Local bartenders have banded together to improve both their profession and the things Tucsonans drink.
In late September, Tucson became the newest U.S. city with an official chapter of the United States Bartenders' Guild (www.usbg.org). The organization provides bartenders and others in the bar-and-cocktail scene with a bevy of professional perks, ranging from get-togethers to affordable health insurance.
"Our quest to have a Bartenders' Guild chapter is a search for authenticity and legitimacy," says Aaron DeFeo, president of the newly founded Tucson chapter. "Every bartender wants to be the best bartender around. This group helps develop habits and personality traits that increase their bottom line and their professional achievement."
DeFeo, property mixologist for Casino del Sol at 5655 W. Valencia Road, says the Tucson chapter has about 40 members, with more signing up each week. The group meets multiple times each month for networking and professional development, and will hold cocktail competitions.
DeFeo says he launched a Tucson chapter to enhance the local cocktail scene while offering a supportive environment that fosters superior bartending. It also provides camaraderie and networking that can assist with everything from job-seeking to new drink recipes.
"Beverage is always the whipping boy. Restaurant owners tend to laud the food and shun the hunchback bartenders who lurk around in the dark," says DeFeo. "There are some things that are sorely lacking in the Tucson bar scene, and all it takes to fix that is a little knowledge and a little dedication."
DeFeo says the group is structured like many professional organizations, with a president, vice president, secretary and treasurer. Members pay $100 per year, which gives them access to support from the local chapter and the national organization.
Anybody can join, but members need to be active in some aspect of the bartending scene to have access to all the perks.
"I think a lot of the owners and managers view it as a union and might fear it, but that's not how it works," says DeFeo. "There is no collective-bargaining facet. It's just a professional organization for self-betterment and networking."
Ciaran Wiese, of popular cocktail spot Scott and Co., serves as vice president; Elizabeth Menke, of La Cocina, the restaurant inside Old Town Artisans, is secretary; and Thom Fortier, of Hotel Congress, is treasurer. The group's members come from restaurants and bars across the city.
DeFeo—who has worked in many Tucson bars, including a stint as beverage-program manager for Hotel Congress and Maynards Market and Kitchen—got the idea for the Tucson organization after joining the Phoenix chapter and attending a few meetings.
"My entire outlook changed after going to Phoenix. I saw a bunch of bartenders getting together who were vastly superior in knowledge and ability," said DeFeo. "I wanted to be a part of that. I didn't want Tucson to be left behind."
So he contacted the national office of the USBG, but nobody returned his call. Undaunted, he worked some connections and eventually got in touch with the right people.
Then he started making cold calls to see if other local bartenders were interested, and started collecting signatures to prove Tucson could support a chapter. It worked, and the Tucson group became official in the last weekend of September. DeFeo has marketed the group largely by word of mouth, although he's established a Facebook page as well. Bartenders interested in joining can get more information by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
According to USBG documents, the nonprofit organization—which was founded in 1948—is the largest network of professional bartenders in the country. It has chapters in major cities across the country, and adds new chapters every year. It works in affiliation with the International Bartenders Association.
Having a local chapter of the organization helps elevate Tucson's place in the national cocktail scene, says DeFeo. It will also foster inter-chapter and international communication.
"It's a guiding force, and it's a metric to measure ourselves against the rest of the country, while staying connected to the rest of the country," said DeFeo. "Tucson has always been considered second to cities like Phoenix. Having a USBG chapter makes us a force to be reckoned with. It shows that we're not a bunch of country bumpkins strutting around in a saguaro patch."
The USBG also offers one of the beverage industry's only professional certification programs. Members can progress through a series of three certifications that culminate in the title of master mixologist.
"It's not unlike a master's degree. You have to stand in front of a board of other mixologists who have earned that level of certification, and there is a thesis paper," said DeFeo.
One of the most alluring aspects of the new organization is how it makes affordable health insurance available to members. DeFeo says this is especially important in the world of bartending, where many people only work part-time, which makes them ineligible for the policies offered by most employers.
For the time being, the group meets about three times per month at bars and restaurants across the city. Cocktail competitions are also on deck, such as a recent event in which contestants had 20 minutes and $20 to make a cocktail solely with ingredients from a Circle K.
The competition was for members only, but DeFeo says to watch for plenty of USBG-sponsored events in the coming months.