Maybe you’ve never heard of Lindsey Johnson. But if you’ve spent any time in a cocktail bar recently there is a good chance she’s shaped part of your experience. Over the course of the past decade, the unofficial ‘godmother’ of the bartending world has transformed the community through a series of educational and networking initiatives.
In 2010 she launched Portland Cocktail Week. The annual confab, which brings the industry’s best and the brightest to the Pacific Northwest every November, has grown into one of the preeminent beverage events in the country. Two years later, Johnson founded Camp Runamok–a one-of-a-kind summer camp in Kentucky, where top bartenders from across the globe convene to talk shop and develop their skills.
Through her company, Lush Life Productions, she has touched the lives of thousands of aspiring professionals; establishing careers, mentoring, shaping cocktail menus, and providing it all while avoiding undue commercial influence. In an exclusive interview with Forbes, she shares her path to success–along with some notes on what to expect at Portland Cocktail Week 2019:
What propelled you to devote your professional life to becoming a leading advocate for the bartending community?
In my life, I was only formally trained to do two things: be a journalist and a bartender. My background in both brought me here in my role of communicator, event planner, janitor, advocate and leader.
My mother is also a social worker (and the daughter of a union leader), so the values that drive our business were instilled in me from birth. I believe strongly in creating equitable spaces and leveling the playing field so we can all thrive together and build a better industry for those who are doing the work—not those profiting from that work.
How and why did Lush Life Productions, which started as providing photography and videography content to bartenders, expand its mission to give bartenders the tools they need to succeed in their careers?
The simple answer is we saw a need to bridge the communication gap between the bartending community and the spirits brands who are marketing to them. I gladly took up the role of advocating for bartenders by actively tailoring programming to the actual needs of bartenders which, of course, is deeply rooted in democratizing education and helping us all get on equal footing in the business world. And, that’s how we got to Portland Cocktail Week!
Wha was the original inspiration behind Portland Cocktail Week?
Portland Cocktail Week was envisioned as a creative and safe space for bartenders to freely share information and help grow their businesses.
Why did you think that another bartender conference was necessary?
At the time, there were other cocktail conferences that did a great job of creating a sense of community for the bartenders and offered exceptional networking opportunities. We thought there was room for a conference that focused more specifically on the business of the bar and other issues affecting the lives of bartenders.
What were the most pressing issues for bartenders at the time of Portland Cocktail Week’s launch? Are these issues the same today or have they changed significantly?
When Portland Cocktail Week first launched, we quite simply wanted to create content that met the interests and needs of the full spectrum of our community, which seemed to be changing at a pace few others could keep up with, but we didn’t quite understand what that meant until we rounded the corner into our third year of programming. From the beginning, though, we decided to remove the financial burden from our bartender attendees.
This industry offers so many educational opportunities around spirits education and training, but seldom offers a roadmap for success. Portland Cocktail Week decided to shift focus from a conference with varied topics covered to one that just focused on how a bar professional could take the next step in their career.
Our core mission has not significantly changed, but some of our approaches have. For example, we now offer extensive health and wellness content each day during Portland Cocktail Week courtesy of The HealthTender, Amie Ward and Ketel One. Each morning, Ketel One provides a healthy breakfast and Amie will be offering classes focused on stretching and maintaining the bartender body. She also will be offering a class during our regular programming block. This programming would have been ignored in 2009, but this younger generation of bartenders gets the value and will almost certainly be there. We also require all of our students to attend Sexual Assault Prevention Training courtesy of Campari America and Alteristic.
I don’t believe we could have required this when we were getting started, but this generation of bartenders is motivated to create safer spaces for their guests and themselves, and we had over 300 attendees in that particular class (over two days!) last year. Kyle Zimmerman and Mia Love teach personal finance and credit repair—something we absolutely were not talking about in 2009. While the core ethos remains, our approach has changed. We are more direct in talking about and dealing with issues. We offer practical training not just for working in the bar, but for life as well.
Why Portland? Do you have a special connection to the city?
