Stars in their eyes: How to be a responsible 'startender'

Kate Malczewski

Kate Malczewski

19 February 2020

The rise of the celebrity bartender shows no signs of slowing down. But how do you make sure to stay true to your trade? 

well-dressed audience of hundreds, if not thousands, is packed into a glamourous venue. They stand before a stage and a giant screen in theatrical darkness, buzzing with anticipation. A short film begins to play. Its dramatic soundtrack is led by a heavy beat – something from the next Marvel film, perhaps? Two spotlights come on and either side of the stage is illuminated, revealing muscular men pounding massive drums in an expertly choreographed fashion. And the cameras! Aside from the audience capturing the spectacle on their phones, livestreaming it to their devoted Instagram followers, the venue is filled with expensive video equipment broadcasting the event internationally.

But what is the footage that merits such fanfare? The opening montage of the Academy Awards? The lead-in to a Scientology ceremony hosted by Tom Cruise?No, the screen is lit up not by that Cocktail actor, but by real-life bartenders.

This is, of course, the Diageo Reserve World Class 2019 global final. It’s a massive event that places the bartending community on a public platform. Anyone can watch the footage online; both trade and mainstream media cover the competition. And the production value – everything from the buff , drum-beating men, to the high-quality fi lm equipment, to the elaborate sets and stages built for the competition – sends a message: bartending can make you a star.

A startender is born

Julie Reiner
Julie Reiner

The celebrity bartender is nothing new. Back in the 19th century, Jerry Thomas and his contemporaries, the pioneers of modern bartending, proved that the profession could attract the spotlight. An article in a New York newspaper announcing Thomas’ death in 1885 called him ‘famous’, and the popularity of his book How to Mix Drinks even today supports this description among bartenders.

To some degree, being in the public eye is just part of the job. ‘Bartenders are just unsuccessful rock stars. Rock stars that can’t sing,’ says Julie Reiner, bartender and co-owner of revered New York City institutions including Flatiron Lounge, Pegu Club and Clover Club. ‘It obviously takes a level of showmanship to be a bartender.’

But now, a bartender’s showmanship is often expressed through means that were unheard of even five years ago.

High-budget cocktail competitions, awards, brand collaborations and social media all give bartenders a platform to reach an audience beyond their bars.In many ways, these developments have elevated the public perception of bartending from a job only suitable for the short term, to a lifelong career. But they’ve also raised questions: Who gets to represent the bartending industry? What does success look like in bartending? How important is it for a bartender to build a public image – and how can they navigate that notoriety responsibly?

What it takes to make it

Take, for instance, a recent project from rum giant Bacardi. In September, the brand launched its ‘Sound of Rum’ marketing campaign. Its central focus was a music video featuring five bartenders from around the world, set to an ASMR-inspired track made with the sounds of the bar (think clinking glasses and shaking ice).

All five bartenders were flown out to Slovenia to film the video. When they returned to their respective bars, they created signature Bacardi serves and put the drinks on their bar menus. Lawrence Gregory is one of the five bartenders who participated in the campaign. He’s a senior bartender at The Curtain hotel in London, and calls himself ‘The Rum Boss’ on social media.

Today a bartender must be a 'multi-talented'...they must be, in a word, marketable

‘I think the performances [of the bartenders] in the Sound of Rum show the versatility of seasoned bartenders and how multi-talented you need to be to get to that next level,’ Gregory says.

There’s no doubt that projects like the Sound of Rum highlight bartending as a viable and exciting career path. They allow bartenders from different countries to meet and show the opportunities the trade has to off er, potentially helping to elevate it to a more respected – even glamourous – status.But Bacardi’s campaign also sheds light on how a bartender’s public notoriety today is often built upon much more than their ability to host customers and make great drinks.

Today, a bartender must be ‘multi-talented’, with a catchy Instagram handle and the desire to work with brands. They must be comfortable in front of a camera. They must be, in a word, marketable.

Social strategies

For most in the on-trade, the marketing platform of choice is social media – primarily Instagram and Facebook.

‘It’s a way for bartenders to showcase what they’re doing,’ says Francesco Braun, a social media consultant and bartender whose Instagram account @just_imbiber has over 72,000 followers. ‘For years, the only source of networking was barhopping to meet everyone,’ says Braun. ‘Now you can reach anyone at any time, engaging in a conversation without being in the same city or on the same continent. It sets the ground for opportunities, and complements what you’re doing in real life.’

