New distilleries have a tougher road with consumers than local breweries. Try a hazy new double IPA and hate it? You’re probably out less than $10.
Distilleries, though, need allies. They need bartenders to mix and pour and stump for their botanical gin or baby bourbon.
That’s where organizations like the United States Bartenders Guild come in. In a sign of how much the cocktail community has grown here over the past few years, Madison now has its own chapter with 78 members.
Some 15 Madison bartenders broke off from the Milwaukee chapter to start this new local branch. All told, USBG Madison has ties to 30 Madison area bars and restaurants.
“Over the last couple of years, Madison has really come together as a bartending community,” said Tom Dufek, a founding member of the Madison chapter and director of beverage and operations at Lucille and Merchant.
Bartenders can “influence what happens in the Madison market because we’re this collective group of people,” Dufek said.
Trade organizations offer power in numbers, both for liquor brands and the bartender-members themselves. USBG Madison will be its own nonprofit, allowing members to collaborate on charity events, start health and wellness initiatives and possibly even provide insurance.
“Bartenders aren’t known for taking the best care of themselves with their health and (finances),” said Thor Messer, USBG Madison’s first president. “The guild can help with that.”
Messer, a member of USBG Milwaukee for four years, was among several local bartenders who saw value in forming a USBG chapter in Madison.
Some benefits were an easy sell: Study tequila online for a few hours with the Patrón Aficianados program, and you’re eligible to get a free trip to Mexico for three days.
In July 2016, Dufek and Messer got a trip to Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans when they were named finalists in a USBG Monkey Shoulder blended whiskey competition. USBG paid for their flights, hotels and spending money.
“I’ve had ton of additional opportunities because of the guild,” Messer said. “It unites the bar industry to be able to focus.
“As a large group like this means if brands want to throw a competition or a party or a beer/wine dinner, they don’t have to talk to everyone individually.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the newly elected leadership of USBG Madison has strong ties to Madison's flagship cocktail bar, Merchant.
Messer is the bar manager at Merchant. Vice president Mike McDonald is bar manager of Field Table and a former USBG Milwaukee president, secretary Preston Brown works at Lucille and treasurer Ryan Williams tends bar at both Lucille and Merchant.
“It’s a trade organization built around empowering bartenders,” Dufek said. “It’s a way to make our voices heard.”
Madison’s bar and restaurant scene has been interconnected to some degree for years. Recent events like Madison Cocktail Week (coming again this year on Oct. 10-15) have brought the group even closer together.
This weekend, three members of USBG Madison — Mariah Renz, Messer and Williams — will be manning cocktail carts at Distill America, a celebration of domestic distilling on Saturday, Feb. 18 at the Edgewater.
“We’re coalescing a lot more than we ever were,” Dufek said. “It’s really anybody who’s interested in elevating the craft of bartending. It’s not just cocktails.”
Membership costs $125 annually. Dufek said Madison’s chapter is largely 20- and 30-somethings. Though the majority work behind a bar, membership is open to brand representatives and distillery owners like Death’s Door’s Brian Ellison.
Having a local USBG chapter means that bartenders can work together to address concerns about gender equity, health insurance and alcoholism and/or substance abuse.
“A lot of bartenders don’t have health insurance or are under-insured,” Dufek said. “We’re also talking about bartender education.
“So yeah, let’s learn about whiskey, but it’s also how do you be a sober bartender? How do you save the money you bring in in cash tips every night so you’re not living paycheck to paycheck?”
Solidarity, too, counts for something. There’s a lot of turnover and attrition in the bar and restaurant industry, especially in Madison where many employees are also university students.
“There are people out there who love bartending and reconciling how you do that as a career with the realities of being behind the bar at 35 or 40 — it’s hard,” Dufek said. “There’s absolutely people who are out there that do it and are successful at it, so this group is a way to tackle some of those issues.
“What can we do as a collective to make it better?”
Messer said the goal is to participate in or host two charitable events in 2017 and eventually produce four fundraisers each year.
“Volunteer work is a huge part of the guild,” Messer said, mentioning possible collaborations with Clean Lakes Alliance.
Diners may begin to see more collaborative events, and perhaps new spirits brought in by the increased buying power of a bartenders’ group.
“That’s something bartenders don’t typically think of,” Dufek said. “There’s so much momentum behind cocktails and the spirits industry.
“I think a lot of bartenders don’t necessarily realize the power they hold. We have the ability to influence things.”
That Madison has enough serious bartenders to create its own USBG chapter is a sign not only of a growing spirits and beer culture, but also an indicator that workers’ health and well-being is a priority.
“People think of bartending as something you do over summers in college, and obviously that’s changed a lot over the past five, ten years,” Dufek said. “The bartending community needs to mature and figure out how to tackle these more pressing issues.”