“Think outside the box.” Mitch Townsend shares tips on entering the Flor de Caña Sustainable Cocktail Challenge, and careers

After working in the kitchen, Mitch worked Melbourne’s best bars before landing his dream ambassador gig.

“Think outside the box.” Mitch Townsend shares tips on entering the Flor de Caña Sustainable Cocktail Challenge, and careers

Welcome back to the Drinks At Work newsletter and podcast — I’ve had a little break, through April and the first half of May. Somehow attending every takeover of the maybe Cocktail Festival, and organising the first Boothby Best Bars QLD awards up in Brisbane (which is on Monday night — stay tuned for the top 30) took up a fair bit of time.

I’m happy to be back with the 40th episode of Drinks At Work, and it’s a good one — my guest on this episode is Mitch Townsend, the Flor de Caña brand ambassador for Australia, New Zealand and Japan (yep, you read that right).

The Flor de Caña Sustainable Cocktail Challenge is the sponsor of this show, too, so in this episode Mitch shares some advice on what will make a winning drink in that competition, as well as his insights into the world of ambassadoring, and tips for building a big career in the bar world.

First, though — a message from the sponsor.

For the third year running, premium rum brand Flor de Caña has kicked off its Sustainable Cocktail Challenge to find the next champion of sustainable and delicious drinks. Registrations are open until June 15 for the Australian selection, and bartenders must register their cocktail creation online at www.flordecanachallenge.com. More information about the challenge can be found on the website. May the best bartender win!

The Australian winner will go on to Nicaragua and the global final in February 2024, and compete for the title of Flor de Caña World’s Most Sustainable Bartender — and a whopping $10,000 USD prize.

Entries close June 15 — visit www.flordecanachallenge.com for more.

Give the full podcast a listen — Mitch has an interesting perspective on the ambassador life and some good tips for getting a good result in the Flor de Caña Sustainable Cocktail Challenge. As always, though, I’ve pulled out a few highlights from the interview below.

Give the podcast a listen in the player here, in the Apple Podcasts app, on Spotify, or wherever you get yours.

Mitch Townsend is the Flor de Caña ambassador for Australia, New Zealand — and Japan. Photo: Supplied
Mitch Townsend is the Flor de Caña ambassador for Australia, New Zealand — and Japan. Photo: Supplied

The Quotable Mitch Townsend

“I can speak a little bit of Japanese.” I love this. When Mitch went for the Flor de Caña ambassador gig, his resume included an interesting tidbit for the brand: he’s worked in Japan before setting up a bar, and can speak the language a bit. They were also looking for a brand ambassador for Japan at the time, and that is now part of his role. It’s a good example of how a little serendipity — and the skills you foster throughout your life — can lead to unexpected career paths.

“I like seeing people enjoy something that I created.” Mitch began his hospo career not behind the bar, but in the kitchen. He completed his apprenticeship, but it wasn’t what he was after. The thing he liked about being behind the bar? That immediate satisfaction you get from a guest who loves what you’ve made for them. “You can see their face as soon as they take that first sip,” he says.

“Having a network is very important.” Back a decade or so ago, careers people would always talk about developing a network. It always sounded a little gauche to me — it felt a little like you were using people as stepping stones. But  it doesn’t have to be that way, and the way a network — if we’re going to use that phrase — builds in hospitality is through shared experience, socialising with other bartenders, attending workshops and comps and getting to know each other. A hospo network tends to be more a friend and colleague group (and hence, more human) and it can make your life easier having trusted allies to call upon.
“It’s very easy to organise events, trainings, selling things to people that you already know,” Mitch says.

“Think outside the box. Be creative.” Sustainability has been in the bartending conversation for the better part of a decade now, but in many competitions it’s a bit of an add-on; as Mitch says in the chat, the Flor de Caña Sustainable Cocktail Challenge is different. To win this comp, you’ve got to think deeply and go all in on sustainability. “Every ingredient needs to be locally sourced, sustainably made, and it can be interpreted differently.”

“Go to the cafe down the road, get the waste cappuccino, milk and make a Milk Punch.” Mitch recommends broadening your horizon when it comes to creating a sustainable drink, and think not just about the ingredients but the environment you’re in — talk to other businesses in the area, see what solutions you can come up with that help them (as well as making a delicious drink).

“It’s a global competition with 10,000 USD on the line. Like, you want it — you got to fight for it.” Last year’s Australian winner, Tom McHugh from Melbourne restaurant, Hazel, went to town on sustainability: he used in-house koji, bread made from scratch in the restaurant, organic and sustainably produced coffee, chocolate from a rainforest rehabilitation farm that gives donations to endangered species — the whole shebang. “Everything was entirely closed circle recycled in the venue,” says Mitch.

“We don’t really have a set schedule as brand ambassadors.” If you want the ambassador gig, you best be of a flexible disposition — the job will take you everywhere, but also to days and nights and airport delays and changes in schedule. “You might need to work 14 days in a row and then have a Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday off and reset and then go somewhere else,” he says.

“The grass is always greener.” The perverse result of the pandemic was that when bars reopened, it was a wage seller’s market. Bartenders have taken advantage of that, often skipping out on a job for a better one within months. But if you’re looking to build a long lasting career, it does pay to spend time getting to know a bar and its clientele. “People don’t really stick around for more than six months at a venue anymore,” says Mitch. “I think at least one year in a bar you should do, unless there’s obviously something horribly wrong with the venue, you’re getting underpaid or mistreated or something.”

Registrations in the Flor de Caña Sustainable Cocktail Challenge are open now and close on June 15. Learn more online at www.flordecanachallenge.com.