Words by: Jane Ryan
As the Global Brand Ambassador for Ketel One vodka Justin Smyth is the face of one of Diageo's premium reserve spirits. But he's been with the brand, and the Nolet family, since it was a small player on the scene, long before Diageo came on board. Now he and his brand are looking to give something back to the international bartending community. No strings attached.
"Coming over as a backpacker from South Africa in 1997 there were mostly antipodeans working behind bars.
I had studied fashion management and clothing production but never intended to work in that industry. I'd also dabbled in some bar work back home but cocktails tended to be nasty sweet things and most people drank beer or wine.
My first gig, like most bartenders, was bar backing but eventually I wound up running Beach Blanket Babylon in Notting Hill. I also worked at Zeta, which at the time was at the forefront of what we would now call the cocktail revolution.
For us back then, it was innovative just to have a focus on fresh juices. Pioneering meant we had a guy on set up just making juice all day long. I was at Zeta at the time when the likes of Angus Winchester, Dre Masso and Henry Beasant were having a huge impact in the London scene, they were they people who were setting up the future of our industry and brands started to sit up and listen, realising they needed to invest.
Eventually though you need a lifestyle change and whilst I wanted to keep working in the industry, the hours of a bartender didn't suit me anymore.
Vodka is tough. It gets less engagement from the bartending community. But I think bartenders understand its purpose in their bars.
I had met Bob Nolet years before as a barman, when we were one of the first bars driving volume for Ketel One so he came down to the bar to shake hands. When I eventually started working with the brand it was part of a very small drinks company, we had no budget and it was all about relationships. But it was a fun company to work for, and you really had to rely on charm.
That all changed with the Nolet-Diageo relationship. Which is how the family looks at the partnership, very much a joint venture. In fact the family describe Diageo as a big brother that helps them out. And for them, as a company, Diageo is a great opportunity, suddenly they're able to reach huge audiences with their brand. For me, it was a total culture change. I'm still working for a great company but I've got coverage and budget. It's been a good learning experience.
Ketel One as a team wanted a programme to engage with bartenders. Something more than a competition or a party where everyone wakes up with a hangover and not much information on the brand. We wanted to bring our brand to life.
Obviously we have this amazing distillery in Holland but we can't show everyone, we can't bring the world to the Nolet family. And we wanted something more longterm, I guess you could describe it as a standing link with the industry and a way to give back to the bartenders.
Our aims were clear but we had to approach bartenders to ask what did they want, what would drive them to be a part of something, what would make them passionate?
In response we took away four key desires. Firstly, recognition for what they do, secondly, a wish to be part of a community, thirdly, a healthy quest for knowledge, whether that be bartending skills or life skills, and lastly, help with creative innovation and ideas to keep their business going.
Feeding that in with a brand programme and giving back to the industry was the challenge. We came up with the Bartender Fraternity. It's basically a group of 15 to 30 guys depending on the country, who get together and we put on events, seminars, and activities for them. In cities where there is an advanced cocktail culture you can really go away from bartending and develop life skills. But somewhere such as China and Brazil, they have a young up and coming scene and you are bringing together a generation of bartenders whose jobs are considered second rate. In Brazil being a bartender isn't a good job, they don't have a say in how the bar is run, but this elevates them as a community and the Fraternity is about learning trade skills.
We began in Melbourne which made sense as that city put themselves on the map, and being so far away from any other cosmopolitan city they have an independent bar scene with a great sense of community.
So far we've brought in chefs and had them switch rolls, training each other then had a competition where bartenders made food for the chefs and the chefs made cocktails for the bartenders, thus passing the craft on. The guys have had lessons in surfboard making then spent a day learning to surf. We did craft of the tailor, even though bartenders are pretty slick looking dudes these days, but a professional tailor came in and explained styling. There's been a chocolatier, a magician and a photographer as well, all skills which tie into bartending but expand it as well.
Our idea is to take a cross section of the industry, so bar backs, young bartenders, up and coming bartenders and established guys whose job is to indoctrinate new guys. They help a younger generation and in return the newbies pick up mentors.
In Australia we're in four main cities now, Melbourne in its fourth year, then Sydney, Brisbane and Perth. I hope the Bartender Fraternity drives the community, helps to ignite passion and simply provides a space for people to hangout, complain and make friends.
The Fraternity doesn't expect anything back, we didn't advertise it or push it as a brand, it got by from recommendations from bartenders. In the UK we're starting in key cities outside London, places which need to be shown some love and who sometimes feel that London bartenders get a bit spoiled. Also the fraternity requires commitment from members, they need to make an effort of attending events.
Currently we're in 11 countries, but in America it's not called fraternity, that world has a frat boy reputation over there, instead it's called the Bartender Society. The US groups are involved a lot more in community projects, such as building local gardens and they do bartender boot camp where they do various physical activities such as boxerise.
I spend most of my time in the UK, Australia, Holland of course and actually have been in Israel a bit lately thanks to the emerging bar scene there.
I think I've got a few more years in me yet. It's been wonderful so far representing a great family, and of course seeing the world, not to mention meeting truly amazing people. I enjoy the interaction of being with people and don't want to lose that. After working with the brand for so long it's like being part of the family.
The best part of being in my job now is being part of the industry at this golden age. We're really doing phenomenally well. So no retirement plans just yet."