Finding the Right Mix

Outgoing chief of Bartenders’ Guild revitalized organization

When Livio Lauro was appointed interim president of the United States Bartenders’ Guild in May 2005, the organization was in a rut. Saddled with debt from a failed convention, the USBG was disorganized, essentially run “as a place for bartenders to get together and have a beverage,” Lauro says.

Five years and two re-elections later, Lauro has led the group—which has grown from 150 members to more than 1,300—in a new direction that emphasizes knowledge and craftsmanship. Due to term limits, a new president will be elected this month to take over the guild, but Lauro is leaving his post with fond memories and big hopes for the future.

Lauro’s first order of business as president of the USBG, an affiliate of the International Bartenders Association that was established in 1948, was to move the headquarters from Long Beach, Calif., to Las Vegas. Lauro, who has served as district manager of Southern Wine and Spirits since 2001, thought transitioning the USBG’s base to Las Vegas would enable the group to “start our history from scratch.” After relocating and cleaning up the guild’s finances, Lauro set about changing the organization’s mission statement.

“The mission of the Bartenders’ Guild is to elevate the image of the bartender in our country and promote the craft of the cocktail as well as the brotherhood of bartenders,” Lauro says. “We try to make sure that everybody understands that we don’t just welcome the crafty bartenders. We like to reach out to bartenders of all walks of life.”

One of the issues facing many bartenders was lack of health-insurance coverage, but Lauro fought to fix that, and now the guild offers a variety of health-insurance plans to its members.

“I’d say the biggest keys to Livio’s success are his passion for the guild and never wanting to take any credit for it,” says Bobby Gleason, a former vice president of the guild and Beam Global Spirits and Wine’s master mixologist. “He’s so unselfish doing what he does, just giving all his time and efforts. We all give him that credit, and he’s very modest about it.”

In 2007, Lauro partnered with some of the country’s top beverage professionals to develop the USBG’s Master Accreditation Program. Launched in 2008, the program tests bartenders’ skills on three levels: spirits professional, which requires a 100-question written test; advanced bartender, which includes a 150-question written test and a practical exam; and master mixologist, for which candidates submit a written thesis and must pass a panel interview.

“Bartending was simply a gig,” Lauro says. “Nobody saw it as a form of culinary art. Very few bartenders felt that that should be their lifelong career. The master accreditation was born to sort of create a standard as well as give knowledgeable bartenders the opportunity to validate their knowledge.”

Beyond the master accreditation exams, USBG’s members put their skills to the test at guild competitions, which range from local chapters’ cocktail contests to the USBG national bartending competition. The annual competition’s winner advances to compete in the IBA’s world bartending competition. In 2005, the USBG placed 45th out of 55 countries participating in the competition. Last year, the guild placed fourth.

As he leaves his post with the USBG, Lauro hopes the guild continues to prove that bartending is more than just pouring shots and serving beers, and that bartenders have the business acumen and skill to elevate crafting cocktails into an art form.

“In 2008 and 2009, when the smartest money people—the CEOs and the CFOs—were struggling and putting companies into bankruptcy, here’s a group of bartenders who are growing a guild by 300 percent,” Lauro says. “While the trend was that businesses were closing down, here’s a group of bartenders running a Bartenders’ Guild, and it was growing and growing and growing and growing. It kind of highlighted the fact that bartenders have brains; they have business sense when they need it.”