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Cocktails and confessions with Las Vegas’ ambassadors of booze

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Kate Flanagan (Jameson), Gaston Martinez (Milagro), Kris Brown (Stoli elit), J.R. Starkus (St-Germain) and Kristen Schaefer (Absolut) are a handful of the brand ambassadors living in Vegas and representing some of the premium spirits we enjoy in our cocktails. They also happen to be real friends, thrown together by a lifestyle that’s equal parts hard play and hard work. Well, maybe not equal. In the lush, exotic comfort of the Artisan lounge, they shared their stories with us.
Photo: Beverly Poppe

So a brand ambassador walks into a bar attached to a brothel in the middle of nowhere. Her car is overheated. Her phone is useless. She’s out of water, but she does have a trunk full of triple-distilled whiskey. The truckers bellied up inside Nevada Joe’s stare as the Irish stranger sweeps through the door. They’re talking about Crown Royal, and despite the day she’s had, despite the likelihood these men are hoping she’s a hooker, Kate Flanagan can’t resist.

“You boys drink whiskey?” she asks. Moments later she’s pouring 18-year-old Jameson Limited Reserve and telling tales about the founding family battling pirates. Everybody drinks. Everybody bonds. “There are more truckers coming in,” Kate says, “and they’re all eying me up and the boys are like, ‘No! She’s with Jameson.’”

Laughter echoes off the Artisan’s glossy black ceiling, where a mosaic of vanity mirrors reflects Kate, Kris Brown, J.R. Starkus, Kristen Schaefer and Gaston Martinez, aka Jameson, Stoli elit, St-Germain, Absolut and Milagro. They are brand ambassadors, official faces and voices of these premium spirits in Las Vegas. Given a police lineup, I’m convinced I could match each one to the right bottle.

Kris is a great big man rocking a crisp black suit and constant grin. His cheerful refinement fits the classic Russian vodka’s evolution, filtered extra cold for maximum purity.

J.R. could double for Gregory Peck in a movie poster from the ’40s, making eggshell pants and a pop of lavender look easy. Just as free spirited, his liqueur is made from elderflowers handpicked in the French Alps by farmers on bicycles.

Kristen straight up smolders. In a peek-a-boo dress with a vintage cut and sky-high magenta heels, she seems born to sip a Cosmopolitan, the cocktail that helped make her Swedish vodka ubiquitous.

Gaston exudes the side of tequila you don’t see on spring break—smooth, relaxed, contemplative. Jeans and jacket to manicured scruff, his vibe mirrors his Mexican spirit’s contemporary feel and precise foundation.

And Kate, with her green eyes and musical accent, is a poster child for the Emerald Isle and its favorite whiskey. John Jameson probably never wore head-to-toe leather, but his legendary spunk and good humor come across.

To the other patrons in the Artisan’s decadent antique warehouse of a lounge, they must look like a bunch of friends meeting for drinks. They are. But when you’re a brand ambassador in America’s party capital, playtime is hard work. Gaston says, “It’s a lifestyle. ... We’re on 24 hours a day.”

YOU ARE WHAT YOU DRINK

Anytime they’re in the public eye, from a nightclub floor to a post on Facebook, these ambassadors are representing. That means drinking their brands, buying rounds and occasionally giving bottles to lonely truckers who’ve just made a vivid memory.

Kris calls such memory weaving “selling a story,” which requires a lot more knowledge and savvy than merely selling an image in the style of your average celebrity endorser. Ambassadors look the part, but they’re also experts on brand history, method, market share, flavor profiles and recipes. They host massive parties and intimate tasting events. They travel the country for seminars and festivals. They build accounts. It’s a heavy load, which is why only one of these five kept his “day job.”

J.R., an award-winning mixologist, is still lead barman at RM Seafood. Gaston and Kristen have similar cred and backgrounds, as he developed the beverage program at Nora’s Cuisine over 14 years and she was instrumental in launching Tacos & Tequila, Rhumbar and the Cosmopolitan. Kris has worked for several big alcohol distributors. Kate came to the table completely green. Geek know-how is a plus, but personality is crucial. It’s a brand in itself.