Francesco Braun
Francesco Braun

Bartender Joe Schofield agrees: ‘[There are] brands or bartenders from the other side of the world who would never get the chance to meet you or try some of your drinks, but at least if they see you on social media they can know what’s going on,’ he explains.

Like so many bartenders today, Schofield and his brother Daniel use Instagram as a way to share their next steps with their industry peers and followers. In July 2018, Joe published an Instagram post announcing their intention to open Schofield’s Bar together in 2019. Soon after, the brothers designed the uniforms and logo for the bar. Then they set to work taking part in guest shifts, seminars and other events all over the world in their branded gear – posting plenty of updates on Instagram, of course.

‘Instead of just doing these events as Joe and Daniel Schofield, we thought, why don’t we start to build the Schofield brand?’ says Joe. Through their branding, travelling and social media posts, the brothers had essentially completed an international marketing campaign for their bar before the venue had even opened its doors.

Keeping up with the Bardashians

Clearly, platforms like Instagram and Facebook provide a valuable resource for sharing information, networking and marketing your projects and skills. But problems arise when the thing that’s being marketed is misrepresented.

It’s an issue that Yael Vengroff , bar director of The Spare Room in Los Angeles, sees playing out all too frequently in a subset of bartenders she refers to as ‘the Bardashians’: ‘In LA with the film industry around, bartenders have access to cameras and film equipment and can make high-quality videos for social media – but they don’t always have the drinks or hospitality skills to back it up in a real-life setting,’ she explains.

Social media can provide a quick track to notoriety, and bartenders end up taking positions they’re not prepared for

This becomes problematic when those social-media famous bartenders get job offers off the back of the slick content they’ve created.

‘Social media can provide a quick track to notoriety, and bartenders end up taking positions they’re not prepared for,’ Vengroff notes. For Braun, an important part of this equation is looking at who gets to call themselves a bartender in the first place.

‘You cannot sell yourself for what you are not,’ he says. ‘You can’t brand yourself as a bartender if you aren’t or you don’t really know what you’re talking about. You can say anything behind a keyboard, but if you meet people in real life and can’t hold a conversation on those subjects, it’s easy to spot someone who doesn’t know what they’re talking about.’

Eric van Beek
Eric van Beek

It’s a topic that Braun sees as particularly pertinent to his career. He worked full time at Inception Group’s Barts in Chelsea before transitioning to social media consultancy – but he still puts in time behind the bar with Inception Group. ‘I see myself not as a social media agency but as a bartender, so there’s a need for me to be able to tend the bar and be behind the bar as much as I can. It’s about credibility, but I also need to be on top of trends. I can’t talk about bar life without being behind the bar.’

Being behind the bar is also a priority for Eric van Beek, head bartender of Bar TwentySeven in Amsterdam.

After he won the global Bacardi Legacy competition in 2018, he was frequently on the road doing promotional events. It made him realise the importance of actively working in the on-trade: ‘I think people who have become known in the industry, the people who do it well, are the people who are still in their venues. If you travel promoting your bar but you’re never doing shifts it’s not real,’ he says.

How to win friends and influence people

For many, actually staying behind the stick is a key factor in navigating the spotlight responsibly and representing the industry honestly – and this goes hand-in-hand with behaviour and attitude as well.

When van Beek was judging the 2019 Bacardi Legacy global final, he says he paid special attention to how competitors were conducting themselves. His reasoning? ‘The way we treat people outside and around the competition is just as important as the competition itself.’

It should go without saying that being hospitable is a fundamental part of the hospitality industry – but when a bartender’s public image becomes more important to them than the time they spend behind the bar with their customers, this is all too easily lost.

‘The most important thing is putting hospitality first,’ says Daniel Schofield. ‘You can say whatever you like on social media. You can post about drinks. But if people come into your bar and they don’t have a good time, what’s the point? It should always be about making sure that your guests are looked after.’ 

In this age of glitzy competitions, hashtags and marketability, it turns out that the key to being a great bartender – one worthy of the spotlight – hasn’t much changed from the days of the original startenders. ‘An efficient bartender’s first aim should be to please his customers,’ Jerry Thomas wrote in his 1862 Bartender’s Guide. ‘This way he will not fail to acquire popularity and success.’

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