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Under the Influence

How America’s best bartenders all became liquor brand ambassadors

A tattooed bartender in a light blue button down and a dark blue apron prepares a negroni cocktail with Compari at a darkly lit bar. Alfredo Ravanetti/Shutterstock

This past summer, Rebekah Pepler took to the New York Times to declare that the Aperol Spritz, a summer patio favorite, is actually a bad cocktail, due largely to its titular ingredient, Aperol. “Though it contains ingredients like bitter oranges and rhubarb, the bottle skews saccharine at best, with a syruplike finish,” she said of the drink. Though she’s a fan of the bitterness of other amari, Pepler felt that Aperol made for a sad spritz, and its ubiquity over Hot Girl Summer merited a counterpoint. The op-ed inspired loud opinions on either side of the Aper-aisle, but it also cemented the drink’s popularity. The Aperol Spritz is well known enough for a takedown in the paper of record.

Five years ago, that wouldn’t have been the case because most people (outside of Milan, at least) didn’t know what an Aperol Spritz was or that it was something they should have strong feelings over. But the rise of the bitter aperitif cocktail, like many cocktail trends, has been growing steadily. In 2013, Imbibe Magazine partnered with Campari to launch a Negroni Week, which has now “grown from about 120 participating venues to almost 10,000 venues around the world.” Negronis shifted from drinks seasoned bartenders served each other as signifiers of their superior taste to something found on cocktail menus everywhere. Campari, and its sister aperitif Aperol, have become ubiquitous and it’s not simply because the American palate has grown more sophisticated.

Like practically everything, the international success of negronis can be traced back to money. Campari, which owns Aperol, has staged an aggressive marketing campaign for its brands in the U.S., utilizing — in addition to traditional advertising — the relatively new emergence of “brand ambassadors” to get the word out. Whereas liquor reps, essentially door-to-door salespeople of booze, used to be the go-to way to get a brand stocked at a bar, now bartenders will partner with brands directly, travel the world teaching other bartenders how to mix drinks with a specific liquor, or just make sure to use that ingredient in their cocktails. It’s a role Vinepair describes as “someone [usually a bartender] hired to represent a particular spirit or collection of spirits to buyers and consumers.” “The difference is that being an ambassador is living the brand,” says Damon Boelte, co-owner of Grand Army Bar in Brooklyn, who has done consulting work for Brooklyn Gin, and is now the Senior Portfolio Manager for Branca USA. It’s not just about selling more bottles, it’s about personifying the brand, and influencing the associations with the product, whether it’s highbrow or fashionably lowbrow, valuable for its rarity or for its accessibility.

But the “brand ambassador” is a contentious job. As mixology has become the norm, the perception of the bartender has shifted from a job someone takes up to work their way through college, to a craft that requires its own skills and expertise. This, of course, is a good thing for those dedicated to the art of tending bar, but it also means that there are different stakes (and ethics) when it comes to partnerships made for money or other perks. One issue is how brand ambassadorship can essentially mean that brands can pay for bar placement. Pay-to-play is already rampant issue in the industry, but the ambassador model keeps influence one step removed, allowing brands to hide behind the idea that they’re just introducing people to new flavors. Still, larger brands generally have more money to spend, edging out smaller competitors, so the practice calls into question which ingredients bartenders are choosing because of quality and which they’re choosing to get paid.

Bars, with their neon beer signs and branded pint glasses, have never been spaces considered too sacred for advertising. Where high end or high profile restaurants typically face criticism for partnering with brands — as Mission Chinese Food chef Danny Bowien did when he partnered with AriZona Iced Tea last spring — a critic or discerning customer typically won’t think twice of a menu that specifies the use of Tito’s vodka or Four Roses bourbon. Bartenders need to work with outside products, after all — we have yet to see a truly farm-to-table bar where not only all the mixers are homemade, but all the base liquors are too.

But that doesn’t mean we should accept the existence of liquor ambassadors as something harmless or wholesome. There’s still little regulation on how much brand influence is too much behind the bar: Bartenders working with brands typically don’t disclose compensation and the industry must contend with liquor laws that change from state to state, making it difficult to standardize the role. “There are a lot of bars who secretly take money from larger spirit companies for preferred menu placements, and that is just wrong; actually, it’s illegal, but there are ways of getting around it,” says Boelte. “Putting extra money in your pocket for the sake of making money and not really showcasing the partnership just seems sketchy.”

“Pay to play creates a false sense of what bars would really choose to place on their menus, in their wells and on back bars,” Simon Ford, co-founder of the 86 Co., told Liquor.com. “Using the same gin in every gin drink reeks of payola and shows that a bar doesn’t really experiment to find the best gin possible for that particular cocktail.” According Stacey Swenson, a Campari advocate and bartender at Dante, large liquor brands and their brand ambassadors, at their worst, can steamroll the market. “We may feel pressure to use a certain product over another because of a personal relationship or because some brands have more money to spend than others,” she said. “Smaller brands can definitely be hurt by some of the bigger guys with big budgets and expense accounts who will inevitably have more exposure.”

But small brands have also used this system to their benefit, like the elderflower liqueur St-Germain, for example, which exploded onto the market in 2007 and, for a few years, seemed to be the key ingredient in every bar’s specialty cocktail. The sell was that “real bartenders are using it!” As Boelte puts it, “St-Germain was in the forefront of what was to become a roller coaster ride for newer entrepreneurial spirits, and it even spawned a lot of the excavation of other rare and lost spirits from around the world.” It was a small brand that couldn’t have competed with the InBevs and Bacardis of the world — or so was the case in 2007; it’s since been bought by you guessed it, Bacardi. So while big brands have considerable financial sway, brand ambassadors do have an opportunity to champion exciting, lesser known liquors. “I only bring in brands that I feel are timeless, or at least stand the chance to be,” Boelte says of both his bartending and brand ambassador work. “But I also don’t like to carry any of the gigantic brands that you can get everywhere else.”

Mia Mastroianni, Head Bartender at Soho House West Hollywood and a frequent guest on Bar Rescue, clarifies, “I am not financially compensated by the brands that I choose to promote via social media,” and instead attributes “[the popularity of the Negroni] significantly to the inception of Negroni Week in 2013,” when it started as a charity drive among bartenders, but was quickly co-opted by Campari as a way to promote their brand. Prior to Negroni Week’s launch, Mastroianni wasn’t familiar with bitter Italian liqueurs, but became a fan of Campari, Aperol, and other amaros because she appreciated what they brought to her cocktails. Looked at under these circumstances, the concept of the brand ambassador — someone who can introduce not just customers, but also bartenders to exciting ingredients that they’d otherwise never hear about — doesn’t seem quite so insidious.

It’s maybe unnerving to think that the cocktails we’ve come to love in a way that feels spontaneous are actually carefully planned and paid for. Your love of Boulevardiers isn’t organic, but was Inceptioned into your brain. That’s sort of the way of things, and when done right, it at least gives you the opportunity to try something new. Swenson says she hasn’t questioned a bartender’s integrity for partnering with a brand, and that “as long as there’s an appropriate amount of transparency involved it’s okay for food and beverage professionals to take advantage of the opportunities that come their way.” Similarly, Boelte says, “If I were being paid by a company, or if I were a company paying someone, I would expect full transparency and promotion, in both directions.” But that appropriate amount remains up for debate.

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