The Portland bartending community led by Dave Shenaut invited me to come help develop their existing bartender competition into something a bit more robust, and after visiting Portland for the first time, I realized there was a real opportunity to create something that transcended that particular event and offered an alternative to bartender education. So, we got to work. That first year, we offered fairly traditional bar festival classes (Japanese whisky tastings, a category training with Cognac, etc.) peppered with more experimental content. Ted Munat, author of “Left Coast Libations,” led a particularly hilarious and farcical comparison of East Coast vs. West Coast bartenders that pointed out how silly rivalries are in the business.
After launching PDXCW [Portland Cocktail Week], I did live in Portland for a few years, and that time is very special to me. Portland is a beautiful and vibrant city with some of the best food and beverage in the country. Portland completely ruined me for coffee, and I can only drink the good stuff now. I will be forever in Portland’s debt for that!
I also travel extensively and moved quite a bit in my youth. I’m a product of America, coast to coast, not just one specific place (although NYC, Louisville and Texas are all indelible).
Since bartenders do not have to pay to attend the educational component of Portland Cocktail Week, what is its business model?
We strongly believe bartenders should never pay to be educated. When you charge for a ticket, you immediately throw up a barrier to entry that allows access to the wealthiest and furthest along in their careers and leaves behind younger and less financially stable people. This disproportionately affects women, people of color, people in the LGBTQIA+ community, parents and the disabled. Removing the cost of tickets helped give all bartenders access to education to help take the next steps in their careers. We also put up 75-80 bartenders for each event through our scholarship program and provide transportation and food at all of our events—meaning, all you have to do is get to Portland, and we’ll take care of the rest. When you look around our events, you will notice that our demographics are very different from the rest. We think our strength is found in our inclusive policies.
We rely entirely on sponsorship from spirits, wine and beer brands to carry the cost of the event, and when we can’t cover all of our costs, my company picks up the rest (8 out of 10 years, we’ve stepped up to make this happen). So many spirits brands and their representatives see the value in what we do and so generously offer not only their funds to help make this happen but also devote hours of time and energy to ensure that Portland Cocktail Week is a truly memorable event for all of our guests. Our brand partners are a driving force in our little ecosystem, and we’re grateful for their contributions.
What makes Portland Cocktail Week unique vis-à-vis other bartender or cocktail conferences?
Bartenders Only: To be a student at Portland Cocktail Week, you have to be a working bartender and it is not open to the general public. That means all of our guests are having the same conversation. There are no brand messages incorporated into the education. There’s just peer to peer education being offered from the best and brightest in our industry to those who aspire to join them and are actively working to get there. Eliminating that noise means our guests enjoy thoughtful conversations and curated networking opportunities with like minded bartenders from around the U.S. When our guests walk into their classroom, they know that everyone there has similar goals and is working hard to achieve them. This makes networking more efficient and helps boost careers in a very tangible way.
Focused Programming: We require our guests to select a track and see it through to the end of the week. This does a few things. 1. Students are forced out of their comfort zones (friends, colleagues from home) to meet new people who share a common interest. 2. It imposes discipline and keeps people moving. 3. We de-emphasize drinking and emphasize real connections between guests, educators, brand partners and my team.
Transportation, Lodging: We provide transportation and several meals each day at Portland Cocktail Week, which takes pressure off of guests to pay out of pocket AND creates a safer environment for everyone.
Education: All of our programmingis focused solely on the business of the bar and omits cocktail service. But, there are opportunities to come in and audit classes across multiple topics, if that better suits your interests and needs. We basically have a pass for every kind of bartender.
What are the key gaps in bartender knowledge that Portland Cocktail Week seeks to fill?
We, as an industry and a community, are very well versed in spirits, brands, categories and cocktails, but we are far less savvy when it comes to building a business or managing finances. Portland Cocktail Week allows motivated bartenders to apply for one of six programs: Anti-Waste, Applied Science, Bar Management, Bar Ownership, Bartending and Hospitality and Consulting. Each of these tracks focuses entirely on how to successfully forge your career in your particular field of study, while learning from the brightest and most generous minds in our industry. When you sign up for one of these Majors, you are guaranteed access to 8 hours of classes led by the leading minds on each topic in a small classroom setting with your peers (and only your peers).
Additionally, we offer classes in Health and Wellness, Entrepreneurship, Personal Finance and Sexual Assault Prevention Training. We really pioneered focusing on these important topics. And, by eliminating alcohol from the classroom, our guests are exclusively focused on the topics at hand—they leave with a solid grasp of the subjects.
