|True Life: Iím a Brand Ambassador
We first met John Kinder behind the mahogany bar of The Pump Room, a Chicago institution in the Ambassador East Hotel. Its walls were adorned with relics of its glamorous past, with photos of celebs from the heyday of cocktail dresses and fedoras—and its bar, at the time, was peopled by drinkers who would order an Appletini and expect it to be bright Apple Pucker-green. But they had another thing comin’: Kinder’s fresh fruit juices and aromatic tinctures, which made for some of the best cocktails the historic room had ever known.
The next time we saw him, Kinder was running the bar program at MK and raiding the kitchen’s larder to make cocktails with homemade sweet potato liquor, cinnamon and pecan. He turned the restaurant into one of the city’s go-to’s for creative libations, especially on Tuesday nights, when he and the chef de cuisine offered a cocktail pairing menu in the restaurant’s lounge.
The typical next step, you’d think, would be to helm his own temple of innovative intoxicology. But instead, Kinder stepped out from behind the bar and into a more multi-faceted mixology position than he’d ever imagined: that of a brand ambassador.
Mixology is spreading like drinkable wildfire; it’s continuing to grow both in popularity and profitability despite the economy’s woes. And as it does, more opportunities arise for its practitioners beyond the basic bar work. Consulting while keeping a home base behind a bar is a common way to start, though Kinder dove in head-first with Mystique Brands, an importer with a high end collection of tequila, absinthe, French herbal liqueurs, cachaça, Cognac, Scotch, single malt whiskey, and pisco.
The perks include traveling the country (and occasionally beyond—he recently took a trip to France to meet the company’s Cognac and absinthe producers), visiting the world’s top bars, and the instant gratification of educating others. The drawbacks: For some, the rigorous travel schedule—he’s on the road for three weeks each month—can be a bit much. But for a bartender with wanderlust, it can be a dream come true.
Heather Sperling: When and how did you decide to move out from behind the bar?
John Kinder: It was September of last year. I had put the feelers out to Bridget Albert, the mixologist at Southern Wine & Spirits here in Illinois. I was interested in supplementing what I was doing by doing some branding stuff. It’s pretty common—Jim Meehan does some work with Gran Centenario Tequila, etc. I had seen other people do it, and I was curious.
Albert connected me with a company that was looking for someone to do some work with pisco. I sent along my resume and they got back to me saying that they actually wanted me to work with all of their brands.
For a guy like me, the position was very intriguing because it would allow me to use a lot of different types of ingredients, rather than working with a single base spirit. I had a whole palette to work with.
I did my research on the company—I didn’t want to work for a mediocre product. I wanted to be sure to have a lot of confidence in the ingredients. All the brands were family owned and very, very well made, so I said that I’d be interested. I interviewed with the CEO and President, and we hit it off. I met the rest of the team in Galveston, Texas, at a big event and they offered me the position.
The position was national, rather than local, which definitely intrigued me because it was a way for me to reach out and have relationships with other bartenders I had met through the circuit—at Tales of the Cocktail, competitions, things like that. I would get to see them on their turf and see how they operate.
HS: Can you give me a basic job description?
JK: First and foremost is education and training. I’m educating our internal sales reps and distributors on our brands and on the spirit categories in general. I educate sales staff both on-premise in bars and restaurants, and in retail places. I’ll also go into restaurants—I’m going to Province [Randy Zwieban’s restaurant in Chicago] in a few weeks to do a staff training on pisco.
I also do all the media work—talking to media about the brands, cocktail ideas, etc.
And then there’s the mixology component: I develop cocktails and drinks for various establishments. They usually fall into three categories: places that don’t use fresh juices, which is difficult because I usually espouse using them; places that use fresh juices, but need a little outside help developing their drinks; and the dedicated cocktail places that know what they like, but could use an introduction to our ingredients. I just give them some flavor combination ideas—like sugar snap peas with Cognac and whiskey. I let them know that peas, Cognac and whiskey share a lot of flavors and smells, and they can play with that. Whether it’s incorporating sugar snap peas into Mint Juleps or even pairing cocktails with a dish with sugar snap pea puree, or a pea soup.
I also develop education materials, like slide presentations on our brands, and speak at general sales meetings. I host little events, like Scotch tastings in New York—I’ll be back in NYC at the end of May to do a tequila and Scotch tasting.
