My How You’ve Grown

by Francine Cohen

When the golden age of cocktails began its recent revival there was a buzz of excitement surrounding all the newness.  Great bars were opening all over the country, new spirits were emerging, the cocktail scene was blossoming, a virgin audience could be tapped, and bartending was gaining the same patina of professionalism and being recognized for offering a viable career path. And that was enough.

Initially.  Then, the exciting byproduct of all that growth was that it got personal;  just like for those who once may have chosen to toil in the kitchen as a chef and been chided for it because of its lack of perceived professionalism, bartending was losing its stigma of not being a “real” job.  This was a GREAT second stage of growth.

Now, like being a chef, not only is bartending considered a real job but we’re regularly seeing the bartender go from friendly face behind one bar to friendly face in magazine articles and behind the camera, reaching into millions of homes.  Celebrity!  Visibility!  Recognition!  We can thank, in part, Martha Stewart and Jimmy Fallon and Hoda Kotb and Kathy Lee for that exposure.  But, at the same time that the exposure is really satisfying from a personal standpoint as well as professional exposure, it doesn’t necessarily do one very crucial thing…put money in your pocket.  Money that you need in order to do boring things like pay your rent and exciting things like realize your dreams.

So what does put that money there?  Is the answer to start creating products and writing books like Dave Wondrich and Jim Meehan and Marshall Altier have done?  Consider developing a unique and fun charitable event like Speed Rack, which was conceived of by Ivy Mix and Lynnette Marrero (who, by the way, aren’t getting rich off this)?  Starting your own spirits brand?  Opening a bar (which someone like H. Ehrmann/Toby Maloney/Joaquin Simo/Audrey Saunders/Julie Reiner/Sean Kenyon/Sean Muldoon/Jeffrey Morganthaler and others will tell you is wildly satisfying but definitely fraught with stresses along the way)? 

These are all great endeavors and should be applauded and even emulated.  But not everyone has the skills to be a success at these things and may need to find another path to financial reward.  For you the answer may be joining an existing company and representing their brand. 

If this is the path you choose to financial freedom, it’s important to remember two very important things; no matter whether you’re doing this from the perspective of overall portfolio stewardship as Charlotte Voisey does, or taking on a single brand role, never forget that: you are your brand.  And you are not. 

Conflicting?  Sounds it.  But really, it’s not.  It’s just another stage in the professional growth of the bartending industry.  On the one hand, when you sign on with a brand you have to be out there in public touting its merits.  Hopefully you really do honestly, deep in your heart, believe in your product; otherwise you probably won’t sleep well at night.  That belief is going to make you well rested and feeling good about collecting your paycheck that probably beats shift pay, and it’s also going to make you believable to the people you’re pushing the brand to on a day to day basis.  Your fellow bartenders.

And, it’s because of the perceptions of your fellow bartenders that the “you are not your brand” part of the argument comes into play.  There’s a balance to be found between championing a brand and selling it successfully while not being seen as “drinking the kool-aid.”  Kool-aid drinkers do themselves and the entire industry a disservice because their credibility, perspective and objectivity is shot and they’re branded as shilling mouthpieces.  

Last thing you want to become is one of those kool-aid drinkers known for being unable to recognize that competitive brands have their merit.  That’s not professional.  Nor does it mean that anyone is going to trust what you say and ultimately that’ll hit your pocketbook.  Someone who is drinking the kool-aid is so publicly connected to their brand that when heaven forbid the contract ends their whole identity crumbles.  Perhaps they are even seen by their peers as “Joe, the rum guy.”  Well, how crummy of a position does that put you in when you apply for a job with a gin company?  Gonna be pretty hard to convince those hiring that you know your stuff.  You probably do.  But it’s going to be hard to convince someone to see that.  Not to mention how tough it is to hear colleagues comment on you selling out when that wasn’t your intention at all when you took the job. 

So, as you go about the business of turning your bartending job into a career, find a way to make that money you need, honorably.  That vodka brand that everyone makes fun of and you’re now representing?  How do you explain that to your pals?  Being able to buy them dinner all the time may do it.  Or not.  But what have you done before taking on this job that makes it okay to be representing this brand without peer repercussions?  Have you kept an open mind to lots of bottles that litter your shelves and rail?  Not mocked fellow bartenders for their choice of brand associations even if you know that they signed on simply for the paycheck?

A paycheck can be out there for you; there are plenty of brands out there that need a strong and experienced bartender’s guidance to help them grow their business.  Signing on for an opportunity like this is the career leap you might consider after those long nights at the bar and missing sunlight hours is no longer satisfying.  It’s a great way to grow your personal business and your bank account too as you move ahead.  Just go about it wisely.


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