Jacob Briars: 'Are we as an industry set up to offer what consumers want?'

Laura Foster

Laura Foster

12 February 2019

Last week you may have noticed a whole host of Bacardi people out in your venue en masse, as they celebrated the brand’s Founder’s Day with their Back to the Bar programme. The initiative saw all Bacardi employees around the globe head to their local, to ‘walk the factory floor’, as Jacob Briars, Bacardi’s global advocacy director, puts it.

As an eminent figure in the on-trade with a global view of bar trends, we thought we’d pick his brains for a bit once his Back to the Bar hangover wore off.

Hi Jacob, so, why did you decide to start the Back to the Bar programme last year?

Every year we have something called Founder’s Day where we tried to celebrate by hosting an event that reconnected us to the roots and principles of the company. It became quite insular, self-congratulatory and backwards looking though. So, we decided to go and celebrate in the industry instead.

Nearly 7,000 people went to over 1,000 bars, speaking to bartenders and engaging with the customers. It’s really to say thank you to the bars and hotels that stock our products, while chatting to guests and experiencing new drinks made with our brands.

By going out and walking the factory floor we have the opportunity to celebrate an occasion through a different kind of prism, rather than having a long lunch and talking about Cuba in 1862.

And what did you learn from it?

It was a reminder that no brand has to be stocked in a bar. You think so much about particular brands that you’re working on that you overlook how competitive the landscape has become.

There’s still a lot of magic to be revealed to the average drinker that we can sometimes be quite blasé about. Seeing people’s eyes light up when trying Daiquiris for the first time at LCC in 2017 was surprising to me. It’s amazing how a drink that you think, ‘are people still drinking those?’ about can still be blowing punters’ minds.

What particular trends, if any, have you got your eye on? 

One that makes us super excited is coffee – it’s getting much better in bars. The UK has fallen deeply in love with the Espresso Martini, and we’re starting to see that spread to the USA and beyond. I never thought I’d say this, but there’s a new Starbucks, the Starbucks New York Roastery, where the cocktails are absolutely amazing. It’s one of the most exciting launches I’ve seen in recent years – it’s like a coffee theme park.

There’s also the return of classic drinks, especially the classic Martini, and riffs on that. When I started bartending years ago, the way to show you were a serious bar was to have a page of Martinis. Now that’s happening again.

The rise of on-demand cocktail services, with the ability to pre-order them and have them delivered to your door, is also exciting for people entertaining at home. I don’t see it as a threat to the on-premise, I see it as complementary. It means that when they go out into the on-trade, they’ve got a much higher level of knowledge.

Do we risk forgetting the basics when embracing trends?

Luckily, our industry shows a brilliant ability to sense check. As soon as there’s a trend, there’s usually a countertrend.  For example, in the mid-2000s we had an explosion of molecular and boundary-pushing drinks. That was counterbalanced very quickly with a return to fundamentalism, which got us good things – really well-made Old Fashioneds, block ice and the focus on giving good service.

You travel a lot, which must give you a good overview of the overall state of the bar industry. Would you say it’s healthy at the moment, or is there cause for concern?

I would say that ‘cautious optimism’ is the most political answer I can give! It also depends on the aperture that you look at it through. Yes, there are causes for concern – namely people drinking less. I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing, but we do have an on-trade built on a high volume, high footfall model. The challenge for some will be how to adapt to the fact that 80% of consumers now want more premium brands, cocktails and experiences over volume. That begs the question: are we as an industry set up to offer something that they want?

A city that’s fast becoming the second home of cocktails in Europe at the moment is Amsterdam.

Which cities or countries are leading the way at the moment, and why?

The USA still has some of the most vibrant cocktail bars. In New York and San Francisco, high rents are making inventive cocktail culture very difficult, but it’s spreading across the country to the likes of Tennessee and Idaho.

On the flipside, whenever everyone thinks that London is past its prime, another wave of vibrant bars opens. However, a city that’s fast becoming the second home of cocktails in Europe at the moment is Amsterdam. There’s an energy in its trade that’s fantastic to watch.

Singapore remains an incredible lighthouse - Atlas is the sort of bar that no one in New York or London is opening. But if you want to go and drink cocktails in a warm climate, go to Puerto Rico. I was there recently and the number of cocktail bars, along with their energy and passion, is really inspiring.

There’s been an increasing groundswell of women coming forward and talking about their own experiences in the bar industry. What can those who work in the bar world be doing to support them?

This is a hugely important topic, and there’s no one better placed to comment on this than a 41-year-old white man! Everyone is entitled to a safe work space, and there are a lot of protocols being brought into place in bars and restaurants, which I think is very powerful. At Bacardi specifically, we’re partnering with the USBG (United States Bartenders Guild) to provide a series of training sessions called Green Dot to create spaces that are safer.

There’s also a second generation-level realisation, thanks to high-profile women standing up and saying: ‘this sort of sh** has happened to me and it’s not acceptable.’ People in their twenties just won’t engage in such harassment. I look at the civilised way the younger generation behave in bars, and hope that women are noticing that drinking environments feel safer.

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