In his mid-Pacific accent, Australian mixologist Callan Green describes Laird’s Straight Applejack 86 to patrons at a Bangkok bar, outlining the brand’s history and what makes it unique.
As he talks, his tattooed hands dance over the ingredients for a Jack Rose, the signature applejack cocktail. While measuring out the spirit, lime juice and grenadine, he describes in glorious detail how the drink was made famous by Ernest Hemingway in his 1926 classic, The Sun Also Rises.
Since May, Green has been Asia brand ambassador for Laird and Company, the New Jersey distillery that was born in 1780. When he took the gig, he became part of a growing tribe of fresh-faced and heartbreakingly fashionable reps employed by international liquor companies.
Their role is to introduce their patrons’ products to the region’s burgeoning middle-class market as Southeast Asian consumers look to spend their growing wealth on speciality drinks. They must also prove to bar managers that their brand will be in demand.
Elevating the beverage scene
In Singapore, Ricky Paiva, a veteran bartender and until recently a regional ambassador for Bacardi, prepares for a raft of bar openings. After 16 years in the profession, mixed with a couple of years in his ambassadorial role, he has become one of the biggest names on the island’s spirits scene. Most recently, the American was headhunted by Six Senses Duxton to launch and run its three new bars. He expects them to regularly host guest bartenders in town to promote their spirits.
“I have seen brand ambassadors coming around in America over the years—people passionate about the spirits they represent and passionate about the mixology itself, and then turning what they do into an art,” he said. “And now they have come into Asia.”
International drinks marketeers have been gaining increasing interest in Southeast Asia, beyond the established markets of Singapore and Hong Kong. Cities like Kuala Lumpur and Penang in Malaysia, Saigon and Bangkok have been growing bigger in their sights as consumers move away from mainstream and “plastic-bottle” spirits in favour of fancy names.
"People around the world have been watching what’s being done here, and sending brand ambassadors is exponentially starting to elevate the beverage scene that we have. There’s so much more stuff available compared to five years ago, and heavy representation by individuals with skills specific to one particular brand—to have someone come here and help train and teach the community about it is absolutely on point,” Paiva explained.
Ambassadors typically work guest shifts that are promoted by bars in advance. Sometimes they will demo a cocktail menu featuring their brand; other times they will conduct familiarisation sessions to educate customers about how to get the best from a spirit.
“Take tequila for example,” continued Paiva. “It hasn’t got the best reputation round here, so it’s the job of a brand ambassador to teach you not only how best to drink it but how it’s made, and how the artisanal side comes into it to make a better spirit.
“Brands are learning more, their technology is better and they are crafting finer spirits made for mixing, so it’s the job of a brand ambassador to educate about what makes a brand so special, to open the minds of customers and also the local bartenders.”
Green is about to travel to Hong Kong to spread the Applejack message to bar owners and drinks executives at a trade show there. He says that a brand’s heritage is important in the more developed Asian markets like Hong Kong.
“You find that brands that don’t have as much history as Laird’s Applejack end up maybe regurgitating the same story again and again. While that’s good for consumers, who can learn fairly quickly, people in the trade will know they’ve heard all this before.
“So we are able to tell so many stories from the long history of the Laird family. Keeping things fresh is very important.”
Though he will be joined by Lisa Laird-Dunn, a vice-president of the family-owned business and its global brand ambassador, Green says he is given plenty of leeway to devise programmes to promote Applejack on his turf. He was chosen for the role after running bars in Malaysia and managing a spirits importer in Kuala Lumpur.
“I have a fair amount of autonomy. I have a knowledge of spirit brands in Asia, so the brand is happy to let me move,” he said. “But obviously I work very closely with Lisa, who being from the Laird family knows everything about the brand. So I guess we work together on specific content, and I will suggest strategies. It’s good to have a multi-pronged approach.
“I get different reactions from different markets,” he continued. “The first time I went to Thailand to do a shift there, the response was just massive. Not only was the venue absolutely packed, there were a 100 people queuing up at the door and someone had brought a television camera.
“This is the case in markets like Thailand and to some extent Malaysia, which are reasonably sized. But for the smaller markets like Cambodia, there isn’t the same interest and sophistication yet, so my job is to develop this,” Green added.
Learning new things
Paiva believes there is now a fantastic opportunity for brand ambassadors to open up these smaller markets, especially as regional centres like Seoul, Singapore and Hong Kong have now become beacons within the industry where maybe 15 years ago the focus was on more distant cities like San Francisco, New York and London.
Many of the newer, up-and-coming bars in Southeast Asia are becoming more focused on developing brand relationships, wanting to work more with them and their ambassadors. Paiva believes that as the cities grow and new bars are opened, these reps will help facilitate further growth for the spirits industry.
“Singapore started it in Southeast Asia, now we are seeing KL [Kuala Lumpur] and Bangkok grow in the cocktail scene. It’s a ripple effect. As KL is growing, Penang has started to grow, and you will absolutely start seeing places like Myanmar following,” Paiva said.
He names figures like Jen Queen in Yangon, who has been "doing wonderful things with her beverage programme, and it can only open up more”. He also endorses the Elbow Room Le Boutier bars in Phnom Penh, which he says have been strong in promoting premium brands.
“And it is growing from the major cities into the smaller ones. These bars are adding their communities and local ingredients into the mix,” he added.
Bar managers are increasingly open to welcoming guest bartenders, says Paiva, and rely on brands to supply them. By bringing in people from other parts of the world, such as celebrity bartender and Becherovka ambassador George Nemec from Australia, bars get to see how things are done in other countries.
“I always love to entertain guest bartenders,” he added. “It’s another tool we can use to help us grow, by talking to them. As a former brand ambassador, I used to love getting the opportunity to do all this stuff, to watch and see the local community grow as they learn new things.”