Words by: Ian Cameron
As the cocktail renaissance enters its second decade, Jacob Briars explains why it matters that the world of wine has started to take notice, on how bartenders themselves could be undermining the progress that's been made, and his campaign to see 007 with a blue drink in hand.
"I've only got 40 minutes or so, I'm just leaving for the airport." Famous last words from Jacob Briars, the archetypal itinerant bartender-turned-brand ambassador. New Zealand's 'seventh most famous bartender' travels the world evangelising about his favourite subject as Bacardi's head of training and education. He's engaging, charismatic and funny, with a fantastic head of hair: underneath, he's a skilfully shrewd operator, with a conscientious work ethic and a brain like a sponge.
This trip, he's not off on a work assignment, instead travelling for Thanksgiving. But as he hunts around his apartment in Williamsburg, New York, for last-minute additions to his packing, cell phone wedged between shoulder and chin, he gives short shrift to the notion that he's ever hard-pressed by living out of a suitcase, constant jet lag, and the routine of TSA screening. His four overseas trips a month are, he says, a privilege, not a chore.
He also point-blank refuses to be drawn into a comparison between the journey he's taken from New Zealand to New York with those of the characters from Flight of the Conchords, the cult comedy that sees two green-around-the-gills Kiwis struggle for survival in the Big Apple - with, as they say, hilarious consequences. Instead, he claims he's "never had a fresh-off-the-boat experience". It seems to jar with his frequent jokes about always having to explain where New Zealand is, but so be it - no time to shoot the breeze today.
So much for small talk - always an awkward moment as an interviewer when you stall during the preamble. The fact is, you don't get to head up a global spirits company's training arm, get posted to New York at 35-years-old or win several awards based on the quality of your chit-chat. When we start getting serious about the booze business his characteristic enthusiasm returns to the fore. Phew, back on track.
Following his Tales of the Cocktail award in 2013 for Best International Brand Ambassador (having lost out the previous year to Tanqueray's Angus Winchester) and as a recipient of a Tales Golden Spirit award in 2010, Jacob's recently been named Wine Enthusiast Magazine's Brand Ambassador/Mixologist of the Year. (His trophies sit alongside girlfriend Charlotte Voisey from William Grant & Sons USA's own growing array of plaudits - quite the drinks industry power couple.)
And while he's thrilled at the Tales win, and has just been named International Judging Committee Leader of Tales' next Spirited Awards, he sees this recognition from the world of wine as particularly poignant. "It's an enormous publication outside the liquor industry. It's nice to see them acknowledge the cocktail revival is no flash-in-the-pan and is on the cusp of a second decade," he says. "'Craft' cocktails are so big we're at a point where chain restaurants with 1,500 accounts in America are starting to look at cocktails. Even my mum knows how to make a Negroni and a St-Germain Martini."
That recognition has come at a price. And for the exacting, relatively elitist world of wine to start noticing the once-novelty world of cocktails it has been a price well worth paying: better standards and consistency have elevated preconceptions of 'mixology' as crudely slinging together ingredients to a position where bartending is seen as a true craft with a role within the contemporary culinary scene. That's where Jacob comes in, not just to take ideas to new places - social networking does that far more efficiently - but to make sure new approaches don't get lost in translation. It's an approach he used during his tenure as 42Below's 'vodka professor' and his time with Leblon cachaça.
"Bartenders are hyper-connected," says Jacob. "We're one of the first global crafts - ever since Jerry Thomas you could jump on a boat and sail around the world and your skills were still applicable. Medicine and law are similar."
The problem is, despite all this social networking, there is a lot of 'Chinese whispers'. "All of a sudden an idea can become very different to how it started. Sometimes I'll meet someone who has taken a drink they heard about in Singapore, from a bartender who learned it in New York, but somehow it's got lost in translation.
"My job used to be to train bartenders, now I train the people that train bartenders. I try and knit together what we are doing with bars and bartenders wherever it is in the world, from New Zealand to Norway, to ensure what we are doing in Australia we can use in Chile."
Along the way, he takes an academic approach to filling his head with more data, like the human equivalent of the cute robot from Short Circuit. At Tales of the Cocktail, the number of seminars he chairs averages seven, in 2013 ranging from the art and philosophy of hospitality to the horrors of airport bars and geeking up on calvados. "I try and keep interested in everything that's going on, whether it's vodka, blue drinks or bitters, to keep abreast of all the trends. I've always been like this - I was raised without a TV which makes you hungry and enthusiastic."
Despite the rebirth of the cocktail, Jacob says its second decade has the potential to be held back by its leading proponents: bartenders themselves. A century ago the profession was regarded as the aristocrat of the working class, and Jacob's pleased it is heading in that direction. But he is worried by what he sees as a misplaced focus on the realities of the job.
