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Making waves: the life of a cruise bartender

With Diageo launching a festival dedicated to cruise bartenders and ahead of World Bartender Day tomorrow (24 February), we discover what the role involves and how it differs from traditional bartending.

Edgar Pacheco was named World Class Cruise Bartender of the Year in 2022
Edgar Pacheco was named World Class Cruise Bartender of the Year in 2022

Bartending has its ups and downs – but those ups and downs can be quite literal for cruise bartenders. As well as dealing with rough waves, cruise bartenders face myriad issues unknown to those living on land. As Edgar Pacheco, who was named World Class Cruise Bartender of the Year in 2022, explains: “Our resources are not always available and we do not have the opportunity to get restock daily.”

As well as the occasional lack of ingredients, Pacheco explains that a lot of advanced mixology equipment is too large or too dangerous to have on board a ship. “But every challenge represents an opportunity,” he says, adding that he and his team love overcoming problems creatively, working out how to infuse spirits quickly enough to meet demand and how to smoke cocktails without fire.

Originally from Cancún, Mexico, Pacheco adds that working on cruises has also allowed him to interact with different cultures. “It pushes my boundaries as I need to learn new languages and adapt to different points of view. In general, I think it makes me a better person and a better professional.

“You can have a wider approach, using trends and techniques from places that we normally wouldn’t be able to visit. We also get to visit some of the most awarded bars all over the world and work with ingredients that are only available in certain locations.”

These skills all helped Pacheco bag the World Class Cruise Bartender of the Year title. This year’s competition will see Diageo launch the World Class Cruise Cocktail Festival as a precursor, with 20 bartenders across seven cruise ships taking part in March and April, before a winner is chosen. Later in the year, the World Class bartender competition will see these cruise mixologists go up against bartenders from dry land.

“The competition is a great opportunity for us to be exposed to more eyes and make more friends and also to be more aware of the brands that we work with,” adds Pacheco.

Keep it creative

When it comes to planning menus, Pacheco has the support of a large team: “All cocktails are tasted by our mixology teams and they’re adjusted to the cruise line needs – this can be a challenge, as some of the items are not always available in all the main ports we visit. At the same time, it also represents an opportunity for us to get creative and find replacements.”

Adjusting to cruise line needs and maintaining creativity is a key part of the role, explains Emily Lively, Diageo’s head of cruise and airlines: “You are at sea and some of your patrons are coming back every night on a fortnight or week-long cruise. It is not a one-off visit.

“Passengers expect to be able to find their favourite brands behind the bar when they are on board, but they also sometimes want something different to complement their holiday. Delivering a top-notch experience is, of course, key – whether it is a classic like a G&T or a more exotic cocktail.”

When it comes to menus, cruise bartenders must also consider beverage packages, a common part of the industry. “You have to curate ranges and options within brackets,” explains Lively. “And it’s important that cruise lines find ways to deliver an elevated experience to passengers to get them to explore outside of their norms and possibly elevate their package choice.”

While there’s often talk of elevating experiences within the on-trade, it’s particularly important on board a ship, when guests need to be kept engaged at every touch point. “The bars need to remain engaging and enticing for multiple visits,” explains Lively. “Overall I would say cruise passengers are understandably discerning and demanding – they want choice, inspiration and the option to enjoy both repeated and different drinks varieties throughout their stay – be it three nights or 14.”

Luckily, it’s not up to each bartender to provide a new experience every night. “There are so many different types of venues on board for every part of a passenger’s day, for multiple days,” says Lively. “This gives us so much more opportunity to offer an experience and build our brands – we can offer great cocktail options from a brunch Mimosa through to late-night Tom Collins.”

Travel retail is often cited as a great opportunity for brand building, and some companies are realising that cruises offer a similar option. Diageo’s cruise and airlines division, which Lively leads, was introduced in 2022. “Diageo has always worked with the cruise and airline world, but the opportunities to partner with them have grown, as has the understanding of the ‘brand building’ space that they represent – the captive consumer in transit,” she explains.

A dedicated team was introduced once Diageo recognised how much the division differs from traditional airport retail. “We needed strategies fit for the unique channels. A key point of differentiation is that more than 50% of our business is on-trade, so it’s important that we can lean into that vibrant portion of the channel – be it cocktail menus, bartender support, or our World Class competition.”

Life on board

Those who might be considering a life on the open seas might be concerned about work-life balance; while it can be a struggle for anyone in the industry, those who work on cruise ships are quite literally trapped at their place of work. “It can be challenging to find the perfect balance between work and life. We work in different shifts, and it is all based on operational needs,” says Pacheco.

“But one of the best parts of life at sea is the bond you build with your co-workers – they basically become your friends and your family.

“At the same time, there are teams onboard that are assigned to help us find work-life balance. I’m very happy to say that where I work, there are many activities to help us disconnect from work and find our balance.”

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