Not all ambassadors bring goodwill

“Hey Jeff,” said the day bartender as we were doing our daily shift crossover.

Although we have both worked at the same bar for many years, we have actually only ever worked together 10 minutes at a time. He works the day shift and I work the night shift, that’s just the way it’s been.

“There’s a Brand Ambassador over there,” he said passing by me on his way out the door.

“Good luck with him,” he said cryptically.

“Brand Ambassadors” are a new ploy being used by liquor companies to market their products. Brand Ambassadors aren’t salespeople, they are promotional people.Californialiquor law states that: “No distilled spirits license of any kind…shall be issued to any person, or to any officer, director, employee, or agent of any person, who manufactures distilled spirits within or without this State”

Which means that no restaurant or bar with a hard liquor license can be owned by anyone directly affiliated with a distiller’s license (for instance: one local Red Rocker). Furthermore while a member of the public may purchase beer at a brewery or wine at a winery, they cannot buy distilled spirits at a distillery.  Part of the goal is to prevent the so-called “tied houses” of pre-Prohibition saloons. A tied house was owned by an alcohol producer and only sold products made by their owners. One agency at the time summed up the perceived problem, “pressure was exerted on retailers to maximize sales without regard to the well being of customers or the general public.”

Since the liquor companies cannot be directly involved they turned to someone else; the bartender. They long ago realized that bartenders are natural promoters of their products. If a bartender likes a particular tequila, he or she will recommend it to their customers. That is why alcohol companies routinely provide events, contests and trainings for bartenders. Just regular business. But what if that tequila company actually pays the bartender (sometimes with gifts, trips or publicity) to promote their product? That bartender travels around creating cocktails and such, generally promoting only that product. And if said bartender also happens to promote it at the very bar where they actually work, then so much the better. Since the bartender is not actually the owner of the liquor license, technically they are not subject to the prohibition. Clever huh?

What that means, however, is that the bartender who is talking up that new booze at your favorite watering hole might not be doing so because he or she actually likes it, but because they are receiving compensation to promote it.

I thought of all of this as I approached Mr. Brand Ambassador at the bar. I extended my hand and shook his.

“What do you think of this cocktail list?” he said his voice lilting disdainfully as he withdrew his hand.

An odd question, I thought, since I helped developed it.

“It works great for us,” I responded.

“Really?” he said. “It seems kind of ordinary.”

OK, I thought.

“We try and make classic drinks as well as possible,” I said. “…using only the best ingredients, with a few experimental drinks thrown in for good measure.”

“So you just do what everybody else does?” he said.

Two comments and two thinly veiled insults, but that was only the beginning. Because the next five minutes were equally odd. Mr. Ambassador either insulted what our restaurant was doing, or what I was doing personally. He disagreed with everything I said, even before I finished saying it. And he also tried to quiz me on bizarre disconnected liquor trivia all the while mispronouncing things or getting his facts wrong. It was very strange.

Initially I tried conversing with him, under the impression that we were exchanging ideas. But that was not what he was doing. He was engaging in a pissing contest.

I finally disconnected myself after he pressed me on the “flavor profile” of a very, very obscure liqueur, for no apparent reason.

All of which left me with four thoughts.

-“Brand Ambassadors” are not necessarily ambassadors of goodwill.

-If your local bartender is pushing a particular product you might want to question his motivation.

-“The aim of a discussion should not be victory, but progress” was very wisely said by Epicurean philosopher Joseph Joubert.

-I never did find out what Mr. Brand Ambassador was promoting but when I do, we are not going to carry it.