The first aspect of this is the speed at which bartenders change jobs, ever on the hunt for that hot new opening. "Sure, people are taking the career slightly more seriously and drinks are certainly better than 15 years ago, but in many ways we are still marking time - I still see many tending bar because they're working out what to do with the rest of their life. I'd prefer if people had a two-year plan, or a five-year one, rather than a two-week plan."
It's a point linked intrinsically to a focus on creating drinks, rather than on the business of running bars. Clearly something has got lost since Harry Johnson wrote his Bartenders' Manual in 1882 and included bar operations as well as recipes. "I can understand the appeal of earning a consultancy fee for a few months for what's horribly called a new drinks 'programme', then moving on, but I think it's better to stick around for 2-3 years to learn a business deeply and understand why it's making money, rather than hop from lily pad to lily pad. I worked in the same bar for four years."
He highlights Alex Kratena, now in his eighth year at the helm of Artesian at the Langham, Richard Wynne from Callooh Callay and Leo Robitschek from Eleven Madison Park as role models - people who understand their business intricately. And he pays tribute to Richard Hunt from Trailer Happiness, part of a team who had gotten to know their business so well they felt confident enough to buy it.
There is a chink of light in this respect. For 2014 he's expecting a decline in drinks made by bartenders for bartenders, and not just because the mass market just doesn't seem to like rye or fernet but because it suggests a new respect for ensuring a bar works economically. "Designing for your customer will be a hot new trend. Bartenders should ask themselves why they have this rye drink on the menu if not just to say 'we have a rye programme'. Have you costed it out? Is it repeatable? Or is it costing you a fortune?"
The message seems to be: be quirky, and different, but not for its own sake. Make sure you can justify any point of difference in a business sense. He singles out White Lyan, Ryan Chetiyawardana's east London bar where he and Iain Griffiths serve no named brands and no cocktail theatrics in favour of an all-premixed list as a genuinely innovative approach designed to improve customer dynamics. "That doesn't come across as a gimmick because these two dudes have been in the business for over a decade, they've tried every approach, and concluded this is the best way they can serve more quickly and never compromise on quality."
As for liquid innovation, Jacob is happy to see less slavishness being paid to recreating classic cocktails exactly as they would have been created ("I don't want to eat same food as 100 years ago, same as I don't want to wear the same clothes"), but welcomes a merging of classic techniques with modern culinary, fresh flair ("PDT looks like ye old speakeasy but doesn't serve any classic drinks - it's fresh and creative"). On the flipside he says there are too many cocktails being shared online and going uncredited on menus. "Drop a note to the person who created it - there's no excuse for direct communication these days."
Who could have forseen that a boy from a small town, Neudurf, outside of Nelson on the north coast of New Zealand's South Island, where the closest bar saw farmers rub shoulders with firefighters, would one day lament the lack of a good Martini in most airport bars, or bemoan the lack of blue drinks in a flurry of post-modern irony? Sounds like the very definition of first world problems, but actually Jacob says a childhood spent among the vineyards and orchards of Marlborough was a great grounding in provenance and understanding the farm-to-table concept before it became a thing.
Cocktail culture entered the fray while he was a law student in Wellington, when the Matterhorn coffee shop, around since the 1960s, morphed into a cocktail bar - the venue is still around. "I was 20, and I ordered a Bombay Sapphire Martini. I thought it was probably the most sophisticated thing I could drink. I knew enough to order it dry, with an olive, and not to order it shaken. I had three and played some backgammon."
After cutting his teeth pulling pints at a fake olde Englishe pub, he scored a weekend job back at Matterhorn. His special talent behind the bar? "Memorising orders, I could take up to four different orders at a time, remembering what each person had to drink from each order." Gradually, predictably, the prospects of a career in law diminished.
Despite achieving in his chosen field, you get a sense that Jacob hasn't quite abandoned his teenage aspirations. "Once upon a time I thought I would be prime minister of New Zealand - it was a childhood passion, and I was a student politician long before I was a bartender." His bedtime reading betrays a fascination with people and philosophy, with Why The West Rules and Bargain Fever suggesting a quest to understand the human psyche better.
For now, he's content fulfilling the lifestyle of a modern-day Charles H. Baker, but with thousands of online friends accompanying him on his journey. "I love it on the front line, I'm lucky enough to be in India one minute, I'll see someone using a particular technique, and I'll show them something from New York, then I'll be in Brazil, giving someone tips about how to shake a cocktail better."
And while he's loathe to bemoan the effect of all that travel, he does finally give away at least one gripe about travelling two weeks out of every four: "Finding vegetarian food in large swathes of the planet. I've got a colleague who jokes we're in a 9-5 business - that's 9pm to 5am! You try getting a salad at 5am."