Are Liquor Companies Stealing S.F.'s Best Bartenders As 'Brand Ambassadors'?

Brandywine Hartman
Neyah White left the bar at Nopa to work for Suntory Japanese whisky.
​As a career, bartending has had its ups and downs. It was a genuine profession in the 19th century, an outlaw one during Prohibition. And up until recently, tending bar was a gig you held down because you either owned the joint or smoked a lot of them.

These days, momentum has elevated the local bar from a place to simply escape the world to a venue showcasing bartender creativity. The best bartenders have an unnatural ability to connect with anyone off the street, from regulars to strangers to the just plain strange. They make you feel comfortable while mixing that perfect drink of the moment, something with an uncanny ability to lift your mood.

The only problem with being good at something is that with exposure and talent, opportunities come along that take you away from the thing you excelled at in the first place.

The term "brand ambassador" is quickly becoming a heartbreaking phrase for patrons who witness their favorite bartenders leave to work with liquor companies. Following the notable departures of Nopa's Neyah White to become brand ambassador for Suntory Japanese whisky, Rickhouse's Erick Castro for Plymouth and Beefeater gins, and Heaven's Dog's Jackie Patterson for Lillet and Solerno, we set out to answer the question many in S.F.'s bartending community have been asking: Are liquor companies stealing San Francisco's best bartenders?

Like any complicated situation that also involves liquor, the answer is "yes," "no," and "where am I?"

Yes, liquor companies are stealing our best bartenders ― brand ambassador has quickly become a necessary position for marketing any spirits brand. At this year's Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans, Simon Ford, the director of trade outreach for Pernod Ricard USA, described the position as a bridge between marketing and bartenders. In other words, ambassadors translate a company's marketing bullshit into information working bartenders actually want to hear. A popular bartender excited about a particular spirit can have an enormous impact on a brand's popularity, boosting sales. .

But though ambassadorship might be good for the liquor companies, what is it doing to the quality of drinks? And what motivates a bartender to take a brand ambassador position in the first place? Find out in part two of this story.

Lou Bustamante tweets at @thevillagedrunk. Follow SFoodie at @sfoodie.

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