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Jason Lam on Upcoming Winning Spirits Trends in 2021

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26/04/2021 Jason Lam talks about his career in the drinks industry, what it is about to work in a bar, upcoming spirits trends, and what he looks for in winning spirits.

Jason Lam has come a long way to find himself managing the bar at one of San Francisco’s most high-profile restaurants, Sens, overlooking the Ferry Building and nestling close to the city’s Bay Bridge. In fact up to 2010, he was more likely to be a customer as he spent 10 years working in the biotech industry, before deciding, as he says, to “do something completely different”. 

That search for something “different” finally led him into the drinks industry thanks to a chance to meeting with an old university friend who was running a nightclub in San Francisco and suggested he came and tried working there. He did and has not looked back since.

Over the last 10 years, he has taken on a number of roles and, including running the bar at a small jazz club in San Francisco’s Mission district. He has, though, made his name and reputation in the bar scene at the Sens Restaurant in San Francisco’s Financial District where he developed not just his skills, but grown and developed his bartender teams over the last nine years. He now manages the bar programs at both Sens and at the sister establishment, Barcha. 

Here he explains in his own words what it is about working in bars is so much better than the biotech world. 

How did you get into the drinks industry and why did you want to have a career in it?

I left a previous career in biotech sales and marketing after ten years and wanted to do something completely different. By chance, I ran into an old university friend who was running a nightclub in San Francisco. I had never considered bartending, but he got me interested in the craft and I saw it was a very viable career. 

Can you describe your current role and your main responsibilities?

I currently manage the bar program at two restaurant bars under the same ownership - Sens, and Barcha. I’m responsible for the overall performance of the bar which includes leading our bar staff, creating the cocktail list, purchasing & inventory. 

My key role is to drive the bar program towards increased customer satisfaction and repeat visits. We do that by developing collaborations with vendors to ensure we are able to sell top-tier products while maximizing our profitability. Programs that involve regular visits have worked the best for both us and the suppliers. Regular facetime builds trust, brand familiarity with staff, and suppliers learn more about our specific needs.

Jason Lam, Judge at  USA Spirits Ratings

What do you find most rewarding about your role and what you can achieve?

I manage and work with the bar staff and seeing my co-workers grow in experience, both in their craft but also in how their success improves their overall life. I always say to my team that if they are sure about anything then just ask questions. Don’t be intimidated by those that have more experience. Most bartenders that I’ve known are proud of their craft and would happily share what they know. 

What do you find the most challenging?

Our bar can be very high volume, especially during warmer months. Maintaining a level of creativity and polish with our cocktail program while retaining production speed is always a challenge. Batching certainly helps, but it’s not a magic bullet.

What do you see as being the key skills in your role?

Communication always stands out, as it is a cornerstone in building relationships with both co-workers and guests. After that would be creativity and organization, which go hand in hand in creating better logistics behind the bar, improving cocktail quality and consistency, and giving guests an amazing experience all around.

How have the last 12 months been for you adapting to life with the pandemic - what changes have you made?

It was very enlightening to start over with the cocktail program. We looked at each step and sometimes we were able to improve on mechanics or ingredients. To have everything taken away and have to slowly rebuild was very humbling. You have to be very creative in things such as presentation, menu descriptions, and great ingredients. What makes them want to purchase alcohol with their to-go meal instead of buying something at the market?

What trends and changes in drinks/ spirits buying habits have you seen in the last year?

I’ve seen more packaged products like premixed cocktails in cans, etc. Although that particular demand wasn’t prevalent at our restaurants, it’s nice to see consumers and bars having new options. 

What do you see as being the key trends for 2021 in terms of the styles of spirits being bought and the countries and regions where they come from?

I think a lot of consumers are going to first gravitate towards their tried and true favorites just to catch up on lost time. Going forward from there, I still see the growing demand for new tequila and gins, particularly outside the category of London dry. I think the drink garnish will play a larger role in the overall presentation of the cocktail in terms of engendering trust in professional preparation.

Jason Lam, Judge at  USA Spirits Ratings

I’m hoping to say goodbye to the to-go cocktail. I think it strips away so much of the experience of enjoying a well-made cocktail in conjunction with the overall atmosphere a restaurant or bar is trying to create for their guests.

With so many competitions why do you want to be a judge in USA Spirits Ratings?

I think it’s educational for me to participate with peers. New perspectives can enhance what I do back at my bar. 

What do you think about its judging criteria that judge spirits on their quality, but also value for money and design and packaging?

I think the criteria hits the most important general categories.

Do you think this way of judging is more in tune with how professional spirits and drinks buyers decide which spirits to list?

Yes. Quality, value, and packaging are all essential factors in making a purchasing decision. 

Why would you encourage producers and distributors to enter the awards?

Participants get feedback from actual purchasers which translates into highly relevant feedback for those current products and future ones.

Is judging a good opportunity to see what styles of spirits are being made that can help you in your day job?

Definitely - it’s very helpful to see what distillers are doing to grow in a particular category.

How do you decide what spirits to buy?

I try to consider the demographics of our guests and what seems to excite them. Products with an amazing backstory or unique ingredients are always interesting as long as they aren’t gimmicky.

* The USA Spirits Ratings is now open for entries with early bird pricing ending on April 30. The final entry date for products to enter the 2021 competition is at the end of June. For more details click here.

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