“It’s not just something you take off and leave. It’s you,” Kris says of the job, nodding at Gaston. “People see him, they see Milagro. Plain and simple.”

Recognition is the goal. But once your identity becomes a public commodity, it’s hard to draw lines. And keeping the buzz going involves a lot of moving and shaking. On the extreme end of the spectrum, Gaston travels as many as 280 days a year. In a single day he might appear in Seattle, San Francisco, LA and New York.

“It’s living out of the suitcase, and most of the time you can’t open your suitcase,” he says. Every day is Saturday when you’re a brand ambassador, but the reality isn’t always glamorous. Kate says she’s seen a lot of hotels, as opposed to actual places. But she wouldn’t trade the suitcase if it meant missing one diehard fan flashing a Jameson tattoo.

“I live for it. My mates often joke that we’ll go out and I disappear … off in the corner chatting whiskey,” she says. “I get such a kick out of it when someone who hasn’t tried the product turns around and says they love it.”

Kris adds that the drain is no match for the fun, and that the perks are worth taking on the serious social responsibility of making sure nobody overdoes it. But when I ask how the job affects their love lives, there are a few groans. Working in the nightlife industry in general makes relationships challenging, especially in Vegas. The hours are long and late, and there are endless throngs of hot, single drunks. J.R., who just celebrated 10 years with his wife, says she has only one rule: Be home before sunrise. Kristen calls him the lucky one.

“I think we’re all fairly lucky,” Kris says. “You’re talking about romance? No one cares about that. I prefer vodka over love any day of the week.”

SH*T BRAND AMBASSADORS SAY

Love is big in this room. Maybe it’s the booze: Jameson and ginger ale, elit on the rocks, Absolut Mandarin and soda, and special creations by the Artisan’s Shannon Holt—Naked (St-Germain, champagne, pineapple juice) and Sundown (Milagro, cinnamon puree, orange juice). Or maybe it’s the battle scars and inside jokes.

They tell me I should watch a video that was shown at this year’s Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans called “Sh*t Brand Ambassadors Say.” It pokes fun at some of the job’s pretentious concepts (“the roses—they’re plucked at six in the morning by gypsy men in Iran”) and universal catchphrases (“Shots!” “Did I leave my wallet here last night?”).

Even at such a huge festival, they say the community feels—and is—very small. So everyone supports each other. I look at Kris and Kristen. Aren’t they vodka enemies?

“Stoli’s Russian; I’m Swedish. We’re two completely different categories. … People minimalize vodkas so often,” Kristen says, “but there are so many different flavor profiles to it that it’s astounding.”

“That’s why their job is important,” J.R. adds, “teaching people that vodka isn’t just vodka.” That means emphasizing your strengths rather than trash-talking—because it’s just good form, because even trash talk gives your competitors “airtime,” because you never know what distributor might own your brand tomorrow, and mostly because people like what they like.

“I can sit here and say Milagro is the best tequila in the world. To who? ... The spirit that’s better is the one that you like the best,” Gaston says. He means average drinkers. The bartenders among us agree that a great number don’t know what they want and are too afraid to explore or ask questions—hence the importance of formal tastings (and free drinks). But Gaston says if you reach one bartender you reach 1,000 drinkers.

“The bartenders are the most important part of our business because they’re the ones that pick up the bottle and decide what to pour. … When you make them fall in love with you and your brand, you have the world in your hands,” Kristen says. “They’ll sell it for you.”

Aside from creating craft cocktails that speak elegantly and deliciously for his brand, J.R. enjoys this aspect of the ambassador job most. He doesn’t approach meetings with potential accounts as a sales pitch. He approaches them as teachable moments.

“I like a challenge,” he says. “I want to know that I went into an account and they’d never heard of St-Germain, they had no idea that St-Germain wasn’t a beer, and that after they were done talking to me they were enlightened about the product and how many uses it has, and they were like, ‘Wow, he taught me a lot. I really want that on this bar.’ That’s a victory to me.”

A few rounds into my teachable moment, the cocktails taste different. It’s not just booze anymore, it’s Kris describing his grandma’s sweet Dodge Dart Swinger and Kristen laughing about finessing her favorite geek into liking flavored vodka. I feel a connection to the spirits because I feel a connection to these people, and that’s the idea.

