Many importers, wholesalers and suppliers have full-time and/or consulting mixologists on staff to offer training, do recipe development and support. So just how do operators tap into this? How do they maximize the benefits? And is there a catch?
Tim Dahl, a former pastry chef for Chicago’s Blackbird restaurant, knew that he had the know-how to mastermind menus for Nostrano, the Mediterranean restaurant he opened in Madison, Wisconsin. Dahl knew he had the wine program covered. But not so cocktails. Aware that he wanted his cocktails to fit the locally sourced credo he’d set for his food, Dahl reached out to John Kinder, director of sales and marketing, Central U.S., for Death’s Door Spiri ts in Madison, Wisconsin.
“It just fit us—we’re raising our pigs and growing our vegetables. It just makes sense that we’d want to know these local distillers and brands,” says Dahl. Responding to Dahl’s request, Kinder worked with the Nostrano team to train them and to shape cocktails that would work well with the restaurant’s menu. Two of the cocktails—the Our Word, $9—a play on the classic Last Word cocktail, made with gin, lemon and yellow chartreuse; and the Nostrano Tipple, $9, made vodka, pear, vanilla, lemon and lavender, feature Death’s Door products. In Dahl’s opinion, the entire process has been a win-win. “From John’s perspective, Death’s Door is now on the rail and in two of our cocktails. And from my perspective, my staff’s received in-depth training from a top-level mixologist who understands all of the history and technique, and has a finger on the pulse of what’s happening.” Kinder has continued to monitor the program and provide training.
Kinder, and his counterpart: Death’s Door West Coast brand ambassador Peter Vestinos, are just two of a talented group of brand-affiliated mixologists, brand ambassadors and master distillers who travel the country sharing their expertise. General types of services offered include everything from basic bar-skills training, to presentations on drink trends and drink history, to cocktail and bar program development. Brand ambassadors will hone in on the complexities of those spirits, how they work with other cocktail ingredients and present trend-forward examples of how to create a cocktail with those spirits. Meanwhile master distillers focus on what goes into making a specific spirit and ingredients to mix it with as well as offering interesting historic and current facts about that spirit.
Much of the knowledge brand mixologists, brand ambassadors and master distillers share is seemingly free. The return expectation is that the bars they aid will sell the spirits they’ve learned about. While there’s no set requirement on volume, “There is an expectation that they should at least be using your product and all the staff should know what it is, know how to talk about it, and know how to make a good cocktail with it when asked,” says Jennifer Piccione, Esq., CEO of Chicago-based Hum Spirits Company. “There is nothing worse than walking into one of your accounts and ordering your product and having the waitress or bartender say, ‘What’s that?’”
An ongoing relationship is also expected. Says H. Joseph Ehrmann, owner of San Francisco’s bar Elixir and brand ambassador for Square One Organic Spirits notes, “As a pioneer of organic spirits, it was [and still is] important to provide one-on-one interaction and education with accounts. As the supplier we gain closer and longer lasting relationships with our best customers and they receive training and recipe development they may not have access to or a budget to pay for otherwise.”
Death’s Door Vestinos adds that being allowed to provide proper training is a crucial. “It’s great to present to someone and have a cocktail on a menu, but it does you no good if that cocktail is terrible due to a lack of training.” As a result, Vestinos believes that bars have to uphold their side of the bargain by allowing consultants to properly train the bartenders, putting the systems into place and making sure someone watches over the program.”
One good example? The bar program at Elate, a bar at the Hotel Felix in Chicago. Here, owner Anthony Fiore initially brought in Vestinos for a quick fix-it “because I needed some help to put together the cocktails, but didn’t have the budget to hire a consultant on my own.” At first, Fiore says he didn’t think he needed a premium drink program.
“But having Peter come in and work closely with the bartenders to train them … totally changed my mind about that,” says Fiore. The signature drinks Vestinos created, such as the Jalapeño Strawberry Caiporoska, $10—made with Finlandia Grapefruit vodka, jalapeño pepper and lime juice—plus, having bartenders trained to be skilled in mixing and explaining the drinks, “Really brought a lot of attention and press coverage to the bar,” says Fiore. According to Fiore, the process was difficult at first “and we lost some bartenders, but the process weaned out those who wouldn’t have worked out with the program for the long haul.”
Obligation or Opportunity?
But do operators feel obligated by this relationship? “I wouldn’t use the word obligation as much as opportunity,” says Ryan Valentine, director of beverage for Columbus-based Cameron Mitchell, which operates 30 restaurants. “The ideas we accept from brand mixologists are the best ideas we see. This ultimately means we are making sure our guest experience is the best it can be.”
Helen Mackey, director of beverage strategy for Heathrow, FL-based Ruth’s Hospitality Group, Inc. echoes that thought. “Our first priority is our guest and ensuring we deliver the highest quality, distinct, authentic experience.” Ruth’s operates 120 Ruth’s Chris Steak House restaurants, twenty Mitchell’s Fish Markets, two Mitchell’s Steakhouses and one Cameron’s Steakhouse.
As well, while there is an expectation that bars will carry the spirit brands brand mixologists represent, operators say they have not felt pressured to have to sell a certain volume of those spirits in reciprocation for the services received.
So how do you get these experts to come in to your restaurant—especially if you’re a lesser-known establishment? “Simply ask,” says David Nepove, full-time mixologist for Southern Wine & Spirits of California and national president of the United States Bartenders Guild. Even if you are small, if you really want to learn and show that you are trying to build a solid program, someone will pay attention. Busier places may get more attention and a faster turnaround, but small, intently purposed bars will grow.” And remember, says Nepove, suppliers know this is all about relationships.” They want to work with you as you grow. And who’s to say that the really talented beverage manager from a tiny bar won’t soon end up moving to a bigger bar?”
