Bulldog On the Road
All photos by Blake Jones. It started with a gin and tonic.
A Bulldog Gin and tonic, if we’re being precise, and it definitely wasn’t just one between John Henderson and Anthony Pullen in spring 2016. The East Coast Brand Ambassador and Trade Advocacy Manager weren’t meant to be having a brainstorming session, and yet ideas were certainly forming.
It was just about the time that those in the brand world start planning ahead for the annual pilgrimage to New Orleans for Tales of the Cocktail, figuring out activations in their various forms, looking for venues, and confirming budgets. After a decade of lavish parties, chilled lounges, awesome swag, how does a brand try to differentiate and make an impact? Henderson and Pullen started by expanding the scope for ideas - what about something the week before? For many people, Tales itself is akin to New Year Eve or or Thanksgiving, a chance to see friends and family from across the globe for a week. The week before, however is one big lesson in anticipation where most take to social media with eager messages of almost time/so excited/can’t wait/etc.
What if, they thought, they could send Boomerangs from city to city with Bulldog Gin as the base and sponsor? A liquid high-five that would encourage the feeling of excitement that was already building. This was, unsurprisingly, quickly shot down by Campari USA’s legal department. From there they thought, what if they flew a bartender to another city for a guest shift, making the person the thing that travels, not the alcohol. Quickly they realized that wasn’t the most feasible idea either.
Then, Henderson and Pullen had an idea that stuck: “Several Bulldog and tonics later,” explained Henderson, “we decided that if we could figure out how to rent a rock tour bus, we could drive it through different markets, throwing parties and picking up bartenders on the way, we would have something pretty close to what we were envisioning. Then we shot for the moon and came up with the biggest and most ridiculous tour route possible.”
Somehow Campari USA signed off on the idea and a gaggle of nine bartenders from across the US - most of whom were essentially strangers- were invited along, aiming to throw six pop ups in 7 days, all the while living on a tour bus. Needless to say, this was certainly a learning experience.
On the bus there was:
-Danny Neff, Holiday Cocktail Lounge (New York, NY)
-Trevor Fry, Marble Alley (Washington, DC)
-Matt Graham, Herbs & Rye (Las Vegas, NV)
-Keli Rivers, Whitechapel (San Francisco, CA)
-Clint Spotleson, Counter Intuitive (Phoenix, AZ)
-Catherine Manning, Fringe (Philadelphia, PA)
-John Tate, The Honey Pot (Winston-Salem, NC)
-Blake Jones, The Courtesy Bar (Orlando, FL)
-James “Beard” Kohler, Saison (Richmond, VA)
Boarding the bus, everyone knew there would be challenges; there was a serious risk of personality clashes, putting so many type-A people who didn’t really know each other in a small space for an extended period of time. Luckily for everyone involved, the group completely bonded, turning into a not-particularly-dysfunctional family.
Pullen kept waiting for the other shoe to drop: “Everything was going too well as a group. I started to get a little paranoid because you know the saying "if you don't know who the dickhead in the group is, it is probably you." I was worried I was that guy.” Thankfully that was not the case.
More then Dots on a Map
“The bar industry is very interconnected, and fairly tight knit,” explained Henderson. “Given that nature, it seemed kind of magical to actually draw lines between all these people and their respective markets. In this case, lines on a map and with those lines being drawn, people could follow along with the journey and help build the hype.”
Part of what Henderson and Pullen wanted to achieve while embarking on this crazy adventure was to see what the local individual markets were doing on their own, regardless of activations or brand support. By giving a fair bit of freedom to the host bars, they allowed everyone involved to witness firsthand the cultural differences within the industry across the path of the tour.
“The venues and contacts in each market were all very excited about the tour and went above and beyond to accommodate,” said Henderson. “My main concern was making sure each market was shown the best time possible, within the bounds of their own style. Every market is different, and we wanted to expose everyone to the brand without stuffing a foreign concept down their throats. A gin bus is already foreign enough.“
Creativity and Success within a State of Control
Granted all cities have their own unique personality, that’s part of what makes traveling so interesting, but some of the bartenders hadn’t really thought about the specific region they would be traveling through. Collectively called The South, several states still operate strict state or country alcohol restrictions. In New York and San Francisco, for example, most bartenders take for granted that bars don’t have to sell food and can acquire almost any product they want. This kind of open creative alcoholic freedom is the stuff of dreams to some of the control states visits.
When the Bulldog bus first rolled into Richmond, Virginia, there was a bit of time that allowed the crew to go visiting some of the local bars. The first surprise came as they stopped by Saison, the bar they would be taking over later that evening. Although most of the Ginvasion crew assumed they would be taking over a “bar,” Saison is very much a restaurant at heart with fantastic food and a beautiful dining room. It was explained to them that Virginia law states that 30% of all sales have to come from food. James “Beard” Kohler, who also runs the bar program at Saison explained that they were incredibly lucky that they had an attached little store whose sales went towards their food sales percentage, allowing them to focus more on their drinks.
With a bit of time before their event was to start, the visiting bartenders took off to explore. Despite the restrictions of being a control state, the Richmond hospitality and bar scene was flourishing, with creative drinks, imaginative menus and a high level of service unexpected in such a small city. Word was already out about the tour, in no small part to the local support of one of their own, and everyone was welcomed with open arms. When the Bulldog crew took over the little Saison bar, the city turned out to support with many of the previously visited bartenders coming in to return the favor. Beyond just the local bartenders, Saison regulars come in as well, many with happily confused faces at the abrupt change of expectations, which quickly turned into high fives and smiling orders of a product they were not entirely used to.
Stop 5 on the tour was Asheville, North Carolina, a town that has been gathering steam within the food and drink world. Although in a control state, it has over 100 local breweries plus three James Beard nominations in 2016, creating a larger local awareness towards the entire industry. It also has laws in place regarding the percentage of sales that are required to be food vs alcohol similar to Virginia, however they have a handy loop hole: when an establishment knew it was going to have a higher liquor percentage, it can operate as a Members Club. Once money has exchanged hands for membership -this can be any amount and can go towards your first drink in some cases. Therefore, patrons can drink in peace while the establishment is safe within the law.
The Bulldog Gin pop-up was held at Cucina 24 where Brian Canipelli was nominated for Best Chef: Southeast. Although traditionally an Italian restaurant, once a month they shed their original flavor and go for more of a tropical vibe with a special Tiki night which always draws in a large following. Luckily for the Bulldog Crew, that happened to be the night they rolled into town.
To say it was a success is an understatement. Even though Cucina 24 had to specially request to get in a few cases of Bulldog Gin from the state ABC, a product that had previously been unavailable, guests seemed to love it. The local team assured them that they had plenty prepped, and that they would be good for the night, however in a town where most of the tourism comes to try their food and drinks, locals flocked to the visiting bartenders, drinking all the product before the night was finished. Since the event, there have been several bars in other North Carolina cities that have started adding Bulldog Gin to their back bar and menus.
When the Bulldog Ginvasion bus rolled down Royal street during TOTC founder Ann Tuennerman's opening speech and the touring bartenders were introduced to the crowd, it was a feeling of accomplishment. Friends and loved ones met them wanting to hear stories from the road and the new places they had been, and they had more then a few tales to tell. They had all made new friends, and experienced parts of the country they probably wouldn’t have otherwise, opening their eyes to other ways of bartending, which will stay with them and influence their careers. Since everyone has returned to their respective home cities, the entire group has stayed in touch, both with the other Ginvators as well as new friends from the visited markets and, at its core, that is exactly the intended result.