Spin and Tonic: How D.C. Bartenders Hawk Booze for Big Brands
Jo-Jo Valenzuela pulls out a big red leather briefcase and places it in front of him on the The Partisan’s bar.
“I’m going to be very disappointed if there’s not a mass amount of money in there,” says the guy in a tie to his left, who’s having dinner solo.
“You’ll be very, very disappointed,” Valenzuela says with a laugh. “Any chance you’re drinking any cocktails tonight, or just beer? Because if you let [the bartender] make you a gin cocktail on me, that would be fantastic.”
The guy accepts, as Valenzuela draws attentions back to the mystery briefcase: “Ready? Ready?” he says with his fingers on the clasps. He opens it slowly to reveal rows of neatly aligned jars filled with lemon peel, Seville orange, juniper, angelica root, coriander, licorice, and other botanicals used in Beefeater Gin. He launches into a brief spiel about how the spirit is made.
Valenzuela is the brand ambassador—or “gin connoisseur,” to use his exact title—for Beefeater Gin and Plymouth Gin (both of which are owned and distributed by French company Pernod Ricard). “I get paid to let people drink,” he sums up. It’s a part-time gig for Valenzuela, who’s also a bartender at City Tap House and Old Glory, and he’s about one month into a two-and-a-half-month contract. As part of the job, he visits as many as five to eight bars and restaurants a night, three or four nights a week. Sometimes he drops by in the afternoon to train staff on spirits or conduct taste tests, but other times, his job is just to schmooze with bartenders and drinkers and talk up the brand. Valenzuela gets a salary, which he says is “very good,” though he declines to say just how much it is. He uses a company credit card, with about $450 allotted per night, to buy round after round of gin cocktails.
Chances are you’ve encountered alcohol brand ambassadors like Valenzuela before: Many of the “name” mixologists in D.C. have been paid to push certain products at one point or another. The phenomenon has grown in tandem with the evolution of bartenders into “celebrities” and the proliferation of alcohol products over the last decade, says BevForce founder Josh Wand, whose New York–based company helps recruit for and staff alcoholic beverage companies. Wand says most big brands have an ambassador in major markets, in addition to national and global representatives. “It’s growing because there’s more and more brands being introduced, and the successful brands are spending more and more money on what we call below-the-line marketing, which is having feet on the street,” he says.
Back at The Partisan, the bartender brings our cocktails: Guns of Brixton with Beefeater and Cool Confusion with Plymouth, both of which are already on the menu. It’s no coincidence that the restaurant already uses a lot of the products Valenzuela is promoting: Jeff Faile, bar and spirits director for The Partisan and other Neighborhood Restaurant Group establishments, used to have Valenzuela’s position as brand ambassador for Plymouth and Beefeater. Even though the bar carries the brands, talking them up to the bar’s customers might mean they ask for them in other bars or buy them in liquor stores later.
Wearing silver grey snakeskin boots, jeans, and a blazer over his tattooed arms, Valenzuela arranges the cocktails next to a copy of the menu and pulls out an iPad to take a photo—also a requirement of the job. We raise our glasses for a toast, along with the guy next to us, who’s now sipping on a Last Word with Beefeater (courtesy of Valenzuela, of course). “You have the best job pretty much ever, you know that?” he tells Valenzuela.
The Partisan’s wine director, Brent Kroll, comes by to chat—he first met Valenzuela when Valenzuela worked at Occidental several years ago—and the chef sends out a complimentary plate of aged hams. “Here’s another great perk,” Valenzuela says of the freebies restaurants often give him when he’s buying everyone drinks.
It’s Monday, so the place is full of restaurant industry folks drinking and eating on their nights off. Valenzuela buys a cocktail for the chef of Columbia Firehouse, who’s sitting further down the bar, and then a round for Think Food Group research and development director Ruben Garcia, “Cocktail Innovator” Juan Coronado, and wine director Lucas Paya at a table nearby. Before we leave, Valenzuela asks the bartender to add a few more drinks to his tab for some of The Partisan’s staff to enjoy at the end of the night. “You’re the man,” says chef Nate Anda, who’s slicing meats as we head toward the door.
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Exactly what being a brand ambassador involves can vary greatly. The position can be a part-time, temporary gig (like what Valenzuela does) or a full-time, salaried career. Some ambassadors focus on one specific product, while others might represent an entire portfolio of brands. An alcoholic beverage company or distillery might employ its ambassadors directly, or a contracted marketing agency might hire and oversee them. But whatever the arrangement is, the job involves being a booze evangelist.
