Culture

How to Fit Travel Into a Bartending Career

A man standing on top of a hill.
More and more bartenders are finding a way to maintain a nomadic lifestyle while continuing to develop their craft. Photo via Flickr/Dheri Fikriyanto.

Ask anyone to imagine his or her dream lifestyle, and you’ll find a common answer: traveling around the world at will, doing a fun job and making decent money at it.

This is a reality for a surprising number of people in the bar industry. Nomadic — or semi-nomadic — bartenders are becoming more common. While the easiest (and cushiest) way to travel is to get a brand ambassador job for a liquor company, there are plenty of other ways to catch a flight.

Zdenek Kastanek has been on the road for 10 years. Kastanek grew up in a small town in the Czech Republic, but has spent the last three years in Singapore as the general manager and spirits evangelist of Proof & Company, and a bartender in residence at 28 HongKong Street.

For Kastanek, the idea of combining traveling and bartending came naturally a few years into his hospitality career, when he moved to Sydney, Australia and then London, England. Of his time in Sydney, Kastanek says, “It showed me a completely different approach to life. I learned that, if you need to, you can learn anything in a very short time.”

Sean Kenyon, the owner and proprietor of Williams & Graham and Occidental in Denver, began his nomadic lifestyle much later in his career.

“I would say that traveling found me,” says Kenyon, a third-generation bartender with 30 years of experience. In 2008, Kenyon started working with AKA Wine Geek at programs like Aspen Food and Wine, South Beach Food and Wine and Bar Smarts. Shortly after, some of the industry people he met at these events asked him to participate in international seminars and events.

Since then, Kenyon says, “I’ve been all over the world making drinks. I couldn’t put a count on the countries but I think it’s 26 or 27.”

While there are obvious cultural nuances, the good news is that many principles of bartending are essentially the same all over the world.

“A bar is a bar is a bar in a lot of ways. If you put me behind any bar in any country, I’ll find a level of comfort. The bartending didn’t have to adapt but the tools to make it happen did,” says Kenyon, who carries a special 40-item bar kit with him on all of his international trips.

George Nemec lived abroad for 14 years after studying hospitality in his home country of the Czech Republic.

“I felt in love with the bar world immediately,” says Nemec. During his studies, he traveled a lot. His first trip abroad was to Australia in 2001. “It changed me a lot. I worked in all sorts of cocktail bars for the next eight years.” From there, Nemec moved to Shanghai before moving to Prague, where he is currently based.

For Nemec, moving abroad was challenging — but not unexpectedly so. “All beginnings are difficult and starting in a different country without your language is extremely difficult,” he says. Nemec credits his nomadic lifestyle with changing his overall point of view.

“It was 14 years living abroad in very different countries with many ups and with many downs. I learned how to listen to others, how to adjust. I learned a lot about myself and of course I learned many different styles and types of bartending.”

These days, Nemec does a lot of his travel for either his consulting business, Pure Spirit & Co., or as part of his global ambassadorship with Becherovka Original.

There are no guaranteed paths to success when it comes to attaining a nomadic lifestyle, but sometimes it’s as simple as actually moving to a new country and finding a job.

“In the beginning, it’s just couple hundred in your pocket and a flight ticket. A young barkeep will always talk his or her way into a job somewhere around the world. As we get older, we need more comfort and so budgets get bigger. If you do well there might be a trip or two paid for by a client or a spirit brand,” says Kastanek.

Some people prefer to keep a home base and take frequent trips as guest bartenders or educators, like Kenyon. If this is more your style, he suggests finding a niche for yourself.

“Find something that people want to learn. Develop an expertise. People aren’t going to fly the local neighborhood bartender to Russia to talk to bartenders,” he says. Kenyon established himself as the cutting-edge cocktail guy at the start of the mixology craze in his region, which helped him get recognized on a larger scale.

If you really want to travel, Kenyon advises doing everything you can to make it happen for yourself.

“Pay your own way to visit some of these international bar shows where you can meet the people that count, then make the connections. If you’re looking to apprentice with someone on your own dime, that will open doors, too.”

The demand for craft cocktails has risen around the world in recent years, which puts aspiring nomadic bartenders in a good position.

“Traveling is just a great way of living, getting to know yourself, observing the world and constantly building your character,” says Kastanek. “I think most people have a certain amount of years in them for nomadic life. The trick is to make peace with the challenges, and to recognize when you stop getting joy out of it.”

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