Getting on the list

John McDonnell, managing director, international, at Tito’s Handmade Vodka, has a similar challenge. “We are not in the business of paying to play,” he says. “I can’t compete with the money of the major players. “If a bar owner feels passionately about his spirits he will not be told what to stock. We focus on the quality of Tito’s and the story behind it. I only incentivise my distributors to run tastings and food pairings.”

But if a brand can win hearts with its liquid and heads with incentives, it has surely cracked it. The cheque book is the easiest option – and is well-fingered by big brands, though they don’t like to talk about the exact numbers – but there are also more creative ways of currying favour. 

Ketel One has a different approach at the top end bars to those lower down the ladder. “There are bars that require listing fees and those that allow us to be more creative,” says Sheyan Patel, global commercial manager of the Diageo/Nolet family-owned brand. 

The thinking is that bars, such as those in the World’s 50 Best Bars list, are more about passion than paper – and crucially need to be known for being so. “They are trendsetters so we try to build long-term personal relationships through our Fraternity Programme,” says Patel. 

“We focus on taste tests but also offer programmes. One is a stand-up comedy course. You might ask ‘what’s the relevance?’ but we are giving them the skills to present. We also offer training programmes that help bartenders run their business, such as courses on profit and loss.”

It seems to be working. In DI’s World’s 50 Best Bars Brands Report, Ketel One was the best-selling vodka in 2013, with Grey Goose second. The Bacardi-owned brand, though, did finish top of our Trending list, so it has clearly kept hold of its cool since exploding on to the scene 15 years ago. 

Like Ketel One and many other big brands, the Goose is no stranger to listing fees. The brand’s global brand ambassador Joe McCanta points out, though, that rules on incentives differ from country to country. “In the US listing fees are illegal – either to pay flat-out cash or pay for a bartender to go on a trip or hire them as a consultant.” 

Offering free stock is also fairly common practice at Grey Goose, for experimentation purposes. “If there’s something creative a bartender wants to work with we do not want them taking a hit on their bottom line,” he says.

But McCanta stresses that the brand has evolved its communication over recent years – it is not about the bling and ka-ching for which vodka has become known. The new message is that Grey Goose is – and always was – a brand of provenance. It produces its own spirit (kudos there) from French wheat and production – no matter how large it is – is all overseen by its creator, Francois Thibault. McCanta admits that in the early days not enough was done “to educate about the brand”.

Chris Moore, head bartender at the Beaufort Bar at London’s Savoy, is a long-term customer of Grey Goose. “The brand has opened up a lot,” he says. “Before bartenders would speculate [about production], but Grey Goose is produced in a natural way. And the notion that something that is produced in volume can’t be artisanal is just not true.”