One of these bartenders, Samuel Boulton, author of ‘The Vermouth Ambassadors Guide to Modern Drinking’, who also opened the UK’s first ‘Cocktail Bar & Meadery’, explains how he has made his reputation from celebrating and showcasing the lesser-known parts of our industry.
For some people, crafting a niche it isn’t important but for me, it’s a tool I’ve successfully used to grow and sustain my career. If you want to stay in venue, work up to area managers position, then maybe you’re already on the right track and some of this may not apply. Personally, I couldn’t have done that forever; I’m getting older, my back hurts, I can’t deal with customers like I used to and I want to be in bed before 1am!
Over time, my passions have changed, and I realised I want to write, talk and educate - so crafting a niche helped put my career in a new direction, and importantly, a new income source! Remember, your niche needs to be what you enjoy - I’m a firm believer in do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life again. It can be anything; if you love a certain type of alcohol, make it your thing; if you want to work in mental health or wellness, do it; love Minecraft, so do loads of other bartenders - hell, there is a guy on TikTok who just makes Korean Cheong (Oleo Sacrum) for a living!
3. TEACH AND TRAIN
Being the expert of a subject takes time, but to really hold the flag for a niche, you need to teach, train and share your knowledge. When I started out in vermouth, I started by introducing friends to the category - I did a specials menu at the bar I worked in and made sure to get a fun and friendly crowd in to share my expertise and flex my teaching muscles. I ended up hosting a regular ‘Vermouth & Cheese’ night for another venue and slowly, after each event, I became the go-to guy for anyone looking to expand their knowledge on the subject.
Over time, my passions have changed, and I realised I want to write, talk and educate - so crafting a niche helped put my career in a new direction, and importantly, a new income source!
You can do this in many ways but I found it works best when you have that interactive element to make it more engaging; if you’re into rum, then host a live session where everyone can touch, smell and taste the drink in front of them; if you want to work in Wellness, arrange hike to a local nature spot and express yourself through active learning and the power of shared experience. Get creative with it, and if you want to do something then don’t be scared to figure it out as you go - your passion will shine through.
4. WALK THE WALK
This is a big one, and admittedly not doable for everyone but by walk the walk, I mean, go and represent whatever you are talking about. For me in vermouth, mead, and sake, this meant travelling to visit the producers and making real connections with both the products and the people. Whilst this may not always be financially or logistically possible, there are many ways in which you can cut time and costs; organise a blind tasting at your bar and ask for samples; spend time on the phone to producers, asking questions, learning and understanding them and their journey; join talks/online conferences related to your topic of interest, and if they don’t exist maybe you can organise them yourself with the right people (see below).
5. DO THE THING THAT IS MISSING
Doing the thing which is missing can be very subjective, eg. when I began exploring mead and shochu, most people had no idea what it really was, so I wrote articles, posted about it online and began to lead classes helping to build that knowledge base. In vermouth 10 years ago it was clear most people knew what it was, but didn’t know how it was made or what to do with it (outside of classic cocktails) so I wrote a book, focusing on these specific topics.
I’m not saying writing a book is for everyone – you could start a conversation about mental health in the industry via a podcast; you could develop a community on your social media channels dedicated to exploring rare spirits; perhaps you want to arrange a meet-up with other bartenders who share the same hobbies, eg skateboarding - all the cool bartenders seem to skate?!
This should go without saying, but knowing your stuff is more important than ever. I don’t mean just read a book or listen to a podcast - I mean, read ALL the books, and listen to ALL the podcasts.
Ultimately, crafting a niche can change your career, and the key is to figure out what you want to do and do it. Stick with it and move with it over time. There is always going to be hurdles to overcome, but if you’re serious and care, it can change your career from a bartender to …
Sam Boulton is now focused on exploring the world of native Japanese alcohols like sake, shochu and awamori through his company, Kokushu Creative, which helps brands and bars refine and communicate their product range to their customers.