Words by: Theodora Sutcliffe
A heart attack is the kind of thing that changes you. Especially at age 19. And, for Dickie Cullimore, it was a heart attack in his home town of Christchurch, New Zealand, that set him on the road to becoming Bacardi global brand ambassador.
“It was a Saturday night and we were out in town,” he recalls. “The palpitations went on for an hour and 20 minutes. Because the blood was just doing a circuit of my heart, not reaching my extremities, I was extremely white and quite dizzy. So we all got into a taxi, and by the time we got to the hospital I was coming in and out of consciousness.”
Oddly, it wasn't the brush with death that prompted reflection – at 19, Dickie says, you're bulletproof, and with his type of heart attack there isn't the signature pain – but the time in a hospital ward. While being treated for his heart condition, Dickie shared a room with five “very, very old dudes”, all of whom had led, in their different ways, extreme and interesting lives.
“One was in the Salvation Army, travelling around Third World nations doing work with communities,” he says. “There was this old character who might as well have been Hugh Hefner, who was the first ever sales manager for this lingerie brand, so he used to travel around the country with lingerie models...”
Cullimore had, rather unreflectingly, opted for a law degree on the basis that it would lead to a stable, high-income career, although the party-hearty university lifestyle suited him better than studying. The old men with their colourful lives made him long for a more interesting, less conventional path.
He had done some part-time bartending, and enjoyed it, so, rather than trade law school for bar school, he offered to work for free in exchange for references. The eighteenth place he rang gave him a job and, after he'd worked for free for a week or so, hired him.
It was Jimmy Summerfield, a national flair champion and competition judge, who first introduced Cullimore to cocktail competitions. “I've always liked the idea of the bar as a stage, but seeing bartending as an artform or as an entertainment form was just incredible,” he says. “After I'd seen his demo, Jimmy offered to do some training with me.”
He entered his first competition aged twenty in 1999, and went to the nationals in 2000; by 2003, he was NZ's national flair champion.
Back then, the world of cocktail competitions was dominated by the IBA approach, where you had a choice of flair or a rigorous, silent, classical style. 42 Below vodka reshaped the competition paradigm – and introduced Cullimore to another longtime mentor, Jacob Briars, then 42 Below's global brand ambassador.
Like many Kiwis, Cullimore wanted to travel, to see more of the world than New Zealand's two islands, but had no particular plan in place to deliver on that ambition. Instead, he focused on opening bars, and creating cocktail lists, which, back in the day, often involved a quick skim through Diffordsguide and selecting the pick of four- and five-star drinks. By 2007, he was in position to buy a piece of his own venue, an award-winning nightclub called Double Happy.
In February 2011, however, disaster struck. Christchurch had been rocked by a 7.1 magnitude earthquake a few months previously, and aftershocks were common. But this was different.
“We'd had lots of little earthquakes but this went on for 90 seconds,” he recalls. “I was on the fourth or fifth floor, so you had this massive up and down movement. It was like standing on a surfboard. I could smell these bottles of booze as they fell from the shelves and smashed.”
The earthquake killed 185 people and shattered downtown Christchurch, destroying buildings that had been weakened in the 2010 earthquake and rendering others unsafe. Double Happy was in central Christchurch, in the Red Zone, an area that the government cordoned off so they could systematically demolish unsafe buildings.
Cullimore wasn't even allowed into the CBD to assess the state of his business. “They had a Google camera that went around and filmed all the streets,” he says. “I first saw Double Happy through the lens of a camera.”
A couple of months later he finally gained access. “I stopped on this corner and recognised one of the buildings,” he says. “It took a few moments before it dawned on me that that was the site where my business had been – there was no rubble, no nothing, it had all been cleared away.”
Mercifully, insurance covered his salary for a year, which he spent helping his mentors and others rebuild their businesses. “When I heard about the Bacardi ambassador for New Zealand job, they were down to their last four,” he recalls. He put in a call to Frankie Walker, who worked for Lion, New Zealand's largest distributor, and within four days he had the job, which included launching the Bacardi Legacy cocktail competition into NZ.
Cullimore had been in the role for only a couple of years when Jacob Briars, now at Bacardi, asked whether he wanted a global brand position. “I thought it was a huge leap, I thought I wasn't ready for it yet, but Jacob asked 'When would you be ready for it?'” he says. “People jump at these opportunities so I thought I'd be stupid not to do it, and I went through the interview process and got it at the end of February 2015.”
Today, Cullimore is London-based and covers everything from looking after the Bacardi Legacy competition, now in around 50 countries, to presenting, training and seminars, through to brand strategy.
“I have some big projects where I work in collaboration with the brand team on things like drinks strategy, new products, working out what opportunities are out there,” he says. “You're a conduit, a middleman between the customer (the bartender or bar owner), the consumer, the marketing team and the commercial team. You hear what the trade wants and you can feed it back to marketing; you hear what marketing wants and you can feed that into the sales team.”
As a former competition bartender, he loves leading Legacy, and travelling the world presenting: he cites hosting National Daiquiri Day at Tales of the Cocktail as a particular highlight. “It's a dream to be able to impact and help lead this industry, to be able to work with people who just inspire me,” he says. “The bartenders and brand ambassadors are just the most energised, passionate crowd of people.”
Between the constant travel, the events and the ever-changing cast of characters, it's a fun life. And, one imagines, a life that the old gents on the cardiac ward might appreciate as a life well-lived.
So you want to be a brand ambassador? Five tips from Dickie Cullimore
1. Live by principles
My first mantra is 'Make others awesome'. When you've got a guiding principle that you can live every day it changes and helps you focus, and when others are core it's quite liberating. Number two is 'You've got one life, live it.' The third thing I've learnt recently is 'Celebrate the success of others'.
2. Seek mentors
I lucked into it - I fell into great mentors. I'd advise young bartenders: whatever the hell you want to do, find out who's already doing it and learn from them. If they don't want to mentor you, find someone else. You should be actively looking for mentors.
3. Be a great bartender
There are lots of different types of brand ambassadors with completely different skill sets. Some are real creationists, fabulous at putting drinks together and building new menus, and if that's the type of bartender you are that's the type of brand ambassador you'll end up being. I make good drinks but my skills are really affiliative: I want to inspire people and want to do it through talking, presenting and sharing ideas.
4. Do competitions
If you ever go to the trade shows or Tales of the Cocktail you see these people gravitate to it: they're often the competition bartenders... That's probably the next big thing putting you in a position to give opportunities to help grow the trade and industry.
5. Be disciplined
You've got to be disciplined and a good communicator.
Christchurch, New Zealand