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.
By + More

[WATCH: Top U.S. News Videos]

"Three or four generations back, it would be very common to walk into a bar and expect that the bartender be able to do more than pop a beer," he says. That interest in the perfect martini or old-fashioned disappeared in the 1960s and 70s, he says, as cocktails became an "old man's drink," but is now coming back.

"Along with the rise of culinary awareness in the U.S., we're seeing a resurgence of making sure the drinks match it," he says.

Still, there are plenty of other factors at work. Cicero points out that the fast growth in American craft spirits both feeds and feeds off of restaurants' increasingly complex drink offerings. For his part, Gadsby thinks the increased attention to drinks is also a function of the Great Recession. There is scientific evidence that economic downturns – and, specifically, the recent recession – boosted people's drinking. Restaurants may have simply capitalized upon that increased appetite for liquor.

Though bringing in a specialist may sound like a recipe for an insufferably hip atmosphere and unnecessarily complicated drinks, people in the industry maintain that getting a consultant can greatly improve a business' profits by making a high-margin area of the business even more high-margin. Drinks are already in many ways more cost-effective to serve than food because meals require more manpower to prepare and serve than a drink – not to mention the fact that while food spoils, liquor doesn't go bad.

"It's sort of common knowledge that the bar is where the profit is made in a lot of restaurants so if you are going to hire a consultant, it makes sense to hire one in that area as opposed to in service," says Smith.

Making sure a bartender knows her blended scotch from her single-malts, for example, can be a way to boost sales, says Van Flandern. Training a bartender well means "they can give informed, intelligent reasons why a customer might like a premium spirit."

"These people have the expertise and the knowledge to upsell to guests," he says.

[OPINION: The Folly of the Drinking Age]

In addition, making a better drink sometimes means using less of those expensive liquors. Van Flandern says using less alcohol is a "natural by-product" of making a better-tasting cocktail.

"Historically, bartenders over-pour or make it extra sweet" to please patrons looking for something super-strong, whether in terms of flavor or alcohol content, says Van Flandern. But if a bartender can make a customer a more delicious, well-balanced margarita using a smaller amount of high-end tequila, he can likely sell two of those more expensive drinks instead of one, more than doubling his profits on that particular drinker.

In return for those efforts, consultants can be paid very handsomely, though fees vary depending on the person, their services, whether they do it full-time, and how much business they get. According to Smith, a consultant will often work at a restaurant for three to five months, at the same pay rate as a restaurant general manager, which he pegs at around $60,000 to $100,000. Spangler says the fees for individual services can also vary widely. Though he declines to say how much he is paid, he says menu design and creation can fetch anywhere from $150 to several hundred dollars for most consultants. A more full-service consultant, however, can pull in well over $20,000 a year if it's a side job, and he estimates full-time consulting can mean anything from $50,000 to more than $200,000 annually.

[SEE: America's Top 10 Alcohol-Drinking Cities]

Because the ability to craft well-made drinks is in such high demand, the labor market for top-shelf bartenders and consultants is remarkably fluid, explains Smith. The best bartenders can moonlight on the side or get full-time consulting offers regularly, and a bar that is pleased enough with a consultant might likewise decide to simply hire her on as head bartender. Though the population of consultants is growing, he says it's impossible to know how many there are.