How to become a drinks writer — a little advice

Maybe you're a bartender, and you want to write about cocktails, bars, or the booze industry more broadly — here's a little advice on how to become a drinks writer.

How does one become a drinks writer? I was asked this question by a bartender the other week, and it’s a question that I hear from time to time. The job looks pretty good, right? You spend your time talking to bartenders, distillers, brand ambassadors; you drink the cocktails, taste the spirits, hit the bars and events.

And then you write about it.

This is where you might expect me to write: oh, it’s not all fun and games, and it’s a lot harder than it looks.

But I won’t. Yes, to be able to do the job you have to work hard, hangovers suck and they don’t get better as you age, and trying to explain what you do to the other parents at school pickup is difficult at best.

That doesn’t matter. It’s a fucking great job and anyone who tells you different doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

And you know what? I’m no expert. I’ve been writing about bars, bartenders and drinks for nearly 10 years — after 10 years behind the bar before that — and every day feels like day one. There isn’t a single issue of the 90-odd monthly mags we put out in my time at Australian Bartender that I wouldn’t take back again to improve. I’ve written things I like and I’ve written things to which I’d like to set fire. Every piece can always be better.

But it’s meeting the people in the industry, telling their stories, understanding why they do what they do — that’s the part I love.

Advice on writing is like advice on how to drink — there are no hard and fast rules. So take the advice below however you will — it’s just my opinion, based upon my experience and what I’d like to see.

1. Start writing

Maybe you have some writing experience, maybe you don’t — the first big thing is to just get started writing.

You can write just for yourself for now if you’re not confident in what you are saying, but if you want to publish on the web quickly and easily, get yourself set up at medium.com, or Substack if you want to start an email list. Or for more customisation without coding use a service like Squarespace, or, if you’re ok with a little code and want more control, go and get started with your own Wordpress site.

Then begin.

2. Find a niche

Even though the bar and drinks world is pretty niche to begin with, you can always narrow in further on specialty. If you’re into spirits, pick a category and go deep.

On a broader level, the drinks industry and the bar industry are two related but different subject areas. One is more about the spirits, new releases, and producers; the other is about the bars, bartenders and the way that all works. You can write for both audiences, but it’s good to know the difference.

The last top level difference is between the trade audience and the wider consumer audience. Though there is crossover between the two — at Boothby, that’s where we focus — the two audiences are very different when it comes to their knowledge about drinks and bars. Write accordingly.

3. Send your words out there

What’s the goal of your writing? Is it to one day get paid as a writer? Is it to influence the conversation, or to get your name out there?

If it’s the latter option, there are any number of publications, trade or otherwise, likely to welcome your words. The budgets to pay writers are pretty tight, and almost non-existent in the trades. So you might be writing some articles for free to get started.

If it’s working as a writer — and in particular, as a drinks writer — know that there are not many of those jobs out there. (I was lucky enough to snag one of the few roles out there, writing at Australian Bartender magazine, and I didn’t leave for eight years.) Your best bet is to write often, pounce on any editorial job ads that pop up, and be ready to reduce your standard of living until you’ve been at it for a while.

But if you just want to see your stuff published, find the email addresses of the editors for whichever publication it is you want your story to appear in. Shoot them an email with a pitch for a story: you’ll need a good idea, some reason why you’re the best person to write the piece, patience, and a high tolerance for rejection.

For more advice on pitching, listen to the Hospitality Forward podcast from Hanna Lee and Michael Anstendig. They speak to a number of drinks writers, and you’ll definitely get some tips you can use.

4. Be precise

This applies to both the words you write and the speech you report. If you’re quoting someone, make sure you quote them correctly. Spell their name right — I’ve made this mistake before, in big, bold type across a two page spread and the embarrassment almost killed me.

If you’re writing for yourself you may not always catch the spelling mistakes — it is tough to proof your own words. But you can make sure you represent people accurately, so do it.

A recommendation: I pinched this point about being precise from The Little Red Writing Book by Mark Tredinnick. I picked up the book when I entered uni — it’s a great tool to help your writing.

5. Big words are dumb

I’ve had bartenders with great ideas spoil their stories by using words they think they should use, instead of writing the way they would say it — bartenders have some of the best banter around, and people love to hear it. Just keep it simple. You don’t need big words. The goal should be to get your point across, not bamboozle. If you have something to say you want to be understood, right?

Oh, and another thing: steer clear of industry jargon. If I never write the word ‘premiumisation’ again I’ll count that as a win.

6. Booze is about people

You can be a nerdy drinks geek — there’s nothing wrong with that. Just remember that most people do not care about when in time that obscure classic cocktail was created. Most people do not care that a distillery uses a worm tub condenser.

What they do tend to care about are people stories. So if the worm tub condenser was found by the distiller in the middle of the night when she or he was walking home from the ball, well, there’s probably a story there.

7. Don’t be a dick

Look, if you want to put words into the world, it necessarily involves some ego — assuming people want to read what you have to say means you have some tickets on yourself. There’s nothing wrong with that, particularly if you’re passionate and you’re knowledgeable.

But it’s easy to go too far these days. Social media is geared to boost hot takes, and the more controversial your opinion — the more extreme it is — the more engagement it will get and the wider it will spread.

So don’t do it. Don’t spray ill-informed shit into the world. Don’t be a dick. If you’re going to spend precious time writing — and it does take time — try to contribute something positive. Write something different if you can. Write something people can use.

Don’t regurgitate press releases if you don’t have to (though this is what many sites run on). Don’t steal copy from other writers and pass it off as your own. Credit writers when you quote them and link to them if you can.

Try to zag when others zig. Find writers you like to read and share their stuff. Tell stories. Most of all, have fun.

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