The Bar Ownership Major is led by Angie Fetherston and Derek Brown of Drinks Co. (DC). Drinks Co. is a pioneer in so many ways in our industry, and Portland Cocktail Week certainly benefits from their creativity. Instead of leading traditional classes, Angie and Derek lead their students through the full process of developing a pitch and business plan to open a bar and raise money against that plan—culminating in group presentations for each bar dreamed up by our students. There’s nothing like this in our industry, and I’m so grateful to be able to offer that kind of hands on education moderated by two people I deeply respect and admire.
How do you come up with the academic curriculum each year? Who and what determines what will be taught?
Each year, I outline the big ideas behind the program-specifically, which Majors will be taught and who will be the Deans for each Major. Since these Deans are experts in their space, I do my best to give them the latitude to present the specific classes and bring in the specific presenters they believe are the right fit for the program. We do mandate that each program represent the wide cross section of people and experiences that make our industry so special. We endeavor to have a variety of perspectives both educating and learning in our classrooms, and to accomplish this, we start at the top.
Along with the Deans, Education is managed by two members of our Varsity Team, which is a program we created to offer front row seats and hands on training for those interested in event production—think of it as an internship with a very cool jacket. Michael Moberly and Aundrea Thomas lead the Education area of Portland Cocktail Week and are very active in all of the conversations the Deans are having. This serves two purposes: it allows our Varsity Team to work directly with these brilliant Deans to develop a program and see the ins and outs while also offering the student perspective to our Deans as they develop programming. My team and I are also very involved in the process—helping with identifying presenters, maintaining our quality standards and supporting the Deans with all of their big plans!
What are Portland Cocktail Week’s most popular educational sessions?
Our students are all assigned to their classes based on their Majors. So, there really isn’t a more popular class versus another—since we assign 85% of all seats. We always leave room for folks with Bartender Passes — and Portlanders—to audit classes. But, I will tell you that our most popular major since the inception of the program was Bartending and Hospitality, but it was recently unseated by Applied Science which took the number one spot with our applicants this year. Having said that, Bartending and Hospitality is still #2 with 20 fewer applications than Applied Science this year.
How are the instructors selected?
We do allow people to submit seminars which are then evaluated by my team and Varsity. If we believe a class is a good fit, we do forward it to the appropriate Deans. You can find the submission form here:
Is it true that spirits brands cannot sponsor any classrooms nor serve any alcohol in the classrooms? If so, how and why did this policy come about?
We do not allow alcohol in our classrooms, which is a policy we pioneered in 2013 and have stuck with ever since. Of course, there have been a few exceptions to this rule (and we do allow alcohol for demos, but never for tasting). But, this is a fairly consistent position we’ve held for years.
Instead of allowing brands to sponsor specific classes, we offer the opportunity to sponsor entire programs and each Major does have a spirits sponsor supporting it. Along with the classroom sponsorship, they are given a large exhibition space and the opportunity to take their Students and Educators to dinner on the Monday night of our programming. During that dinner and in that exhibition space, sponsors can share their products and are encouraged to also share product information and build out a brand world.
Beyond classroom education, what are the other aspects of Portland Cocktail Week that are significant?
We try to find opportunities for our Students to work events as well as attend them. This gives them hands on experience in event and drink production—two skills they will need as they progress in their careers.
Our week kicks off with Brown and Balanced, which is maybe our favorite event at Lush Life. Brown and Balanced is led by our teammates Josh Davis and Jordanne Ho-Shue who help us bring attention to the contributions of Black and Brown bartenders in the hospitality industry. This is a celebration of those contributions that draws over 600 guests each year. This event always raises money for an amazing charity and brings people together in an informal and fun way while drawing attention to these marginalized communities. It’s a truly special event and one we’re proud to host.
The week ends with the Bartender Showcase, which asks 20 bartenders from around the U.S. to develop a cocktail that celebrates their city and gives our guests a window into the way people are drinking in those cities across the U.S. All Showcase bartenders are offered a full scholarship to Portland Cocktail Week which includes room and board for the week along with a Student Pass for the Major of their choice.
In between, there are so many fun things to talk about!
