A revealing conversation with bartender and serial-competitor, Alex Boon, by James Henderson
The tried-and-true method for establishing a personal brand, at the retail end of the hospitality industry, is by participating in (and winning) competitions.
In the Australian cocktail industry, Alex Boon has done precisely this – recently voted as Australia’s Top T25 Bartender of 2019, competing at the Diageo World Class Final in Glasgow and winning the Hendrick’s Cultivate The Unusual Mind competition (partnered with previous guest of The Hospopreneurs Podcast, Pez Collier), all within a few months.
Alex has built a strong brand as an Australian bartender, by taking advantage of cocktail competitions and joined Hospopreneurs for an honest conversation on where competitions lack and what they truly offer.
- What competitions have you participated in?
Diageo World Class, The Angostura Global Cocktail Challenge, The Woodford Reserve Cocktail Challenge, Hendrick’s Hot Gin Punch, Bacardi Legacy – the list goes on and on. There have been so many.
- How many in total?
Maybe ten different brands?
- Do you have any favourites or standouts and what do they showcase?
The ones where you take something away from it, even if you lose. The prize is great, sure – obviously you’re looking to win – but when see someone competing who’s doing something cool, that’s pretty inspiring.
I think that’s what you should be doing it for – not just being number one or two, but when you can take something out of it.
- What have the competitions that you’ve really liked, showcased better than others?
That’s a good question… When I’ve been part of a large group of people and become friends with everybody.
I think the best competitions are the ones where you’re the most comfortable and when you look back, you feel like it was a holiday – that it was awesome hanging out with those people. The comps that have the best people in them.
- So what are the ‘the best people’ – are they good competitors, are they friends of yours, what are they?
Exactly! Both. In Australia, everyone is close-knit and knows each other – so when they come together to compete, it’s not like you’re competing, it’s like you’re hanging out with your mates.
- What do competitions allow you to achieve?
So much. They open doors. When you compete for a brand, you’re pretty much jumping on stage and acting like a brand ambassador for them – for the eight minutes that you’re presenting your drink.
It’ll open doors by going to a brand or progressing in your role as a bartender.
- What’s it done for you?
Obviously opportunities have opened up with other brands and such – but I’ve chosen to stay as a bartender and for that, it’s definitely elevated the style of drinks I make.
I see it when looking back at the drinks I did before and then after taking inspiration from the methods of people I competed against.
- What’s really driven that decision for you to stay in venues rather than go down a brand route?
I like it! It’s fun, man – I love my job.
It takes a certain type of person to work for a brand and I’m not that type of person.
- Although it’s the main tool used to build your personal brand, what do competitions lack in conveying about a bartender?
The main problem – and the problem that I see over and over again – is that people will win one and think that they’ve hit the top.
That’s wrong attitude to have.
The problem with competitions is that they can keep people back – they’ll just go ‘Sweet, I don’t have to do anything anymore’.
- So what is that next level?
There’s no roof – you just keep going. There’s always stuff to learn.
- Other than a brand or venue route though, what sort of avenues are available?
Look, not many. As far as potentially getting a job for a brand out of it or building your personal brand as a bartender, that’s about it, man.
The holidays are nice but the reason I’ve kept doing them is that it’s a test of my skills – in hopping up and talking in front of people and seeing if I can push myself further each time.
It’s a challenge and I like that.
- What should the next generation of Australian bartenders be focusing on?
Serving people – making people happy, I think.
- Is it lacking?
I’m not saying that anyone is lacking, but that service should be everyone’s primary focus, in hospitality – we’re here to serve people.
- So what, in addition to what we’re doing now, should people be looking at next?
That’s a good question as well… Service.
- So we are lacking?
Yeah, look, I don’t think we’re lacking but I think it can be better.
Compared to overseas, Australians are amazing but that’s what makes us amazing, our good service.
You can get a great drink in other places but when your bartender is lacking and you’re not getting your water topped up – stuff like that – the experience is lacking.
The new bartenders coming in, instead of focusing on competitions, should be focusing instead on ‘Is the music too loud? Is the temperature in the venue right? Is the person over there being looked after?’
Without trying to rock the boat or anything, I think everyone should be stripping everything back to basics and starting there – making sure the place feels right and that everyone’s happy.