“As much as we are brands, we are people,” Gaston says. “And the brands hire us because of who we are.

    • Photo

      Kris Brown, elit by Stolichnaya

      Drink this: Because elit is cold-filtered to be as free of imperfections as possible, it’s the kind of vodka that deserves to be tried without much embellishment. Try a splash of club soda or a simple wheel of lime. Hit your hangover with: “Two B-complex, two glasses of water, go to sleep. I wake up—I’m fine. But I’m also not drinking trash.”

    • Photo

      J.R. Starkus, St-Germain

      Drink this: The signature St-Germain Cocktail combines the liqueur’s chameleon-like elderflower flavor—passion fruit, pear, citrus—with dry brut champagne and club soda, on the rocks with a lemon twist. Hit your hangover with: “I drink a Gatorade and take a multivitamin before I go to bed.”

    • Photo

      Kristen Schaefer, Absolut

      Drink this: There are two stories about the origin of the game-changing Cosmopolitan cocktail, and both involve Absolut Citron. Add Cointreau orange liqueur and the fresh juices of cranberry and lime to the smooth vodka's lemon kick. Hit your hangover with: “Water after every drink and Pedialyte and more Pedialyte.”

    • Photo

      Kate Flanagan, Jameson

      Drink this: A shot of Jameson Irish Whiskey and a shot of pickle juice. The Pickle Back is magic. Hit your hangover with: “I am a firm believer that a hangover is a frame of mind. ... If that doesn’t work, a Jameson Irish Coffee always sets me right.”

    • Photo

      Gaston Martinez, Milagro

      Drink this: Try the silver tequila on ice with a slapped mint leaf to enhance the vanilla note. Try the reposado neat with a pinch of Mexican cinnamon to kick up the innate spice. And complement the añejo’s butterscotch backbone with grated extra dark chocolate, letting the chocolate sit for five minutes so the oils break down and coat the top of the tequila. Hit your hangover with: “As far as hangover cure, there is no such thing. Only prevention. Lots of water while drinking!”

    • Photo

      An Artisan Spin

      Artisan bartender Shannon Holt designed a special menu of cocktails inspired by the brands featured in this story. Just like the lounge where Holt works her beverage magic, they’re unique, refreshing and “a little bit of something for everyone.” Mood, $16 Stoli elit and muddled blueberries topped with ginger ale. Naked, $12 St-Germain, pineapple juice and a splash of Wycliff champagne. After Hours, $12 Absolut, Absolut Citron, “Seattle muddle” of fresh raspberries and blueberries crushed into ice with a splash of simple syrup. The Artisan, $15 Jameson and Godiva chocolate liqueur with slow-melting milk chocolate and raspberry purees laced on the martini glass. Sundown, $13 Milagro and cinnamon puree with a splash of orange juice.

    • Photo

      Behind the bar with Shannon Holt

      What is one of your first memories of alcohol? I grew up in Kentucky, which is Bourbon country. I worked at several distilleries in my own town. You don’t realize what’s involved in the recipes. There’s so much behind the scenes that we don’t see. Do you prefer bourbon? I absolutely have appreciation for every alcohol out there. I don’t stick to one. I never have. I tend to prefer my cocktails stronger vs. sweeter. How long have you worked at the Artisan? I started about three months ago. … I’ve learned a tremendous amount at the Artisan. Even with our bar staff as a whole, we all come from different walks of life, some have nightclub experience and some come from local bars. I’ve worked with so many bartenders in Vegas, and every bartender in Vegas has something to offer and there’s always something to learn. Can you guess a drink order just based on someone’s vibe? Especially in a city as vast in its diversity as Vegas, it’s impossible to stereotype. People will shock you. Do you think the city’s nightlife in general gets stereotyped? I think Vegas has a very definitive stereotype. I think the Artisan is one of the few places in Vegas that really has something for everyone. … If you’re into art history, it’s going to fascinate you. It’s one of only two or three places in the city that offers an after hours nightclub. Artisan doesn’t really get started till 3 or 4 in the morning. We have guest DJs, a late-night menu. … We get eclectic crowds, and we’re ready to party as long as they are.

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