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Mixologist Elayne Duff of Liquor Lab: “Be patient with yourself: You are going to mess up; It’s par for the course”

Be patient with yourself: You are going to screw up; it is par for the course. It is okay as long as you learn from your mistakes. You won’ t be able to do everything, so set goals that are achievable for that week, month, that year and then beyond. This way, you only working on what is most important at any giving time.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Elayne Duff.

Elayne is the director of trade development at Liquor Lab, responsible for planning and leading a number of educational courses directed at bartenders and individuals in the beverage industry.

Before joining Liquor Lab, Duff established herself as an accomplished professional in the beverage and alcohol industry. She is a member of first graduating class of the grueling B.A.R. program in New York. She became Diageo’s first-ever luxury mixologist/ambassador, after working five years on the marketing and event side, helping to launch such brands such Ciroc Vodka and Tanqueray No. Ten. She has appeared numerous times as expert on the popular TV show Bar Rescue.

Duff often speaks at bar shows worldwide, including Bar Convent Berlin, Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans, LA and Nightclub & Bar Show in Las Vegas, NV.

Thank you so much for joining us Elayne! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I entered the Beverage Industry almost 20 years ago, working on the agency side of the business managing events for Diageo Wine & Spirits. As the event manager, my role was to ensure that each brands’ marketing vision was brought to life and their core messages were communicated correctly to consumers. The key to success was to be highly detailed, able to handle industry politics and have a great promotional team who received continuous training on spirits, cocktails and brand knowledge — a theme that has run continuously throughout my career.

This role provided me insight into every side of the industry. On a daily basis, I dealt with brand managers to better understand their strategy and how my team could help them achieve it; and distributor managers and sales reps to discern their sales goals and provide them the program to help them hit their targets; and bar owners and off-premise store keeps to ensure our programs and teams meet their needs, as well as my huge team of promotional staff to help them grow and get better at their jobs.

My success in this first role and my fashion industry background lead to my promotion as Account Supervisor on Diageo’s first every Luxury Portfolio. There, I managed the first brand ambassador team, and launched Cîroc Vodka (pre-Diddy and post-Diddy) and Tanqueray Ten across the country.

This is also when I met Steve Olson, he was the first “Industry cocktail guru” that I had ever met. At a training within our office, he introduced me and my team to the world of classic cocktails, history and production of alcoholic spirits production. His passion and drive inspired me and I dove head first into learning everything I could about alcohol history, production, the people that make them and how to create the best cocktails.

This experience lead me to become Diageo’s first-ever corporate mixologist. My infectious passion for cocktails and presentation skills made me Diageo’s go-to person for media, being one of the most-requested mixology experts on Spike TV’s hit “Bar Rescue” show as well as being Andy Cohen’s favorite bartender on-set for “Watch What Happens Live!” When I was not on TV, I spent my time creating and executing cocktail programs for Delta Airlines Elite for onboard and in-lounge mixology, seasonal cocktails programs for top bars in Manhattan, as well as Pottery Barn’s new mixology section, and traveling the country training bartenders and distributors alike.

In 2015, I was recruited by Ab-InBev to be their Global Manager of Training for their new Brand Experience division, which was in the process of opening more than 300 bars across the globe. While in the role, I developed scalable training programs to help ensure that our standards of service were on par and that their beer knowledge was on par.

Working as a Global Manager in the beer industry was exciting and challenging, but my love for the cocktail industry was too strong. So, after 20 years of working for the two largest liquor companies, I wrote my last PowerPoint deck (at least for somebody else) I created my own consultancy company, Duff on the Rocks, LLC. Delivering on-trade solutions, hands-on trade & consumer cocktail training programs, cocktail & menu development & brand advocacy recruitment, training & management solutions. This lead me to working with incredible clients such as The Cocktail Guru, Frederick Wildman & Sons, Laird and Company, Castle Brands and the Liquor Lab, Manhattan’s first-ever interactive cocktail space. With the Liquor Lab team, I help to expand their program offerings to include cocktails classes for trade and distributor reps.

Can you share your story of Grit and Success? First, can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?

Before I became an entrepreneur, I had been employed by two of the largest liquor companies in the world. With the corporate job comes a steady paycheck, healthcare and 401k plan. All of this goes away the minute you decide to work for yourself, and when you are mom and in your 40s, this stuff really matters. When I kicked off my company in January 2018, my ambition was to use my expertise to help new brands entering the market to do so successfully. It turns out that new brands do need a lot of help but don’t have a ton of money. So, I had to change gears. I began meeting with industry contracts from large and small brands and for the first time I began to really listen to what their needs were. With this new knowledge, I was able to create customized solutions and finally landed my first real client, nearly 8 months after I launched my company and
exactly when I only had 1 month’s rent left in my savings account.

Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

When I left corporate America, I promised myself that I would never work for anybody else again. I took time off to reflect on my career and to get better understanding what work I enjoyed the most. Next, and most importantly, I made list of all things that I had accomplished over the course of my career. This was to remind myself that I had been successful in the past, which means I could be successful again. So, whenever I get frustrated or nervous about my future, I pull out this list to remind myself of all of my accomplishments, thus far and this gives me the faith that I need to believe that I can do it again. This is what keeps me going day after day, even when things look grim.

So how did Grit lead to your eventual success? How did Grit turn things around?

