The Rise of the 'Beverage Mercenary'

Some of today's most successful consultants are mixologists, not MBAs.

Robert Gadsby, Chad Spangler, and sommelier Andrew Stover taste test 24 American wines for use at Gadsby’s American Grill on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2013, in Columbia, Md.
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Anyone who doesn't want their kids to grow up to be bartenders should talk to Chad Spangler.

"This is an actual career path," says the 24-year-old Washington, D.C., resident, with genuine passion in his voice, as he recalls a speaker at a 2011 graduation ceremony at his alma mater, George Washington University. "The speaker got on and said, 'Every parent's nightmare is to hear, 'Hey, Mom and Dad, I graduated school. I'm going to be a bartender.' And it's really not like that anymore."

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That anecdote sticks with him because at the time he was already well on his way to a highly successful bartending career. In 2012, the Washington Post's daily commuter tabloid, Express, voted him Washington's best bartender, and this year, GQ named him one of America's best bartenders. Now, he has jumped into the field of bartending consulting, hoping to spread his love of sophisticated cocktails to restaurants nationwide.

Bartending consulting is not just new to Spangler; it's a field still in its infancy. Though there are no reliable numbers available on this very specific consulting niche, restaurant industry insiders agree that they're seeing the field grow rapidly as restaurants place greater scrutiny on their cocktail offerings.

"It's an emerging occupation," explains Brian Van Flandern, founder of New York-based Creative Cocktail Consultants. "It didn't even exist 10 years ago."

Van Flandern is in the stratosphere of celebrity bartenders, having been named a Michelin Three-Star mixologist as well as "America's top mixologist" by the Food Network. He considers himself a "pioneer" of bartending consulting, and after decades behind the bar, he now travels to top restaurants worldwide to give them advice on how to improve their drink service. In helping a restaurant to up its bar game, he says, a consultant can take on a range of activities, including revamping cocktail menus, testing new spirits, choosing beers and wines, choosing glassware, and training bartenders.

"I think there's been a general upgrade across the board" in drink service, says Providence Cicero, chair of the James Beard Foundation's Restaurant and Chef Awards Committee and restaurant critic at the Seattle Times. "I think when new restaurants open, they are working on their bar menus and drinks menus, they're giving it the same careful attention that they give their food menu."

At some restaurants, paying that attention can result in decidedly avant-garde beverages. Cicero tells of a drink whose glass arrived in a small paper bag filled with lavender-scented air. The recipient also received a small pair of scissors to cut open the bag and retrieve the drink.

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Spangler's menu doesn't quite reach those full-sensory experience levels, but between rethinking Sazeracs and Manhattans, he's already remarkably busy. He is one of three men who make up restaurant consulting firm GLP Consultants, and estimates that he spends 100 hours a week at the Columbia, Md., restaurant that GLP is redoing. The restaurant, Gadsby's American Grill, is their first venture as a firm, and bears the name of Spangler's fellow consultant and business partner, Chef Robert Gadsby, though they plan to do more independent work in the future.

On Spangler's to-do list on a chilly December Thursday is to brief the servers on the day's reservations, do a tasting of 24 wines from around the U.S., help the staff through the lunch rush, and do what he calls 'R&D' on a drink that involves making gelled olive oil balls. However, that may have to wait until the weekend, when he is also scheduled to retest two bartenders who failed the last test he administered (Sample questions: "Are all Rieslings sweet?" "What is terroir?").

His efforts have entirely changed how bartender Mike Stecker, does his job. Stecker worked at Gadsby's before GLP transformed it. 

"I took everything I knew about bartending, and I trashed it," Stecker says.

The rise of the bartending consultant is a function of the return of cocktail culture, says Aaron Gregory Smith, executive director of the U.S. Bartenders Guild.