Ali joined Moët Hennessy in January 2011 as Global Brand Ambassador for Belvedere Vodka after beating thousands of contestants in the "Bartender's Dream Job Search" competition which Belvedere ran on their Facebook page. She is now responsible for representing Belvedere on an international level, educating bartenders all around the world and promoting the brand's various products.
A travel enthusiast, Ali has seen much of Europe as well as parts of Asia and the Middle East. She is also multi-lingual, speaking Spanish, Italian, and Russian, and hopes to learn French soon.
MUDL: Hi Ali, thanks for taking the time to chat to us. Let's start right at the beginning – how did you find yourself working in the cocktail industry.
Ali: Well, I'm originally from Baltimore but I studied at the University of New York. So there I was; a student in the big city looking to pay my way through school, if you'll pardon the cliché, so I got into cocktail waitressing.
MUDL: I suppose that's a good way to make some cash, considering New York's lucrative cocktail scene. So what made you make the transition to bartending?
Ali: After watching bartenders making drinks for a while, I noticed that more money was being made behind the bar than in front of it; you're always going to make more money making the drinks than serving them...
MUDL: Not necessarily in South Africa!
Ali: Really?!? I guess that does depend on whether it's a bar or a club; club waitresses will always make more than club bartenders, whereas in a bar the bartender will take home more than the cocktail waitress.
MUDL: Hmmm, I'm still not sure that rings true for SA, but it's interesting to see how the rest of the world works.
Ali: In the States you don't make much of a basic, so you need to be quite protective over your tips otherwise you'll make no money. So you'll usually find that bartenders will ask you to close your tab before moving to a table.
MUDL: So soon after you started cocktail waitressing you made the move?
Ali: Yes. I decided there was more money to be made as a bartender, and I was lucky enough to land a job at a pretty sketchy dive bar in the East Village of Manhattan. It wasn't anything fancy, but you've got to start somewhere! It was mainly beers, simple cocktails and spirit mixers... simple stuff.
MUDL: So that's where you cut your teeth. What was it called?
Ali: It was called Odessa. And when I say it's a dive bar, please don't get me wrong, it's an amazing place to hang out. But you wouldn't go there looking for anything other than a beer or a shot!
MUDL: There's a lot to be said for dive bars!
Ali: Yeah, they're great fun. So I moved from there cocktail bars, restaurants, working my way up and learning the art of mixing drinks. And at first it was just a job to make money, but I started to enjoy it so much that I continued to tend bar even after graduating.
MUDL: Was there a definitive moment or event that first got you passionate about cocktail-making?
Ali: Not really, my appreciation grew gradually, the more I learned. And as I got better, I got opportunities to help create cocktail menus to do other fun stuff. Then as I got positive feedback from the drinks I put together, my confidence grew, as did my desire to improve. I remember working at a restaurant bar and learning a lot as a result of having access to a chef who had an inherent understanding of flavour pairings.
MUDL: I bet it also helped having access to his kitchen!
Ali: Exactly! They would order in different produce from day to day – sometimes stuff you'd never have thought to mix into a drink – so that was sometimes a great inspiration.
MUDL: Then along came the Belvedere opportunity!
Ali: I'd been working bar for about 8 years and I'd loved it, but then one day I came across this Belvedere competition on Facebook. They were looking for a global brand ambassador and they wanted to go about it in an unconventional way, so they launched a global search that would drum up interest.
MUDL: Was it open to anyone?
Ali: Yes. You didn't have to be a bartender to enter, although most people were. Although it's a bonus that I know how to mix cocktails, most of my job entails brand education and product awareness. At least I'm awake during the day now! [laughs]
MUDL: So talk us through the competition process and your entry in particular.
Ali: It was more like a long job interview process, really. First I had to submit a 1min video in which I had to express my passion for the brand...
MUDL: Wait, I think I've seen that clip... the one of you reclining in a bath of Belvedere Vodka...?
