Words by: Theodora Sutcliffe
“It’s almost been a year already, and I can’t believe the year has just flown by,” Kate Jackson says, her voice still croaky from a long working session at the Wilderness Festival in the Cotswolds countryside. “I’ve still definitely got a lot to learn.”
Despite her oh-so-British, oh-so-female self-deprecation, Jackson isn’t doing badly. As Ketel One’s UK brand ambassador, she juggles tasks from creating drinks and helping design marketing events to training, promotion and on-the-ground research. And the brand’s growth rate has doubled over the last year.
Which isn’t to say there haven’t been adjustments required. Working mainly from home, largely independently, rather than on a shift basis in bars requires a different set of skills from the ones Jackson learned over the previous 15 years. Diageo’s raft of in-house acronyms still confuse her, while she finds managing a workload of very different tasks, few of which can be delegated, a challenge. “I’m working for a corporate company and I’m working for a brand,” she says. “So not only was my body clock changing, it was getting used to how a company works.”
It all sounds like a far cry from interior design, the subject Jackson was studying in Edinburgh when she fell into the drinks industry. Yet, she explains, the skillset is still applicable. “In bars, there’s soft interiors, how the blinds are, how the furniture is set.... all those little touches that people don’t really notice but actually really impact on your evening,” she says. “Then, obviously, there’s just being creative in terms of flavours and creating cocktails: I still use my creativity within the bar industry.”
Jackson never actually finished her degree, finding herself having too much fun in the world of bars. She learned her craft at Montpeliers, working at the Assembly and at Rick’s. Unusually for someone born in southern England, she cites a pair of Scottish drink industry stalwarts as key career influences: Ian McLaren, who trained her in elements as basic as pouring a shot, and Mal Spence, who modelled career success.
Despite the fun, Jackson’s career has not been plain sailing. She moved to London after a friend offered her a job when she returned from travelling in Latin America – and lost her way a little. “I spent a lot of money on a makeup course – I thought I was going to do that,” she recalls. “And then I got a job with the Breakfast Club, thinking I would just do that to support myself while I did my makeup, and then I just fell in love with the industry again.”
It was the culture that made the difference, Jackson recalls, and helped her pull back from the backstage world. “The Breakfast Club really cared about their people and they were just really great people to work for,” she says. “They gave me such space for creativity and really trusted my judgment in terms of creating these cocktail bars and making them come alive.”
Jackson was helping to manage The Distillery on Portobello Road when her creativity and calmness under pressure caught the attention of friends at Diageo, who suggested she applied for the position of Ketel One brand ambassador. She sent in her CV, spent time with her prospective line manager, did a training session and created some cocktails for a concept, and the job was hers.
Jackson, who visits the Netherlands regularly, is genuinely passionate about the brand she represents. “I’ve met Bob Nolet and Mr Carl Sr’s wife, and you really get to know the family,” she says. “That’s what I love about Ketel. It’s not this big brand that you can’t immerse yourself in and that’s almost just a concept. There’s a family behind it. There’s a heritage behind it.”
Right now, one of the projects she’s hard at work on is redefining the brunch. “Dutch culture is all about bringing your friends and family around the kitchen table and having food and discussing all your life problems around that table, so brunch goes really well,” she says.
And in a move that might horrify purists, Jackson is also taking on the iconic Bloody Mary. “Some people think they don’t like Bloody Marys because they don’t like tomato juice and those hot pepper sauces so we make Bloody Marys with carrot juice or beetroot juice,” she says. “Kings Mary is the carrot one, or we have a Green Mary, which is pineapple, spinach and cucumber.” Four ingredients only? Dream on.
Whether she’s tapping into consumer juice obsessions or working to redefine the vodka-soda, the fridge in Jackson’s London flat looks like an experimental lab. “It’s got all these random little bottles, and my flatmate comes back and doesn’t know what’s what,” she laughs. “There’s all these miscellaneous bottles and things sitting, and sometimes it gets a bit of a Willy Wonka fantasy in there.”
In every project she does, Jackson is cautious to ensure the output is something that can be made at home – or, if it’s a bar execution, easily made within the bar. It’s an approach, she warns, that requires experience: someone with just a couple of years in the industry, however talented, can’t hope to match the expertise acquired over 15 years or more.
To become a brand ambassador and do the job well, Jackson counsels, takes more than just plain talent. “You need to really have that background knowledge,” she says. “Do your time behind the bar. Enter a lot of cocktail competitions, get really creative – and read, a lot.” Wise words from a modest woman.