Being a bartender is about more than crafting cocktails; it’s about creating relationships. The Richmond chapter of the United States Bartenders Guild hope to support just that.
Being a bartender is about more than crafting cocktails; it’s about creating relationships. A bartender only attains hero status when he or she connects with customers in a meaningful way. But for a career based on building relationships, being a bartender, bar manager or owner can be an isolating lifestyle. The hours, egos, and demands of the industry create distance between the people who have the most in common, and coming together for a shared purpose can be a challenge.
Mattias Hägglund, co-owner and bartender at Heritage, wants to see that change in Richmond, as do many of his peers. He’s working to establish a Richmond chapter of the United States Bartenders Guild, an organization he first encountered while working at elements in Princeton, New Jersey. Shortly after returning to Virginia, the USBG contacted Mattias: “They essentially said, ‘You were a member of our New York chapter and have experience with this, would you like to help us get a Virginia chapter going?'” Mattias recalled that, during his time in New Jersey, he would make the three-hour drive into the city several times a month to learn with and about his peers, and the experience was a pivotal one for him.
Tyler Hudgens wants to share the same experience with her colleagues in Charlottesville, where she’s Commonwealth Skybar’s principal bartender, among other roles. Prior to opening his own place in DC, Tyler’s predecessor Nick Crutchfield had been integral in moving the Virginia USBG chapter forward. Currently 10,000 miles from her life and home in Charlottesville, Hudgens is consulting on a New Orleans-inspired bar in the Singapore dining destination Duxton Hill, but she was still eager to talk about the Bartenders Guild. For her, the Guild offers the opportunity to develop professionally and personally: “The USBG fosters integrity and camaraderie throughout our industry. It gives us tools and resources to learn and hone our craft…It really does a fantastic job of encouraging all of its members to be better bartenders and human beings.”
Tyler and Mattias have spent the last two years working to bring the USBG to Virginia, having seen firsthand what the organization has to offer. Tyler credits the USBG publication Pulse with first enlightening her to the opportunities for accreditation through BarSmart and BAR. The USBG website states, “We believe tending & owning bars is an honorable career choice. Our goal is to empower bartenders to take charge of their careers.” Mattias describes the enthusiasm with which Tyler, who will head the chapter once it’s officially approved, has lead the charge in the region, saying, “She has been just an animal, driving back and forth between Richmond and Charlottesville, all over both cities, getting signatures and compiling vast amounts of information. She did an amazing amount of work.” Tyler sets the scene: “I showed up and they had no idea who I was. I was this ditzy-looking blonde girl shoving papers in their face and telling them that we had a sponsor to cover their first year of membership. All they had to do was try it out. It started slowly, but soon word spread. Now we’re over 50 strong and we aren’t even officially live yet.”
The core values of USBG; service, integrity, sharing knowledge, tradition, and camaraderie; are what make it so attractive to the bartenders that have already signed on. Danny McDermott, bar manager at Acacia, explains that the appeal, to him, is about education: “People think there’s not much to bartending; but when you get into it, it’s like baking, like being in a kitchen. It’s about trying to figure out what tastes go together, what techniques to use, what the histories behind the spirits are.” Saison bar manager Justin Ayotte agrees: “Shared knowledge and collaboration are going to be key aspects on how we grow together in the bartending world. As bartenders we all have our strengths and weaknesses in both knowledge and service.” Mattias expands on this idea, explaining, “As a bartender, you’re only as good as what you’ve been able to taste…[The USBG] really enables and empowers people to grow and network and, in doing so, really help educate and better themselves.”
Danny McDermott and craft cocktail enthusiasts like him would also love to see the guild give a collective voice to the region’s bartenders. He and his colleagues represent a niche aspect of the market that Virginia ABC has historically overlooked in favor of bigger booze dollars. Ever wonder why there are so many flavored vodkas at the ABC store? They sell to a mass audience. But the bitters and tinctures that inspire bartenders like Danny are underrepresented in the market, due to outdated regulations and corporate pandering. He sees the potential for the guild to be “an advocate for more change in VA ABC…kind of like a union.” Co-owner of Saison1 Jay Bayer echoes that sentiment, elaborating, “With any luck it will also assist us in improving antiquated ABC laws that needlessly stifle creativity and prevent rad niche spirits from making an easier entry into the state for use as creative tools…in a similar fashion to what the Brewer’s Guild was able to do for breweries.”
“Here’s the thing,” Danny explains, “[The Bartender’s Guild] is still in its nascent stage, but there are a lot of exciting things that are going to happen in the future.” He pauses and adds “Hopefully it will develop into a larger community…there’s going to be a growing process to see how we all fit together.” On her recent trips to Richmond, Tyler has seen small indications that the community is fitting together smoothly so far: “It’s been a lot of fun to watch relationships grow between bars. I was helping TRG prep for it’s media soft opening a few weeks ago, and we couldn’t find any orange blossom water. So we called our friends over at Saison, and they let us scoop up a bottle…stuff like that…Just small friendly neighborhood gestures.”
Mattias, who will be acting president until the newly-formed chapter can hold its own elections, is in the process of coordinating tastings and outings to explore both the region and the craft itself. “We’ve had a huge outpouring of support already from wineries, breweries, distilleries, these great companies that are all over VA, that would love to be able to share knowledge of their products with us.” In addition to strengthening the local community, Jay Bayer hopes that the Richmond chapter of the USBG “will assist in continuing Richmond’s ascent as a top destination for food and beverage on the national stage by endowing bartenders with established standards of technique.”
- Which has three guilded bartenders on staff as a result of their BarSmarts Advanced Live certifications, including Justin Ayotte (Co-beverage director,) Sara Kerfoot (Co-Beverage Director,) and Max Sayer. ↩