If it seems like every time you scroll through Instagram you see your favorite cocktail bars promoting guest shifts with an array of the world’s biggest bartending names, you’re not imagining things. The guest shift, or the pop-up, has gone from an occasional curiosity to a ubiquitous right of passage. In recent years, it’s reached its highest and most prevalent perch in bar culture.
“The sense of community in the bar industry is strong, especially on a global level,” says Hong Kong-based Holly Graham, the author of “Cocktails of Asia” and managing editor of DRiNK Magazine. “The pandemic kept everyone apart.”
With those Covid chains removed, the bartending community is making up for lost time and joyfully jetting around the world and the international bar circuit. It’s turned into a cottage industry, serving as rocket fuel for burgeoning careers and bar awards lists, and providing a wild platform for endless, even aggressive, global collaborations.
“I pursue it because I love it, I love to travel,” says Nico de Soto, beverage consultant and owner of Mace in New York and Danico in Paris. “It’s a very good way to travel and work at the same time, it’s just amazing.” De Soto has worked 142 international guest shifts, including 26 last year, in a total of 45 countries. But who’s counting?
“It’s a great chance to travel and discover the world,” says José Luis León, head bartender of Licorería Limantour in Mexico City, who’s worked a guest shift in 46 countries and estimates he does at least 30 in a typical year.
In a world where every craft spirits brand didn’t have half a dozen regional brand ambassadors — in a world predating the growth of craft spirits, even — where the World’s 50 Best Bars didn’t exist, where a well-made Old Fashioned was more pleasant surprise than minimal expectation, the guest shift started small.
Perhaps two decades ago, the major spirits conglomerates and their earliest global ambassadors, along with the handful of bartenders who had international reputations, might hit up a few big cities and their most notable bars, spreading the word about their offerings or showcasing what they were doing back home. It began as a novelty, a heretofore unheard of opportunity for, say, New Yorkers to pull up a bar stool at home and experience what London’s top bar was serving. Much has changed since those heady days of the early cocktail renaissance.
“Putting a more business-oriented spin on things, it’s no longer just bars that have international reputations; bartenders have their own brands, too.”
“It’s due to 50 Best, Instagram, the ‘starification’ of the bartender,” de Soto says of the guest shift’s rise to prominence. “On one side, you have the brands who want to use these opportunities to help with guest shift programs, and on the other side, you have young bartenders who want to make themselves famous, so it’s become a big thing.”
That notion of starification is well ingrained in the mindset of today’s most well-known and acclaimed bartenders. “Simon Ford said in [the documentary] ‘Hey Bartender’ that bartenders are rock stars that never bothered to pick up an instrument, and when you begin doing these events, you feel pretty cool about it for sure,” says Moe Aljaff, founder of Schmuck or Die Group.
“Whether starification is the coincidental outcome or the goal, the driving force behind guest shifts is to evolve and grow, both personally and professionally.”
Putting a more business-oriented spin on things, it’s no longer just bars that have international reputations; bartenders have their own brands, too. “As someone who travels and does a lot of these events, for me as a personal brand, it works a lot,” León says. “My name is on the flier, my picture is on the flier, so that works to create a brand and I think that’s very important.”
That doesn’t mean it’s just a bunch of egos shouting “look at me” at one another as they shake up cocktails in different cities around the world. Whether starification is the coincidental outcome or the goal, the driving force behind guest shifts is to evolve and grow, both personally and professionally. “There’s so much to learn, if you’re willing to learn,” de Soto says. “You’re learning about bars, you’re learning about cultures, you’re really seeing how other people work at the end of the day. It’s a huge exchange. It can be a win-win for everyone.”
León agrees that offering the bartenders in his group the opportunity to see how different people work in different places is a crucial source of on-the-job training, as well as inspiration, and Aljaff says that learning about the people themselves and exchanging ideas is essential. “At the end of the day, this is a people business,” he says.
You might start hitting the road because, as Aljaff put it, you feel pretty cool, but that alone is not sustainable over the long haul. “With time you try to align it more with places you’d like to learn more about — cities, communities, bars, people — it becomes more of a practical thing, for me at least,” he says.
