works for Pernod Ricard USA, whose portfolio includes the two gins. Like more and more bartenders, he has become what the industry calls a brand ambassador, and a layman might call a liquor salesman.
Not long ago, bartending was, for some, one of the classic dead-end jobs, the choice of wannabe actors and the terminally unambitious. The only way up the drink-slinging ladder was to own a bar. But with the cocktail renaissance, today’s star mixologist is tomorrow’s brand representative, hawking various products for liquor conglomerates, or tomorrow’s cocktail consultant, setting up drink programs for new taverns and restaurants.
Some in the industry have misgivings about the shift — it distracts working bartenders from doing the job at hand, they say, and drains off the best talent. But nowadays, any entrepreneurial bartender worth his tattoos has a vest pocket full of business cards.
Last year, Jeremy J. F. Thompson was the head bartender at the Raines Law Room, a neo-speakeasy in the Flatiron district. This year, he is a spokesman for Russian Standard Vodka. “I knew I wanted to pursue an ambassadorship,” he said. “I know a number of bartenders who consider this their career.”
“Brand ambassador” may seem like a highfalutin term, but it captures nicely the porous and peripatetic nature of the liquor promoter’s job. These employees are hired not just to push, but also to personify a brand. They talk to distributors and members of the news media, conduct educational seminars and cocktail demonstrations, and host parties.
The habit of tapping bartenders as liquor reps began in the late ’90s in England, said Simon Ford, an English bartender who is now the director of trade outreach and brand education at Pernod Ricard USA. In the last few years, the United States has adopted the approach with a vengeance.
Many bartenders leap at these gigs to escape the sore muscles and long hours that are their lot. But they often enter a world where the shift never ends. “If bartending is an evening job and marketing is a day job, then a brand ambassador is both,” Mr. Ford said. “Your boss needs to see you in the morning, and the bartenders expect to see you in the evening.”
Still, he said, he fields inquiries about such jobs from hungry bartenders “all the time.” The reasons are clear. A full-time brand promoter can earn $60,000 to $100,000, receive health insurance and other perks, and enjoy travel, parties and lavish dinners.
“They see it as a very glamorous job,” said Charlotte Voisey, a former London bartender now working as a portfolio ambassador for William Grant & Sons USA, whose products include Hendrick’s gin and Sailor Jerry spiced rum.
For liquor companies, these employees bring a ready-made camaraderie and knowledge of the profession to the bartenders they woo. They “speak bartender,” as Mr. Ford said. Although in the United States companies cannot give free products to bars, the bartender-spokesman can mix cocktails and show fellow bartenders how the product can be used. A plain salesman could not.
But there are risks in this development. “One thing we noticed in London is you scoop out all the great bartenders to be brand ambassadors, and suddenly you’re left strapped for talent in the bars,” Ms. Voisey said. “That’s something we have to watch out for as an industry.”
Mr. Ford termed this danger “a loss of personalities.”
Also worrisome is a tendency among eager young mixologists to jump into corporate jobs and consulting earlier and earlier. “I do meet more people, they’re still a little new and they have already formed an L.L.C. and have an agent,” Mr. Castro said.
Tad Carducci, a partner in Tippling Brothers, a consulting firm, said, “The mind-set is, I’ll be a bartender for a little while, get the recognition as quickly as I can, and get out from behind the bar and become a brand ambassador.”
Mr. Thompson does not fault bartenders for long-term planning — “The competition is increasing as word spreads that mixology has gone from trend to career path,” he said — but no matter how it is characterized, some customers feel the loss of talented bartenders keenly.
Adam Kolesar, a resident of Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, met Frank Cisneros at Prime Meats, a local bar that he visits two or three times a week. “Being a regular, having a guy like Frank, a real personality with opinions about how drinks should be made and a depth of knowledge about what he was serving — that made a real difference,” Mr. Kolesar said. But no longer: Mr. Cisneros has become a liquor spokesman for Lucas Bols, the Dutch liquor company.
Even Ms. Voisey, who has helped anoint her share of brand ambassadors, admitted that when she heard that Mr. Castro was joining Pernod Ricard, it “secretly broke my heart.
“It’s such a joy to go into Rickhouse and see him there.”
But Mr. Ford said: “You don’t go to the Rickhouse and get a bad drink if Erick’s not working. He’s trained the team. Hopefully, what you’re doing is Erick can train more people than just the bartenders at the Rickhouse.”