As the youngest of eight kids, I was raised by two parents with series grit. My mom: well, she had to raise eight kids (need I say more), plus she went back to school when I was teenager, so she could go back to work when I was grown.

My dad worked five jobs to make sure we always had a roof over our heads and food on the table, and he also went back to school to get his degree in nursing.

My parents believed in education and hard work, and I have truly known nothing else. Many people speak about passion and I believe that passion gets you out of bed every day, but grit gets you to the finish line. When you are starting a company, you sometimes have to work multiple jobs at once, work weekends, late nights and forget about your social life. But, I knew I had to succeed for myself and my family. Grit is was gets you to the finish line.

So, how are things going today? :-)

I must admit that am pretty happy about how things are going. When I launched my company, I had four goals: one to work with inspiring people, two: to be able to work from anywhere in the world, three: to work on projects that bring myself and others meaning, and four: to be able to generate enough income to enjoy life to its fullest.

Working with clients, such as Liquor Lab, allows me to do all the above. They are one of the most passionate groups of clever people that I have ever met. They truly enjoy the work that they do and work hard to find solutions that work for people's budgets and needs, all while having an awesome time and making sure that others are having one too.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I am sure I have many, but I think my back is still recovering from this one. I had just kicked off of my company, when I was recommended for a job that was supposed to only entail developing signature cocktails for new product and then hosting a tasting for small group of influencers. The cocktails turned out great, but this small group turned into a full-blown party! So, there I was, just me, behind the bar, slinging over few hundred cocktails over the course of the evening. If you are an everyday bartender, this may not seem like a big deal, but as a former corporate mixologist/ and somebody who had been sitting behind a desk for the past years, this was not ideal. Needless to say, grit and my drive to always ‘give my all’ got me through, but the next few days I could barely get out of bed.

So, the valuable lesson I learned that day is that specificity is very important. When you meet a client for the first time: ask a lot of questions and make sure you are really clear about their expectations and what you will and will not deliver.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

As the Chief Cocktail Officer of Duff on the Rocks, I am a one-woman shop, with a unique skill set. I am able to speak ‘corporate’ and ‘bartender’, ‘brand ambassador’ and ‘manager’. I can create cocktails and at the same time put together a strategy and deck to go along with it.

When I met Owen Meyer from Liquor Lab, we hit it off immediately. I was impressed by the team, the course offerings, Dollar Cocktail Club (their cocktail kit brand) and their vision for expanding their locations, as well course offerings to include the trade. The only thing standing in his way to kick off the trade program was the lack of time and resources. This is when it clicked for me: he had a problem that I could solve. I had all the skills needed to get this expansion off the ground and to create a scalable model, so it could grow with the organization. I got to work on a strategy deck, which Owen used to pitch to his investors to secure the growth funding for this particular part of the business. They gave an immediate ‘yes’ and in January 2019, I jumped on board, creating pitch decks to secure potential sponsors, course curriculums to be offered at the lab and when the course kicks off I will teach the initially classes and then train the future teachers across the country as needed.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

  • Have clear goals; It sounds obvious, but it is probably the most important step you can take. You can waste a lot of time on bullshit work. Clear goals will help you to say no to potential opportunities that lead you in the wrong direction. With a clear target in mind, you will have time and energy to focus on landing the right clients and the right jobs.
  • Be patient with yourself: You are going to screw up; it is par for the course. It is okay as long as you learn from your mistakes. Second: you won’ t be able to do everything, so set goals that are achievable for that week, month, that year and then beyond. This way, you only working on what is most important at any giving time.
  • Be mindful: We work in an industry where it is easy to be indulgent and way too easy to forget to look after yourself. If you are mindful of your drinking most of all, you will sleep better, which will lead to exercising more which will lead to eating healthier.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I have always tried to be a role model for others and to be available for the next generation who is trying to build a career.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  • Landing clients takes so much more time than you think: Landing one good client can take months, so make sure you have plenty cash flow to keep you going.
  • Listen more and talk less: Clients many times reveal their true needs or issues over casual meetups. Taking potential clients to lunch, coffee, casual cocktails can many times be much more effective than a great pitch deck or website will ever be.
  • Fivver- A great freelance website where you can hire people to create decks, websites and much more for very reasonable price. This can be a huge time saver.
  • Get a lawyer: The cost of a good lawyer is more reasonable then you think and can make you more money in the long run.
  • Find a Mentor: Find somebody whose opinion your respect and who an expert in your field to give you honest feedback on your pricing structure, proposals, business model etc.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I am lucky enough to work in one of the most incredible industries in the world. The people within it can be some of the most generous people that you will ever meet. I am also extremely lucky to have a very supportive husband and daughter who help keep me balanced and encourage me to believe in myself.

As the head mixologist of Diageo, it was my job to help develop cocktail menus for local bars and restaurants and train their staff on the latest bartending techniques, cocktail creation and current trends. The staff and owners who came to these trainings took them very seriously, and I felt obligated to make sure that the information I was providing them was up to date with the current trends and best practices happening within the industry. To help ensure this, I reached out to some friends who are running some of the World’s 50 best bars in the World to see if they would allow me to intern behind their bars for a few days. Everyone said yes! Each one of them took time out of their busy schedules to set up training programs for me, as well as allow me to work behind their bars, so I could better understand how they operated. To this day, it has been one of the most impactful experiences of my career and I try to continue to return this favor by always being available for people who ask for my advice on how to grow their careers.

Thank you for these great insights!

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