Words by Jane Ryan
The classroom isn’t for everyone, but just because working in hospitality means using a practical skillset, it certainly doesn’t negate education and knowledge. Bacardi Brown-Forman Brands (BBFB) have taken educating the trade to the next level by investing in a training team dedicated to spreading spirit knowledge.
At the helm of this programme is Adolfo Comas, Product Training and Mixology Manager at Bacardi Brown-Forman Brands and Nidal Ramini, Head of Advocacy at Brown Forman.
But why should bartender education matter? Here Nidal and Adolfo explain just why seizing every opportunity to learn is crucial and how the right brand ambassador can inspire and push bartenders to better themselves and their work.
Why did BBFB decide to invest in a training team?
Adolfo Comas: We identified an obvious need to offer quality training across the portfolio. We also wanted to offer unbiased category training in an effort to add value and educate bartenders about spirits in general.
What's your direct role with educating the trade, and how much involvement do you have with the training team?
Adolfo: As Product Training and Mixology Manager my role is very much hands on and enables me to work with everyone from bartenders and wholesalers to sales managers and 3rd party training teams. Bacardi Brown-Forman Brands has a rich history and therefore we have a real brand story to communicate.
Nidal Ramini: My role is to lead all aspects of Brown Forman's education program within the on-trade, however, my team talk brand and that's why having the BBFB Training Team is so important as they focus on category which is vital for education. For example, at the moment we're working on defining US Whiskey and showcasing the differences between Tennessee Whiskey, Bourbon and Rye. We can't talk about Jack and Woodford without talking about what they actually are.
Why should bartenders be knowledgeable?
Adolfo: It's all about the consumer experience and an educated bar professional can literally transform the reputation of a bar. We would always recommend that bartenders are experts in both category and brand to enhance the consumer experience and ensure that they leave with a positive impression. The competition is fierce and therefore bartenders need to ensure that they are at the top of their game when it comes to advocacy. Their key role is to inform customers and advise on suitable cocktails based on information shared. A good bartender will always ask questions, build a natural rapport with customers offering tailored serves based on personal preference. If the consumer experience is positive this will often increase repeat purchase rates and encourage customers to return to the venue.
Nidal: Did you ever walk into a watch shop and ask for a watch? Or a car dealership and ask for a car? Of course not. You had an idea of what you wanted and you'd probably expect the salesman / dealer to help you. It's the same with alcohol. Look at any back bar in the UK, it's packed. There are 1000s of brands for consumers to navigate and I want to make sure the guys and girls selling ours are as knowledgeable about them as possible and not just production, but the stories that make the brands great. For example, do they know that Jack Daniel was basically orphaned by his family and opened the distiller when he was only 16 years old? Or that Herradura is so named because Félix López found a horseshoe in the family's agave fields in 1870 or that Woodford Reserve's distillery is on the site where Dr James Crow perfected the sour mash process? That stuff is cool, and it gives our brands an authentic point of difference over our competitors.
Do you find there is a ready reception for brands to come in and educate the trade?
Adolfo: Yes, I would say that 99% of people are receptive to what you're saying and see value in the benefit of learning something new, especially if the content is relevant and well designed. We often find that our sessions are very conversational and full of two-way communication which enables us to debate, share knowledge and explore common misconceptions. In fact, we often leave feeling like we've learnt something new, it's a fascinating industry.
Nidal: I recently asked a number of influential bar folk what they thought they needed to really grow the US Whiskey category and to and man (and woman) they said "education". The skill is to find something that's 1) engaging and 2) memorable. I remember sitting with Tom and Cam and thinking "what can we do that will get a bartender out of bed?" By thinking like this, we created two incredible programmes "The Craft of Jack" and "The Rise of American Whiskey" which in my opinion are two of the best whiskey education programs out there.
How do you engage and inspire people to take time out of their day to learn?
Adolfo: The Bacardi Brown-Forman Brands Training Team wouldn't exist without the talent and passion of bartenders, our role is not just to simply impart knowledge but really engage with bartenders and encourage them to excel. We ensure that we listen to customer requirements and deliver a bespoke training programme that is tailored to their needs. Which means we find that content is always best delivered in a fun and engaging format with a practical hands-on element regardless of the subject matter.
Nidal: By making it interesting! One of the programs I'm most proud of is the Chambord education piece that Frank McGivern and I worked on together. It's really, really strong and cements Chambord's reputation as a Super Premium liqueur brand with a great history. We looked into the history of the French Martini and we found out that it was created in New York in the mid-1990s, right at the boom of the new wave of cocktails when Neo Martinis were popular. This then tied in with the Metropolitan, the house cocktail at the Met Bar, which was the epicentre of Cool Britannia and drinks like the Markee which were being drunk at The Atlantic were Dick Bradsell and Alex Turner were behind the stick. This is proper, proper cocktail history. That's how you engage people. I've seen presentations when people go on and on about distillation or filtration and obviously that's important but there is so much more that we can talk about.