Fortunately there’s no selling involved, but I have heard that some people have to do that.
HS: What’s your favorite part of the job?
JK: My favorite part is eating and drinking at some of the top bars in the country, and experiencing what they have as far as drinks and service. I get to see the best bars across the country—how they’re operated; how they’re set up. I get to take notes on what’s going on, not only the drinks that they’re doing, but how they’re running the bars as well.
I also really enjoy that “ah-ha!” thing when people in the trade understand the flavors and end up doing some amazing things with our products. The education part is a lot of fun.
It’s been a big learning experience. While I’m educating people on our brands, and sometimes on entire spirit categories, I’m also constantly learning.
HS: What has your travel schedule been like?
JK: I’m on the road three weeks out of the month, and the one week that I’m in Chicago I’m out seeing people, but I get to sleep in my own bed at night. I hit all the major markets—New York, Miami, Houston, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, San Fran, LA, Chicago, Boston, Atlanta, DC.
They’ve sent me to where a lot of these spirits are made, so I finally got to go on the big trip I’ve always wanted, to Paris, Cognac, Aix-en-Provence and London.
HS: Have you been surprised by any of the cocktail markets that you’ve visited? Any up-and-comers?
JK: In New York and San Francisco, I was surprised by how deep the drinking culture is. It’s one thing to have a bunch of bartenders doing pre-prohibition drinks, which is very New York, or seasonal twists in San Francisco, but it’s amazing to see just how many people are doing it and how many people are very knowledgeable about it.
I was surprised to see that Chicago and LA are kind of on the same level. There are a lot of very passionate people that are very into it, but I’m surprised at how slow the markets have been to accept these kinds of drinks. I was surprised that LA’s cocktail culture is where it is. I was imagining it to be more along the lines of Miami, which is kind of a black hole of cocktail culture. They just like fruit and anything resembling tropical drinks. And I’ve been surprised that the market is growing so slowly in Chicago.
Houston has certain pockets where it’s thriving. There’s a bar called Anvil that’s been trying to open, but it’s been slow-going because of the hurricane, and because they’re doing literally everything themselves. Austin is an up-and-coming cocktail town. The city’s culture is very receptive to that sort of thing, and they have some people doing cool stuff.
HS: Mystique Brands is fairly small but carries some very interesting products. What’s the story behind Versinthe absinthe?
JK: It’s produced by the man who found a loophole in the French absinthe laws 10 years ago and broke the absinthe ban. It’s a lower-proof absinthe, so it’s a little more approachable. Because it’s lower proof, I can do a heavier pour on it. For a lot of recipes, you only want a couple teaspoons, but with this it works to have a heavier pour. The flavor profile is green and fresh, with a very nice black pepper finish. It’s the freshest absinthe you’re going to smell because of the hand-crafted nature of the product. It’s really balanced.
He’s now developing all of these perfumes and liqueurs down in Aix-en-Provence, in Cezanne country. He does everything by hand—he has the Channel low-temperature extractor that was used for roses for Channel #5 and he uses that.
HS: What are you doing with cachaça and pisco for the spring/summertime?
JK: Obviously the two pisco standards are Pisco Punch and the Pisco Sour, but beyond those, I like to use pisco with round red fruits like cranberry and pomegranate, and anything with a floral nature, like St. Germain or Crème de Violette. I also have done some nice stuff with lychee: Lychee, sake and pisco have a kind of floral note to them, and I like to incorporate all three because they blend and heighten the floral quality.
Cachaça: Other than the standard Batidas and Caiprinhas, I like it with apricot brandy and with a tempered acidity. It’s rum, but it’s smoky and has some apricot notes. I like to blend lemon and lime with it. There’s the Culroff Cocktail: Traditionally it’s rum, Lillet Blanc, apricot brandy and lemon juice with bitters. I use cachaça instead of rum, and lime and lemon. It’s quite lovely and very interesting with the smokiness and apricot.
HS: Is there anything you miss about being behind the bar?
JK: I miss the service aspect of it. I miss opening guests’ eyes to interesting cocktails with unique flavor combinations. My whole thing is about taste and technique. While I was at MK, I was really starting to push a lot of things in those directions. I have so many cocktails that I’ve come up with, and I miss expressing myself in that setting. But I definitely don’t miss trying to kick drunk people out of a bar at three in the morning, and not waking up until two in the afternoon because you’re dead tired!