Ali: [Smiles wryly] Yes that's the one! I didn't just want to stand there for a minute with a bottle in my hand, saying Ï love Belvedere because..." so I came up with this idea and asked a friend who'd studied to be a film director to help me shoot it. And the concept was essentially: what's more luxurious than taking a bubble bath in Belvedere?!
"...too many bartenders place too much emphasis on this at the expense of efficiency and fun. We're not saving lives here people, we're selling a good time!"
MUDL: What I liked about it was that it was fun, and I think that a lot of people lose sight of the fact that drinking quality spirit is supposed to be fun.
Ali: I agree. I would never knock those mixologists that take their craft very seriously, but at the end of the day, the bartenders that I like to visit are the ones that are good conversation, make a good drink, and make it fast! I don't sit at your bar to watch you spend 20min on my cocktail. I appreciate that patrons want to enjoy the theatre of cocktail-making, but too many bartenders place too much emphasis on this at the expense of efficiency and fun. We're not saving lives here people, we're selling a good time!
MUDL: Sharing banter with your customers while making good drinks is what keep them coming back.
Ali: It's funny, some people tell me I won my job in a drinks competition. If that was the nature of the competition I would never have won because, although I think I'm a good bartender, I would never claim to have been the best that entered. But what I do bring to the table is that element of fun.
MUDL: So you got the job and they said – move to London. How did you feel about that?
Ali: Well I left within 2 months of winning the competition, and at first I was really excited. Initially it was supposed to be only a 3 month stint but I ended up staying because London is so central.
MUDL: And you're happy there?
Ali: Yeah, very happy. I've made London my home. I do miss New York – I spent a lot of time there and made many friends – but aside from the terrible weather in London and the fact that a lot of the venues shut quite early, I'm very happy.
"...[New Yorkers] tend to become bartenders more for commercial reasons, whereas I've found that in London they are more inclined to tend bar for the love of it. This is obviously a gross generalisation and I've seen many exceptions..."
MUDL: You've obviously got a great insight into both New York and London, two of the world's biggest cocktail hubs. How do the scenes differ between the two?
Ali: They are the two most highly-regarded cocktail cities; the rest of the world tends to follow the trends they set. In terms of style, there is a very big difference, and I think this is down to the different tipping cultures. In New York people will actively pursue a career behind a bar because it's a respected profession in which top mixologists can go on to open their own venues and make a lot of money. For this reason people tend to become bartenders more for commercial reasons, whereas I've found that in London they are more inclined to tend bar for the love of it. This is obviously a gross generalisation and I've seen many exceptions to this observation.
MUDL: Where might I go to get a well-served Belvedere cocktail in both cities?
Ali: I really like hotel bars. I love people-watching and a lot off patrons tend to walk in and out of these types of bars. So if you want an amazing Martini experience in London you can always go to the Connaught Bar. They have a Martini trolley which they wheel right up to your table where a bartender will mix up your drink right in front of you, just as you like it. In London's Soho I also really like the Dean St Townhouse; they also do a great Belvedere Martini.
MUDL: And in New York?
Ali: In New York there has been a recent tendency to steer clear of vodka, or for bars to stock only one brand, because of the perception that all vodka tastes the same. Also, because there are so many new brands hitting the market every day, there's this feeling that any Tom, Dick or Harry can launch a vodka. So it's has been discredited by these fly-by-night brands, and it's the challenge we're embracing at Belvedere to get bartenders to take vodka seriously again as a spirit with real heritage and substance.
MUDL: How has the boom in flavoured vodka affected the market?
Ali: That's big trend in the States too, but examples of the flavours coming out are peanut butter and jelly, whipped cream, birthday cake...
MUDL: Do you think that's good or bad for super premium vodkas?
Ali: I think it's terrible, but that being said, we do have to be aware of who is drinking vodka, and where the demand lies. But quite frankly, these confectionary, sweet, child-like flavours are quite irresponsible, in my opinion. Because let's be honest, who is walking into a bar and ordering cotton candy vodka? So the Belvedere brands needs to look at ways of being creative and playing in the flavoured vodka arena without compromising our commitment to social responsibility.