Awards & Influence
Bartenders wouldn’t have any place to pop into if other bars weren’t willing to host them, and from the bar owner side of the equation, there are several important reasons to participate. It’s an opportunity to learn from the people you’re bringing in via pop-up-adjacent programming, such as industry masterclasses, and the opportunity to host a fun, likely successful and profitable event for local customers.
After a bitter end to their tenure with the Two Schmucks bars in Barcelona, Aljaff and his team hosted a two-month residency, The Schmucks, earlier this year at the Moxy Miami South Beach as a means of catharsis. The stint was an almost nonstop succession of guest shifts featuring a who’s who of the bartending world. “We decided to do it with a lot of friends and family that we invited over, and in a way it also set us up to help build our network and get to know a lot of people stateside,” he says.
Among the startender-studded lineup were industry friends such as Graham and León. And make no mistake about it, there’s a reciprocal element to guest shifts. You want to host your friends in your town, but you also hope to get a chance to visit them in theirs, too. “I’ll be opening my own bar this autumn in Tokyo and definitely want to host some of the people who have been kind enough to host me,” Graham says.
If you take that back-scratching ethos one step further, there’s an implied belief that when a bar in contention for honors such as the World’s 50 Best Bars plays host to other bars and bartenders who are a part of that list, a mutual exchange of goodwill, and perhaps votes, occurs.
“It helps to share a snippet of your bar, for exposure, and a snippet of the place you are from — you are representing your city or country, and some people might not be able to get to where you are, so you have to bring the experience to them.”
There’s a finite number of voters for the World’s 50 Best Bars, and in order to receive a vote from one of them, one of the few stipulations is that they must have visited your bar within the past 18 months. You need to visit to vote, and to continue visiting to continue voting. “It definitely helps lobby your on-trade marketing,” Aljaff says. “For example, the World’s 50 Best Bars have 650 voters from around the world, and holding a lot of industry-led events over time will most likely ensure that you have a higher number of these 650 people walking through your doors.”
That wheel of fringe benefits and back scratching keeps turning, and the bar that visiting bartenders are representing back home benefits, too. “As a director of our bars, one of my KPIs is to travel because that’s in a way a public relations strategy that works for the brand,” León says.
“It helps to share a snippet of your bar, for exposure, and a snippet of the place you are from — you are representing your city or country, and some people might not be able to get to where you are, so you have to bring the experience to them,” Graham says.
We can talk about votes and KPIs and brand building until we’re blue in the face, but if reputation building is one huge aspect of guest shifts, then another is the pure social side of the industry and the lifestyle it provides. Host bars don’t just blast a nonstop self-promotional klaxon, they take visitors out and about to see their cities or regions. “When people come to Limantour, we’re really happy to bring them to Handshake, to Hanky Panky, to Rayo, helping to make Mexico City this big cocktail capital,” León says. “I think it’s important to help create a community, and it’s pretty obvious when people won’t want to take you around.”
Make no mistake about it, the globetrotting startender lifestyle looks wonderful on the socials, and the benefits can be substantial. But when you talk to those who partake, the drawbacks come into focus as well, including the toll it takes on their physical health and mental wellbeing.
“There’s nothing easy and you cannot complain when you travel for guest shifts because if you don’t want to do it, don’t do it. I don’t do it for awards or recognition, I do it because I really love it.”
“Traveling and hanging with your friends is obviously a huge pro, but it’s also exhausting,” Graham says. “It can be lonely at times, and personally for me, overstimulating.”
Our startending social maestros, lonely on the road? “It’s very complicated, it’s this feeling of being very alone even while having so many friends around the world,” León says. “I discovered that travel makes you very lonely.”
Life can’t just be about laybacks and last calls, after all. “When you’re not at home, other elements of work, relationships, health, and routine are being sacrificed,” Graham says. “I wouldn’t change it for the world, but I want people to know it’s not as easy and fun as it always appears.”
For most, though, the juice is worth the squeeze. At least for a time, anyway.
“Sometimes it’s hard, it’s very intense. You change cities, you drink a lot, and the older you get, the harder it is to recover,” de Soto says. “At the end of the day, though, there’s nothing easy and you cannot complain when you travel for guest shifts because if you don’t want to do it, don’t do it. I don’t do it for awards or recognition, I do it because I really love it.”