How can bartenders engage who work in other cities and countries and can't always be part of the London hub?
Adolfo: Working in any big city presents bartenders with the opportunity to be part of the action. London is now a city that rivals New York for cocktail culture and is attracting talent from around the world. The whole industry is changing, people travel and can build a career on past experiences, and it's this experience and knowledge that sets them aside from the competition. I wouldn't say that there are clear barriers to entry, it's more about working hard and making sure that you are networking to build a personal profile and create a name for yourself.
Nidal: By getting out there. Nicci Stringfellow, our Casa Herradura Ambassador has literally run master classes the length and breadth of the country. We can't do it all the time though, it's a question of resources and prioritisation but I make sure that the guys are out there. Tom and Cam have both had what I call "UK Tours", taking in Leeds, Bristol, Cardiff, Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Belfast. Belfast is insane. Those guys really get on board for master classes and trainings. In fact, straight after LCW Cam is off again, so if you want to taste Single Barrel Rye or Sinatra Select then make sure you check out Cam's FB page!
Do bartenders have more prospects of a fulfilling career than their predecessors did thanks to our expanding cocktail culture?
Adolfo: Yes, I believe so. The industry is
constantly expanding and cocktail culture is at the heart of this. Today, bartenders are exposed to a multitude of opportunities and there is a real ethos of 'team spirit' with brands investing in training and competitions which are designed to both uncover and performance enhance talented professional bartenders within the industry.
Nidal: There are definitely more options than before. Look how many bars are still going strong after 10+ years. LAB, Milk & Honey and even my old place Montgomery Place which will be 10 years old in 2015. Also, there are so many options for bartenders to open their own places because consumers are interested in cocktails and cocktail culture. Happiness Forgets, Mission, Highwater, LCC are all owned and operated by ex-bartenders.
What's the one piece of advice you would give a bartender wanting to grow and progress in their career?
Adolfo: I would always say knowledge is power. Obviously natural talent and ability is essential for any bartender but they also need to know what they're talking about. It's such a competitive market but there is always an opportunity for bartenders to progress their career to the next level. Obviously, knowledge is a prerequisite of working in an industry such as ours therefore it's important for bartenders to take time out to learn and expand their knowledge. Cocktail competitions such as Bacardi Legacy are a fantastic platform to learn, network and gain exposure to a global market.
Nidal: As much as I love the independent bar scene, I think that everyone could do with a few years with a big group, just to learn the operational side of the business. I spent a year with TGI Friday's in the early 90s and that training was invaluable to me when I opened Dusk and Montgomery Place. Companies like Soho House, M&B, Living Ventures all have second to none training programs. It's important to cover all your bases.
How important are brand ambassadors in communicating knowledge and awareness?
Adolfo: Brand Ambassadors have a very important role to play and their knowledge is invaluable. I would encourage bartenders to engage with them as much as possible, it's a real opportunity to expand their knowledge and get access to key trends and insight. Brand Ambassadors are at the heart of the action and know the brands inside out so if you're interested in a particular area whether it be whiskey, rum or gin we would always advise you who to get in touch with.
Nidal: It's about focus. Having someone completely focused on one brand is incredibly powerful, but it's important it's done properly. I talk about brand representation as opposed to brand education and the results we've seen at BF are incredible! I won't share what we've done, but I think my team are the best in the business and my bosses obviously agree! We've grown from one team member to 4 in two years plus we have plans to grow it further.
What seminar are you most looking forward to this London Cocktail Week?
Adolfo: I think London Cocktail Week is shaping up to be a truly fantastic event with a whole host of dedicated seminars across our brand portfolio. I'm definitely looking forward to 'The Last Great Malts' (Monday 6th October, 3pm - 4pm) hosted by industry legend, Dave Broom, it will be a great opportunity to try a range of new malts and whiskies. 'The Untameable Spirit of a World Class Bar with 28 Hong Kong Street' (Thursday 9th October, 4pm - 5pm) with UK BACARDI Ambassador Shervene Shahbazkhani, Zdenek Kastanek and Michael Callahan will also provide some hands advice from the experts. In addition, we've also got a whole host of competitions lined up, 'The Rebirth of the Cool - French Martini 2.0' (Friday 10th October, 2pm - 3pm) hosted by the Chambord guys is definitely one not to miss!
Nidal: I might sound biased, but I can't wait for Chris Morris's 'Flavour Wheel' presentation on the Wednesday at the BBFB Home of Cocktail Culture. Chris is the Daddy of bourbon, he hasn't been to the UK in over 7 years and he will blow people away with this presentation. I'm also looking forward to Frank's French Martini 2.0 seminar which he's co-hosting with Ali Martin of Peg + Patriot. That should be pretty killer!
To find out more about our London Cocktail Week seminars head over to https://www.facebook.com/bbfbtraining