“Your clout, your personality, your reputation gives them an in,” says Bourbon Steak bartender Duane Sylvestre, who has been working with French beverage company Rémy Cointreau for about four years. As a “Thirsty Revivalist” (yes, that’s his official title), he represents a number of brands, including Cointreau, Mount Gay Rum, and The Botanist gin. The relationship also goes the other way around, Sylvestre says: “Bartenders can certainly build their reputation with the clout of a big brand behind them.” Many bartenders consider being a brand ambassador a resume builder. Plus, the gig gives them more exposure and positions them as authorities on certain spirits.
Sylvestre visits about 10 bars and restaurants a week, usually after work on Friday or Saturday. He describes himself as a “liaison” or “consultant,” if fellow bartenders want to bounce a drink off him or need some advice. “Of course,” he says, “we spend a little bit of money, so that always helps support the cause.” He has about 50 accounts, but some brand ambassadors might have as many as 150 or as few as 25.
Given that Sylvestre’s duties primarily consist of training bar staff about spirits, he considers himself an educator, not a salesman. “We never talk about sales,” he says. “I don’t have any case goals or initiatives within the market. My role is to spread awareness and, for lack of a better word, good will among the bartender community.”
Sylvestre says he tries to keep his Rémy Cointreau role separate from his job at Bourbon Steak. “There’s no direct relationship between the two whatsoever,” he says. “I don’t even carry all the products in my portfolio on the bar. I carry the ones that I like and that work well within Bourbon Steak. Stuff that doesn’t work doesn’t come here just because of my relationship with the company.”
But most brand ambassadors who also work on the other side of the bar usually will highlight or push their products when they can. Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s Faile says Beefeater was always his rail gin, and Plymouth was one of his favorite gins for cocktails even before he was an ambassador for the brands. “I definitely picked up Beefeater 24 to kind of make the boss people happy,” he says. “I don’t think if my [marketing agency] bosses came in and saw Tanqueray on my rail or on a cocktail list they would have been totally happy.” (Restaurateurs, meanwhile, don’t usually mind if their bartenders are selling specific brands—so long as they’re selling drinks.)
For someone who represents a brand full-time, the expectations are different still. Theo Rutherford, who’s worked at Ripple and Fiola, was bartending at Rogue 24 when Jim Beam approached him almost two years ago about becoming a “craft whiskey specialist.”
When I talked to him last week, Rutherford was in Chicago conducting staff training at a local bar in the morning, doing a two- to three-hour seminar at a big liquor store, then helping lead a seven-course whiskey-pairing dinner. Although his home base is D.C., he goes wherever Beam wants him. From June through the end of last year, he was on 56 flights—everywhere from Las Vegas to Kentucky to Glasgow, Scotland.
“If you ever saw the movie Thank You For Smoking, Aaron Eckhart’s character, that’s kind of what I feel like in a lot of ways,” Rutherford says of the fictional cigarette lobbyist. “My job is basically selling the story that I want or need people to hear.”
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After The Partisan, I accompany Valenzuela to Daikaya for his second visit to the izakaya as a brand ambassador. It turns out Daikaya beverage director Lukas Smith was a full-time ambassador for Pabst Brewing Company a few years ago. Much like Valenzuela’s work, Smith’s job centered around buying people beers, plus handing out stickers, lunchboxes, and other freebies. “Swag sucks, it’s a pain in the ass. You feel like you’re a clown,” Smith says. “But of course the bartenders are like, ‘Thanks for hooking it up!’ You come in, you buy people a round, and then they say, ‘Let’s do shots.’”
Smith makes us two drinks that he’s testing out for the spring cocktail menu using a new carbonation system that gives the drinks an extra-sharp fizz. One incorporates rhubarb juice and Plymouth gin, and the other is a take on a negroni sbagliato with Beefeater.
I ask Smith if Valenzuela’s visits swayed his choice of gin. “Oh, absolutely. For me, I just need a base level of quality and a reason to buy one instead of the other,” he says. “And I like him.”
Correction: Due to a reporting error, this story initially stated that Brent Kroll and Jo-Jo Valenzuela knew each other from working at Occidental together. In fact, they met at Occidental, but only Valenzuela worked there.
Photo of Jo-Jo Valenzuela by Darrow Montgomery