Opinion: With so many new launches, apathy is understandable

Michael Butt

22 July 2015

Question: how do you know when the bartending community is losing interest in new brands?

Answer: when nobody turns up for training.

The cocktail industry is entering a phase of consolidation typical of any business sector that has undergone a period of rapid expansion. An increasing number of people with no prior connection with the service or liquor industries have realised the potential market for creating ‘make today – drink tomorrow’ white spirits and liqueurs, or importing ever more esoteric and boutique products and marketing them to an increasingly overwhelmed group of customers both in the on- and off-trade.

Hundreds of gins, rums, cordials and bitters – without harping on about ‘craft’ beer (Harp, now that was a beer!) – have entered the market place, and most of them are very good.

But just like after the Cambrian explosion, not all of the new products will survive. Blind evolutionary alleys will peter out, and the weakest brands will perish.

Our job of bartending is to shepherd this natural selection. We should be helping to introduce customers to the unknown, recommending what is good and weeding out the spirituous charlatans and liqueur lightweights.

For this reason when we get brand fatigue, brands of all sizes have to worry. If we were fully engaged, the burgeoning quantities of experience, opportunity and skill possessed by the industry would lead to a back bar ecosystem like the savannah, with a large variety of small and big brands living alongside each other competitively but with space for all to flourish.

We all love new things; finding a new ingredient before anyone else and creating a unique drink with it is one of the great joys of mixology (I have relented, we are not mixologists but the level of creative and technical bartending now exhibited deserves a title) and can sometimes lead to no little kudos.

So why isn't every launch event, training session and brand experience stuffed to the gills with eager young – and not so young – bartenders, managers, consultants and owners?

When we get brand fatigue, brands of all sizes have to worry

I can understand that younger or more junior bartenders – having a reduced influence on this consolidation, with little chance of adding a new spirit to their bar’s selection and limited spare time around the 60 hours it takes to make ends meet – might not be too keen to ‘waste’ their days off.

And besides, they probably reason that all the information can be gleaned from a quick Google search.

Larger brands can inevitably offer more inducements to attend, with stock, fancy bar kits, competition prizes and junkets, making it difficult for smaller brands to compete.

The best brand experiences are like a perfect date – creative, personal, out of the ordinary and requiring a huge amount of work. There is nothing more dejecting than a no-show – but for bemused product owners who have travelled from South America, it costs more than 12 binned roses.

We have never had it so good. It is time for us to be a bit more committed in our responsibilities as brand shepherds, to ensure the health of our back bar flock.

We could start with being more proactive in getting the products made that we actually want, and telling brands what we feel is most valuable in terms of training and experience. This could be remote training (recorded or live), interactive training software, creative individual mentoring and support, or even just a good old-fashioned piss-up.

The brands that respond quickest and best might not be the biggest, but if what is in the bottle has the qualities to succeed, it is often the hungriest that survive.

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