At this year’s Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans, bar director Jackson Cannon (Eastern Standard, The Hawthorne) shared a letter he wrote to his younger self, filled with things he wishes he’d known when he first starting working behind the bar. Some of the advice related specifically to the craft of working behind the stick: “Watch the fingers of the man on a first date,” he said. “Offer food if his hands are too frantic.” But much of it applied to anyone trying to crack the code of a work-life balance—a frank yet hopeful blueprint for mindful living.
After stirring chatter among TOTC attendees, the “Letter to a Young Bartender” speech was republished online and quickly made the rounds. Now, the Boston-based barkeep is hopping the pond for London Cocktail Week, where he’ll deliver a seminar on October 9 called “Questions for the Next Generation.“
Whether Cannon will hit viral gold again is yet to be seen. We caught up with him to get a quick sneak preview of the seminar and see what the future of cocktails holds in store.
Photo: Sam Grey
Were you surprised by the reactions to “Letter to a Young Bartender” after TOTC? It’s not often that an industry talk goes viral like that.
Honestly, I was pretty blown away by the response. I thought that if I rose to the occasion, I could wow a room of 200 (maybe). I never expected it would resonate with people outside of the presentation room. I assumed the cadence of the speech made it so it needed to be read out loud to be felt. I was pretty wrong about that). As it went “viral” (still a little in awe of how that happened), my phone and inbox were flooded with hundreds of texts and emails, many from numbers I didn’t have in my phone or hadn’t heard from in years, and lots of high fives from people I know in the industry.
What is really interesting is the number of times I’ve been contacted by someone outside of the hospitality industry that has read the speech. A few writers have reached out, and just this week a law enforcement training officer from a border town in Texas asked if he could use the letter to train his employees on the idea that we all have to start our jobs as if we know nothing. Learn by watching and doing, then teach the same. It’s pretty cool!
So now it’s off to the U.K. for your next seminar. Do you see a big difference in how people approach bartending in London versus major cocktail cities in the U.S.?
Americans have a very entrepreneurial approach to bartending, while the London scene is built on immigrant work ethics and a slow, steady approach to the opportunities for livable progress up the ladder. I’ll be exploring what each approach can teach the other during my speech.
[Bartending] is not about us and our creative expression; it’s about taking care of our guests.
As you look at the future of cocktail bars, what current trends do you see as the most harmful to the trade?
I still see a tendency for some industry pros to work towards impressing the rest of the industry rather than focusing on the real reason they’re behind the bar. We need to keep expanding our reach beyond our own networks and recognize that, in the end, it’s not about us and our creative expression; it’s about taking care of our guests.
Are there any approaches to bringing good cocktails to the masses—cocktail pairings, high-volume bars, etc.—that aren’t working?
Cocktails on tap. I still have not had one that was better than a handmade drink, a glass of wine, or a shot of good rum. Until the quality of the tap can match that of the other mediums, it’s just a gimmick.
What are a couple things you’re excited about that you see on the horizon in the cocktail world?
Healthy bartenders. There are a lot of bartenders out there who work hard (and party hard) for a few years and end up burning themselves out before they even hit the peak of their career. I’m looking forward to a shift in that as the younger generation learns to look at their crafts as careers in the same way any other professional would. I’m excited to see more bartenders who are in it for the long haul and hope the group of lifelong bartenders will continue to grow.