Patron debuted their International Cocktail Karaoke Showcase (which is now an International Program!) at Portland Cocktail Week in 2015, and has been going strong ever since. We’re so excited to be hosting this incredibly fun and team-building activity.
We’re hosting the finals for Espolon’s COCKtail Fights this year, which is also super exciting! This is another fantastic team-oriented piece of programming that encourages bartenders to work together to produce really interesting presentations that go so far outside the box.
Hennessy consistently throws the most epic after party to close out the festivities, and I can’t wait for everyone to see what they’ve put together for 2019!
Since its inception, how many bartenders have attended Portland Cocktail Week in total? From how many different states?
Over the years, we’ve seen more than 15,000 bartenders from every state in the U.S. We anticipate 1,500-2,000 guests (we cap at 2,000) in 2019. The last state in was New Hampshire, believe it or not! Because of where Portland is located, we had Hawaiians and Alaskans in year two. And despite where it’s located, we always see 30-40 Puerto Ricans!
Have there been any international attendees? If so, from which countries?
Every year, there are typically 10-20 Canadians and 5-10 other international guests. Typically, they come from the UK and Asia. Having said that, since we are so focused on business and not cocktails and spirits, this program is far better suited for those who have to adhere to U.S. laws.
How do you see Portland Cocktail Week evolving over the next five years?
I would love to partner up with an accredited institution and offer online learning modules for bartenders in an effort to codify and formalize bar business education. Of course, that’s the big dream, and I do think we’re still fairly far away from that reality. Over the next five years, I do see the program living increasingly online in an effort to further democratize the information. As long as we can build a model where this information is freely available to bartenders, I’m happy!
How did Camp Runamok come about and how does it compare with Portland Cocktail Week? What are the top 3 differences?
Camp Runamok came about in a fairly similar fashion to Portland Cocktail Week. After visiting Louisville and spending some time with Jared Schubert (a dear friend and bartender from Louisville), it was evident that Bourbon was on the rise, but so few of our mutual friends had come down to visit the home of our native spirit. Jared was frustrated that his friends were going to Sweden and Mexico to visit distilleries, but there was no reason for people to come to Louisville and meet living legends like Jimmy Russell and Al Young and Chris Morris. So, Jared and I got to brainstorming ways to get people down here. Jared is a more outdoorsy person than I am and he proposed actual Camping, but that didn’t seem like the most appealing option (specifically thinking about the people I knew in big cities). We ended up downloading “Wet Hot American Summer” and enjoying a bottle of Bourbon when the idea struck me—let’s find a summer camp and take it over to host the first ever bartender version. Camp Runamok and Portland Cocktail Week are fairly different experiences, but at their core, both programs focus on community building, education and making space for all people in our industry.
What are your top 5 favorite bars in Portland and why?
Hey Love: Not only is Hey Love located in the Jupiter Next (our host hotel), but it’s owned and run by Emily Mistell who is an incredible talent. My team fell in love with Emily when she was an attendee at one of our other projects (Cane Camp), and it’s continued over many frozen Don Q cocktails subsequently! Also, they have incredible food, fantastic coffee and the most thoughtfully executed and comfortable space in town!
Rum Club: Rum Club has turned into an institution, but I remember when it was just being built by Mike Shea and his amazing team. The newest bar manager over at Rum Club, Micah Anderson, is also a veteran of our programs (former Camp Runamok Counselor!) and a dear friend to everyone on my team. The drinks are always a wonderful as the company in there.
Picnic: Al Utt runs the program over at Picnic, and we are so grateful for their presence in all of our lives. Al is one of the kindest and most empathetic people I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet and matches that with an incredible work ethic. Al heads up our Varsity Logistics Team and makes sure we have all of our permitting set each year for PDXCW.
Deadshot: Owned by Adam Robinson (a former Camper) and Managed by Natasha Mesa (the Global winner of the Brugal Competition we helped manage this year!), Deadshot is a must-visit for my team every time we’re in town. The cocktails are innovative and play with unexpected flavors, and the space is very inviting.
Canard: This all day cafe keeps me and my team going with coffee, sparkling water and incredible food during our long planning sessions! The cocktails are fantastic, the food might be even better, and the staff is always friendly. This place is the platonic ideal of the all day cafe and it’s only steps away from the Jupiter!
Article originally posted by forbes.