Grey Goose Global Brand Ambassador Joe McCanta isn’t what you’d call a typical southern Californian. He’s into jazz, plays the piano, holds a degree from the prestigious New England Conservatory (NEC), loves classic literature and reads as more New York City than Orange County in his tailored suits and trendy street duds. He grew up in the sunshine-stained OC, but when this once aspiring jazz pianist moved to New York City to pursue his musical dreams, he soon found himself in London working and traveling the globe for the premium vodka purveyor.
McCanta began playing the piano at five years old. His love for music and the arts later lead him to study at the University of Southern California, where he pursued a degree in both music and literature. However, after two years there, he transferred to the New England Conservatory in Boston to study under jazz pianist and five-time Grammy winner, Fred Hersch, hoping he would become the next Brad Mehldau — a five-time Grammy nominee and McCanta’s idol. But life and jazz had other plans.
While at NEC, McCanta got a job working in a wine shop to help offset the costs of school and his musical pursuits.
“I started working at a wine store near my flat in Boston to help pay for my music school. The store was founded by Joshua Wesson, who was the first American to win the international sommelier competition. He was super generous, teaching me a lot about the world of wine.”
After graduating from NEC, he moved to New York City and did what all starving artists do: he joined a band (Semi-Precious Weapons). He also began working as a sommelier at East Village wine bar, Counter. The first glimpse into McCanta’s future as a charming brand ambassador was when he managed to convince Counter’s owners to use their liquor license to start selling cocktails — which he admittedly knew nothing about at the time. McCanta spent his days off researching drinks, visiting bars like Pegu Club and Employees Only, studying bartenders and reading Dale DeGroff’s “Craft of the Cocktail.” He recalls how his love of flavors and fresh ingredients began: “We had a rooftop at Counter and very early on started growing our own ingredients on the roof to try new things. Our chef was amazingly generous and helped teach me a lot about flavor matching, caring for your ingredients and urban farming.”
When the band started going in a musical direction that McCanta wasn’t feeling, he decided this was his opportunity to pursue his passion for cocktails full-time.
While working at Counter, McCanta was approached by a regular at the bar, a Turkish businessman who was opening a chain of vegan restaurants overseas. Impressed by McCanta’s rising star in the cocktail world (his recipes were featured in the New York Times and he launched entrepreneurial ventures like his cocktail catering company), he wanted the young bartender to work parties on behalf of his restaurant, Saf, in Turkey. It was an opportunity of a lifetime. The brief hiatus turned into a year and transformed McCanta’s world.
“Whilst at the Saf’s London spot, Grey Goose had a competition for bartenders to come up with their 'Dream Bar' concept. I submitted the idea of the world's freshest cocktail being made from a bar which was a green house, growing all our own ingredients and being able to pick those the moment before serving. The ice well melted into pipes which watered all the herbs and it was solar powered — so, quite efficient.”
McCanta began working as a special events bartender for Grey Goose after winning the competition and having his dream bar built. From there, he was hired as the UK brand ambassador and eventually the brand’s global ambassadorship based in London.
He admits the biggest adjustment since moving to London, especially for a bartender, is ounces to milliliters. Oh, and making sure to say trousers instead of pants, lest you discuss your underwear in polite company. “I think one of the first weeks I was behind the bar in the UK, I said something to the extent of 'these pants are brand new, so need a little breaking in.' You can imagine how that went down.”
Measurements and colloquialisms aside, McCanta finds traveling has allowed him to acclimate quickly to new environments, think on his feet and take these little humbling moments in stride — useful qualities for a globe-trotting brand ambassador.
McCanta says diplomacy has been the biggest difference between his two ambassadorships. While both jobs build relationships between brands and bartenders, traveling the world for Grey Goose means finding commonality among countries. “Being an ambassador of one country is maybe a bit more about building the relationships with the bartenders of that country, trying to support them and their bars creatively. When you move into a global role, it's a bit more about being the conduit and connecting the various markets.”
Being the worldwide, head bartender for an entire brand also means making sure the drinks and training you’re providing are relatable across the global market. Seminars and speaking engagements at bar shows help to bridge some of those global gaps. This year McCanta will host a seminar at Tales of the Cocktail titled “Vodka is Dead … Long Live Vodka” with Claire Smith-Warner, Audrey Saunders, Jared Brown and Paul Archie to dispel myths about the spirit.
But, really, what is a typical day like for a vodka-evangelizing, jet-setting brand ambassador?
“Wake up around noon. Make a Bloody Mary. Check my expenses. Get ready to go out for the night. That's pretty much it? Obviously kidding. My dear friend Giuseppe Gallo used to say, ‘Global ambassadors work 9 to 5 — only it’s 9 a.m. to 5 a.m.!’”
His many job duties include marketing, bartending, sales, step and repeats at events, leading training, responding to emails en route to a meeting — anything and everything that needs doing. That also includes serving drinks in a Nicaraguan jungle or pairing cocktails for a 250 person charity dinner in Cannes.
“The real answer is there's no such thing as 'typical' and there's no such thing as 'working' or 'not-working', which is why I don't believe in an ‘out of office.’ With a brand like Grey Goose, there is always something happening at some point in your day.”
The job has allowed McCanta a few personal perks, however, keeping his passion for flavors and ingredients alive through his travels.
“You're constantly meeting incredibly inspiring bartenders and chefs who share with you their loves, their local tastes and their style of mixing. I find myself being blown away by how generous people are!”
His humility and eagerness to learn from others compels McCanta to seek out guest shifts in the cities he visits on behalf of Grey Goose. It keeps him in touch with some of the world’s leading bartenders and introduces him to flavors he otherwise wouldn’t experience.
While this wasn’t the world tour McCanta had in mind when he graduated from NEC, he doesn’t regret leaving his musical aspirations behind for cocktails — even if some of his former bandmates have worked with the likes of Lady Gaga, Gwen Stefani and Justin Bieber.
“I wanted to play music that I loved, even if that meant I couldn't play professionally. I still play at home, for friends and on every piano I can find in my travels with Grey Goose.”
He’s even put his musical talents to work for the brand, helping to procure a beautiful grand piano from the 1901 World's Fair in Buffalo, New York for Le Logis — the home of Grey Goose.
Back in London, coming off his latest trip (another year at the Cannes Film Festival), McCanta finds himself answering dozens of long-avoided emails, mired in the minutia of the job. But he looks forward to a little piano playing each evening, while sipping on a cocktail before heading out on his next adventure in the name of vodka.