While it’s true that top-tier celebrity mixologists may have much of their time tied up with huge national accounts; many brand ambassadors and representatives are also talented mixologists who do make house calls on all sizes of accounts. The same is true for master distillers.
In terms of finding them, “your broker or distributor should be your first point of contact,” says Ed Holman, regional account manager for Seattle with distributor Brown-Forman. From there getting the date on the calendar is the next important thing. Francesco Lafranconi, Las Vegas-based director of mixology for Southern Wine & Spirits says scheduling as much as six-months in advance is a good idea. “And where you can, follow the seasonality of your location with the spirit-specific training you schedule.”
For Duke’s Chowder House, Seattle-based operator of six, Western-Washington seafood, chowder and burger restaurants, spring and fall are best times to hone in on spirits training and events, “Because the pace is a little less frenzied than the summer,” says John Thelen, director of operations for the chain. Thelen and Duke’s owner Duke Moscrip, say Duke’s is very intentional about working with its sales reps to coordinate a full spate of trainings, master-distiller visits and related events. Trend-wise, “It’s never a waste of time,” says Moscrip, “because these are the guys that are out there staying on top of all of the spirits information and trends.” In order to recognize the complexity of Bourbons, Scotches and tequilas—all spirits that sell very well at Duke’s—the company works with Seattle-based independent whisky consultant Ari Shapiro to do classroom style Bourbon and Scotch training with its bartending staff several times a year at various of the six-units. This past fall, Duke’s also brought in Woodford Reserve master distiller Chris Morris to present at a special five-course dinner followed by a Herradura dinner with Herradura international business director Ruben Aceves, in two Duke’s markets (Seattle and Tacoma).
Mosgrip promotes the dinners to its huge e-mail database of 250,000 members. The dinners sell out in half an hour,” he says. In addition to appealing to Duke’s guests, the events train and enthuse Duke’s bartenders about the featured spirit. “And after an event like this, we typically see a spike in sales of the featured spirit,” says Thelen. “Our guests who attended the event order cocktails featuring the spirit more often and our servers are more hyped-up to sell those drinks.”
Further incentivizing bartenders to sell spirits they’ve recently received training about, Duke’s, and other operations, will cap training by featuring a drink with that spirit either on a menu, or, in a promotion. “We then offer a gift certificate or some other prize to whoever sells the most of that drink,” says Thelen.
But even without incentivizing, operators say that understanding more about a cocktail prompts bartenders to sell more. “Even when we don’t offer incentives, after we have a brand ambassador or other higher-up from a spirit company come in to present, we observe a sales spike of 20 percent,” says Joshua Tilden, a beverage manager for Shaw’s Crab House, a two-unit seafood restaurant in the Chicago area.
Understanding the Demographic
Figuring out which brand ambassadors you want to invite takes a little forethought. Holman suggests operators think about their menus, prices and style: “Which drinks fit your audience? Which drinks are at the right price point? Don’t focus on what’s hot in general with drink trends, focus on what what is hot that fits your specific demographic.”
If an operation is a classic American, retro-themed concept, classic cocktails and presentations from boutique spirits makers may make sense. A Latin-themed establishment will want to train its staff to be expert on tequilas and mezcals. At Shaw’s Tilden invited representatives from Templeton Rye, “because we were getting a lot of questions about the differences between rye whiskey and Bourbon,” says Tilden. “Bringing in rye experts gave us the chance to hone in on the intricacies of the spirit with our staff so that they are now better able to work with it.”
Likewise, new products such as Hum Spirit’s Hibiscus-Organic Ginger-Green Cardamom-Kaffir Lime Infused Pot Still Rhum, are helped by explanation. “I was a little unsure about the best way to use Hum,” says Tilden, “Having Hum founder and mixologist Adam Seger come in to demonstrate and explain the product ended up helping me know how best to use it.”
In order to be even more selective about which spirits work best with your restaurant and correspondingly which brand ambassadors to bring in, Nepove suggests doing your homework—read cocktail-experts’ blogs and taste products to hone in on what you like best. In fact, Chris Mangandi, general manager of The Raymond restaurant’s 1886 Bar in Pasadena, CA, says his bar gets so much attention from suppliers, “In an effort to be fair, our staff does a blind tasting of spirits to see which one we prefer, first.”
Of course, given high demand and scheduling challenges, first-pick representatives might not be available. “Sometimes it comes down to who’s in town,” says Nepove.
While there’s no prescribed limit on how many visits a restaurant should tally each year, training only begins with mixologist presentations. “A good bar manager is going to be bringing people in from the outside and then following all that up with lots of training,” says Nepove. “Ideally, you have to have both: Somebody who’s up on the trends and what’s hot out there coming in to inspire, paired with somebody on the inside who maintains things and applies mixology training and follows through with that.”
Charles Joly, bartender of Chicago’s The Drawing Room says a lot of times that’s where things fall apart: “People think a mixology visit is like a magic wand waved over their menu to make an incredible program. It’s not. It takes a lot of work. The consultant will give you some guidelines, but you have to follow through.”
It’s also like hiring a landscaper, says Lafranconi: “You bring them in to plan the garden, shape it, get it laid out, and perhaps help show you how to maintain it from there. But those few landscaper visits won’t make the garden thrive. If you don’t water and tend it in between, it will die.”