Mixologists who travel

Bartending might well be the world’s most international trade. Still many barkeeps never leave the counters of their home town. Phil Duff explains why you should step out of your comfort zone to learn how things work abroad.
So one of the many joys and benefits of the job of the bartender is that it is a truly portable skillset. By this I mean that there are bars and drinkers around the world and tho the language may be different the basic job is the same and a skilled bartender with a passport can work just about anywhere – even in Ethiopia. I bet there is a 5 star hotel with a bolshy American tourist demanding a Dry Martini.  Yet seemingly very few bartenders choose to take this route and pack up their shakers, dust off their passport and choose to see the world from behind a decent piece of wood.
I for one think that travel is the best education one can ever have, be it for personal development and enjoyment or professional advancement. Now I personally have been flying and living in other countries since I was 3 years old but increasingly I see a small elite group of bartenders (elite now but many started off with few skills, connections or plaudits) who are true ‘Travelling Mixologists’ and whose careers have bloomed due to them taking that first step/plane. So I asked four of the most successful five basic questions to educate and inspire others to do the same.
1. What made you decide to work abroad?
2. What made or makes you choose the countries you have worked in?
3. Would you advise others to do it?
4. How easy was it to fit in and do well?
5. What is your secret for success?
The Italian Max La Rocca has worked in England, Ireland and currently Spain. Jamie Boudreau is a Canadian working in the USA. Sam Ross is an Australian working in New York and Alex Sourmpatis is a Greek who until recently worked in Germany. All have prospered with their moves and all heartily recommend it and have distilled their wisdom and motivation to help others.
The decision to move anywhere is about a mixture of opportunity and desire to learn more. Although the idea of earning more money was mentioned it seems far less motivating than the chance of experience new drinking and bartending cultures and to test oneself. As Sam says “As bartending and serious cocktails became a part of my life, this idea of relocating to NYC cemented itself further into my psyche. I felt I had done Melbourne proud, achieved a modest amount of success, but it was time to take myself (and my then just-legal drinking status) to the birthplace of the cocktail bar.”
The choice of country follows similar lines.  Alexander chose Europe  “and specifically Germany was the rumours about German competence in mixing classic cocktails (which by all means were true) and the existence of bartenders that succeed in worldwide competitions.” Whereas Sam “Being an Australian, had access to a two-year, no questions asked, working visa in the UK. I had plenty of colleagues, friends and family do that. I just wanted something different. I wanted to go where there were no Australian bartenders. I wanted to blaze a new path. NYC was the only city I ever considered.” Max seems to have bounced from the UK to Australia to Ireland to Spain as opportunities presented themselves with flexibility being the key.
Generally all those asked would not just advise colleagues to move but encourage them too but Jamie does sound this note of warning: “If you don’t have close ties to family, then I would whole heartedly suggest giving it a try. If, on the other hand, you have a close knit group of friends and family, you may find the transition difficult. Moving to another country means starting your life over again, in almost every aspect (including financial) and is something that needs to be carefully considered, especially if you have a contract that ties you to the country for several years.”
The key questions seem to be how easy is it and what are the keys to success? Do not assume being a good bartender in your home country or city will make this an easy move. As Max says “Coming from a tiny village and finding myself for the first time in a city like London? I wanted to run way after one week! “I was broke and in my hostel I didn’t have a mirror so I was shaving looking myself into a CD..I could never forget that!” But Sam makes the valid point that “It definitely took some time to fit in, but working in a bar definitely helps develop friendships with fellow staff and customers at a more advanced level, alcohol tends to fuel this.”
And the keys to success? Max (undoubdetdly the most travelled of our mixologists sums it up brilliantly)
1.Study the language you need, to work in the chosen country, or at least be familiar with the work related terms, tools, techniques, how to welcome guests.
2. Go and visit for a week or so the country you would be working, to get a feeling on whether it could be a nice place for yourself or not, and make a list beforehand of the Bars you’ld like to visit.
3. Put in your suitcase a lot of determination, self esteem, and bring your cocktail books with you! You won’t be asked only for the usual mojtos and caipirinas..
4. Get your CV’s ready and updated and professionally looking. Use Facebook, emails, Twitter and other online tools to get near to the community of Bartenders of the chosen country before going.
5. Don’t “fight” with the (drinking) culture of the country you’ll go, that’s one of the mistake I did (only) at the beginning, in the countries I worked in. You have to GET OVER that little voice in your mind that keeps telling you “these people don’t deserve me, they don’t know how to behave in a bar and how to enjoy properly made drinks”… It’s only different, and different is wonderful. Don’t judge, but experience.
6. BE HUMBLE! Humility may allow you to really connect with something larger and less tangible than differences in drinks, climate, or language.
7. Don’t lose your identity trying to be like your foreign colleagues only because they’ve been working abroad before you and (at first) they know more than you. It’s ok to take inspiration and advice as long as you keep your roots and principles and built up your own style.
But lets also take one tip from the others: Jamie advises that the key is “Work, work, work and more work. If there is any doubt on whether bartending is your life, then don’t go to a foreign country to discover that you don’t love it and do a half assed job. Also, make sure that you are going to an area that understands what you are trying to do, and that has the tools that will enable you to do what you are trying to do. You will be miserable if you find yourself in a situation where you are away from friends and family in a town that doesn’t get your concept and offers you fewer tools than from whence you came.”  Alex states that the keys are “Credibility, discipline, constancy, respect, commitment and real, meaningful purpose…as long as you don’t take yourself too seriously, smile and leave your EGO outside the door!!. Sam, in his easy going Australian manner merely states “an accent helps”…if only it was that easy!
This article was first published in MIXOLOGY Issue 4/2011.