As founder member of one of the first global bar consultancies, and now with his two agencies Alconomics UK based in London and Alconomics Asia in Hong Kong, Angus has provided on-premise consultancy, profit enhancement advice and training to trend-setting outlets from Washington D.C. to Hong Kong.
Angus' current client roster is dominated by the House of Tanqueray for which he acts as Global Ambassador (and Gin Genius) but he is also a Vodka Professor, the founder of The Rum Club in the UK and Australia, one of only 120 Tequila Demi Gods worldwide, a Malt Advocate, a Travelling Mixologist and a Mixfit.
An "Ambassador at Large" for the Museum of the American Cocktail in New Orleans as well as The Chanticleer Society, Angus was a judge and presenter at the 2008-2012 Tales of the Cocktail, and now heads up the Seminar Selection Committee that effectively sets the agenda for Global Bartending. He has been also nominated as Best International Brand Ambassador at Tales of the Cocktail three years running and in 2012 won the award.
Oxford educated, Angus likes wearing bespoke suits, brightly coloured pocket squares, backgammon and flying business class. I met him at the Diageo World Class 2012 Finals at the Tanqueray Terrace overlooking the pool area of the Copacabana Hotel, Rio; a fitting place to chat to the Global Brand Ambassador for Tanqueray Gin, I thought.
MUDL: Apart from your love for and encyclopaedic knowledge of drinks, you are known for your savvy when it comes to the business side of running a bar. How did you get into that?
Angus: It all started a little over 15 years ago. Based on the back of work I was already doing for Tanqueray, I co-founded a company called the International Playboy Bartender in the UK. We ended up employing the likes of Alex Turner and Ben Reid, and we were doing a lot of celebrity parties and consultancy. But I always wanted to do more international work, so in 2004 I broke away to set up an Asian company. I was very aware of the potential growth in that part of the world, particularly China, so we set up an Alconomics company in Hong Kong, as well as in London, and began conducting very high end consultancy at places like Mandarin Oriental, Shangri La Hotels etc.
MUDL: Were you working with brands too?
Angus: Yes. One of my guys was the Belvedere Moët Hennessy Ambassador in the Asia-Pacific region and another was the Ambassador for China, and I picked up the role of Global Ambassador for Tanqueray. But we've still kept Alconomics as a going concern because it's useful to have.
MUDL: How often do you take on consultancy job in between your brand work?
Angus: I take on about one project per year. In fact I just did one three weeks in China for the Mandarin Oriental in Hainan.
"I can train a monkey how to mix drinks; I can't train it to care"
MUDL: What part of it do enjoy most?
Angus: I like the fact that it gives me opportunities to use some of the incredible things that I've seen and learned around the world in my ambassadorial role. It's a great outlet in that regard.
MUDL: So it sounds like you keep yourself quite busy! What else keeps you out of mischief?
Angus: I also do a bit of writing, contributing to various titles. I'm involved in a digital iPad magazine in association with the Slovak Bar Magazine which has been pretty well received.
MUDL: It's great that all your interests complement each other so well.
Angus: It is good because none of them get in the way of each other. I still get to bartend and do work that is not necessarily gin related. I mean I love gin, but I also love all good spirits. I just saw that gin was coming along as a trend, getting back the strong marketshare that it used to have, and it's useful to have the soapbox of Tanqueray to stand on top of.
MUDL: In your consultancy work, what are you main points of focus?
Angus: It's interesting... the most important thing in consulting is hiring the right crew. You've got to find the right people, let them know what the business is about and get them to buy into the vision. So it's vital that a bar is set up for purpose. Work with the owners and ask them what they want the venue to be so that every element of it comes together. Good drinks are important but it's really only one component.
MUDL: I suppose if people only cared about the liquor they could drink at home.
Angus: It's about a combination of the atmosphere, the service and the drink. The staff needs to be confident enough to give a good atmosphere and this is where the importance of hosting comes in. It does come from experience to a large degree, but they need to realise that giving people good service is about making them feel comfortable, welcome, important and understood. Obviously the drinks are important, but I can train a monkey how to mix drinks; I can't train it to care.
MUDL: So the key is compassion for the customer together with pride in the drink.
Angus: Let me give you an example. I recently helped open a bar in Copenhagen that was set up like a restaurant: it had a limited number of drinks on the menu that changed from time to time, and if you wanted one that wasn't listed, you couldn't have it. But the difference was that every drink was made perfectly. The first menu had a simple Screwdriver on it, but the orange juice was squeezed in front of you. We wanted to people to walk out of their saying that they'd just had the best Screwdriver/gin and tonic/Negroni they'd ever had. So we'd worked together with the owner to devise a point of difference for the venue and then got the staff to buy into the idea and execute it with care for both the drinks and the customers.
"Once your bar staff get an insight into profitability they will start acting profitably"
MUDL: How do you get the bar staff to get behind a concept?
Angus: Well I do a lot of work on helping venues maximise profitability, and I've found that transparency with one's staff can make a big difference. Show them the inner workings of the business; drill down into the profit/loss side of things and make them feel like a useful member of the team. I'll usually start by asking the owner what profit his bar made in the previous fiscal – he might say $50,000. Then I'll ask the bartenders what they think it made and they might say $1million. Then I'll say no, this is where all the money has gone: wastage, unrecorded stock, too many complimentary drinks, inaccurate pouring. Once your bar staff get an insight into profitability they will start acting profitably. Frontline staff are responsible for bottom line profit and yet we neglect to train them how to act accordingly.
MUDL: Well as you said earlier, it all comes down to getting the right people for the job.
Angus: Everyone that comes through my door looking for a job, I will interview. I might tell them that I don't have a position for them at that time, but if they're that good, I will find a job for them, even if it's at a friend's venue.
MUDL: So often you see venues spending millions on décor etc but not spending enough where they should be investing most – their workforce. This leads to a high staff turnover, inconsistent drinks and ultimately unhappy customers.
Angus: We advise that an establishment spending minimum 1% if its turnover on staff training. If your employees feel they're learning something they will feel as though they have a purpose and that they're progressing. They will also feel valued by their employer. It's another of the many aspects that need to be considered when opening a bar.
MUDL: Of the elements you've mentioned, would you consider one to be most important?
Angus: A lot of people are saying on social media that the most important thing a bartender should do is make his guests feel good. No – the most important thing a professional bartender should do is... make money! And you do this by making them come back time and time again.
"There have never before been so many technically correct and knowledgeable bartenders around, but too often you find them focussing on the drink instead of the person they are serving it to"
Angus: It's really simple, there are three things that you have to do:
Firstly, put a smile on the guest's face. Flirt with them, remember their name, make a recommendation, talk about the football... whatever makes them smile.
Secondly, optimise the sale. Get the right amount of money from the guest. Something as simple as offering a menu and pointing out the cocktail section is a great way of unobtrusively optimising the sale. Some bartenders even suggest a glass of champagne will the guest decides on a cocktail, and you'd be amazed how often the guest will go for it.
Thirdly, give guests a reason to return. Say things like, I see you enjoyed the cocktails and we've got some great new spirits coming in next week. If you notice them enjoying the music, mention that a live band plays on Fridays. Introduce yourself – my name's Angus and I work every Wednesday and Sunday night, come back and see me. If a venue owner can get his staff to do these three things it will hugely impact his bar takings for the better. There have never before been so many technically correct and knowledgeable bartenders around, but too often you find them focussing on the drink instead of the person they are serving it to.
By Grant McDonald