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Mixing it Up with Chris Chamberlain from Gallo

Photo for: Mixing it Up with Chris Chamberlain from Gallo

02/01/2024 Exploring the Art and Science of Mixology, the Resurgence of Vodka, and Innovative Cocktail Trends.

With nearly half a century of experience, the Spirit of Gallo has firmly established itself as a prominent spirits supplier in the United States. Christopher Chamberlain, a seasoned expert plays a prominent role as the Senior Manager of Spirits Academy. Chris is a dynamic force in the world of mixology and spirits development. Let’s explore Chris’s multifaceted role, his insights into the resurgence of vodka, and the ever-evolving landscape of cocktails and spirits.

Chris, your journey at Spirit of Gallo spans several roles. Can you tell us how your career has evolved, and what drew you to the world of spirits and mixology?

I spent many years in the hospitality sector learning the ins and outs of elite customer service as well as the unique connection between culinary creativity and how it can apply to beverage development.  Through those years, my understanding evolved as my interest in global travel allowed me to see how various cultures apply these to their local hospitality experiences.  In 2005, I was offered an opportunity to move from the hospitality sector into beverage/spirit sales & distribution.  This transition came at the same time we began to see the renaissance of our modern-day craft cocktail movement.  Thus, I was provided a position in which I could consult with accounts concerning cocktail development as well as support many skilled craftsmen/women as they explored this new phenomenon of branded cocktail competitions.  After a decade of working with large brands on various programs within the distribution network, I moved into the much smaller world of craft spirits where I supported the portfolio of Philadelphia Distilling.  This experience allowed me to apply my expertise by supporting the growth of the portfolio's presence within a national/global trade advocacy platform.  After 1 year of service, I was approached with a new opportunity to support E&J Gallo as they were expanding their newly developed/ever-growing spirits portfolio.  My decision was a leap of faith, but one that I am proud to say I made looking back now 7 years later.  We have a strong portfolio encompassing many categories and price points and our brands' ability to cross-pollinate within cocktail development is extraordinary. 

As the Senior Manager of Spirits Academy, you wear many hats. Could you elaborate on the various aspects of your role, from cocktail development to crafting social media content?

I support our portfolio of brands concerning the development of cocktail strategies, however, my role’s primary focus is overall education.  As a company that is somewhat new to the world of spirits, we have an opportunity to really develop the skillsets and category understanding of our internal sales force.  In addition, we (like many suppliers) are continuously educating our distributor partners on ways to best sell our brands and truly understand where they fall within the larger category.  Creating the foundation of this educational pathway and guiding our sales force through this experience is our teams' current focus.  That said, I also work hand-in-glove with our fantastic advocacy team to ensure we are providing the best trade-focused educational experiences within various large-scale events each year (BCB, Tales, PDXCW, etc.).

Can you share some behind-the-scenes insights into the creative process of developing multimedia content for branded stories and training videos within Gallo Spirits?

Storytelling is an art, however, a great story must flow appropriately in 1 cohesive direction, and creating a holistic, optimized, and engaging learning experience via a story is not always an easy task. Storytelling within a traditional training platform requires a structure that keeps participants engaged and should spark a desire to want to learn.  That said, we always need to ensure we are providing both the information and/or desired skillsets that one can easily implement into their daily role.  This element of integration will empower them to face new challenges, perfect their ability to translate these various stories, and grow in both confidences as well as their personal aspirations.  Now, I could dive deeper into these insights, but maybe I should keep our true approach and techniques our little secret - lol!

Image: Grapes of Craft Seminar Event - Portland Cocktail Week 2023, Chris Chamberlain presenting.

What inspired you to emphasize the importance of quality bar tools in crafting cocktails, and could you recommend some essential tools for aspiring mixologists?

Tools are a necessary component of beverage development, and like with anything, choosing the correct tools for the job will equate to high performance.  Ergonomics within the trade is often a topic overlooked and the wear-n-tear a bartender's body goes through in a shift can equate to that of a professional athlete.  The miles walked is a simple concept to understand, but the weight of shaker tins (even ice used within), the performance of a bar spoon within one's hand, and the shape/depth of a jigger are not as easy to quantify.  There are a ton of variables that we can discuss concerning these 3 tools alone, but quality matters, and the longevity of choosing high-performance tools is good for both the bottom line and the physical health of the bartender using them over long shifts.  That said, when creating a beginner tool kit, I suggest the following:

“Weighted” Double Tin Shaker – if you were to choose a 3-piece shaker and lose the lid/cap, the tool is somewhat useless.  A Boston Shaker, if the glass breaks, you still have a great pencil holder.

Quality Mixing Glass – an essential tool to elevate your profile when making a good spirit-forward/stirred cocktail.  Find one that reflects your style as there are many beautifully aesthetic options on the market.

Quality “Tight Spiral” Bar Spoon – Trust me…that tight spiral will allow the spoon to smoothly slide through your fingers. Just extend your pinky and you’ll look like a pro.

2-1 Jigger w/ Various Interior Measurements – choose a Japanese style or Leopold Bowl which provides great opening & depth for ingredients to enter the vessel.  Short triangle jiggers can be difficult to navigate.

No Prong Strainer – These are great as they can act as both a traditional Hawthorne or as a Julep strainer – fit for both tins or mixing glasses.

Mexican Hand Juicer – Simple tool, but a great resource for extracting fresh juice

Sharpe Peeler – Wonderfully expressed citrus peels can only be achieved through a well-cut peel via a sharp peeler  Just don’t cut your hands (it will happen so be prepared).

With over two decades of experience, you've truly been a part of the craft cocktail movement. How have you witnessed this movement evolve, and where do you see it heading?

We originally saw the resurgence of classics into their continued reinvention.  We have seen ingredients get ridiculously complicated and then move towards their simplification.  We have seen everything from over garnishment, to sustainable garnishes, to the minimalization of a cocktail with no garnishes whatsoever.  As to what we will see next, humans are creative beings and I am not one to steer those creative juices into any predictive direction.  An open landscape provides potential.  Just know we will always see great, and not so great, trends come and go.

Can you share some memorable moments from your career, such as your win at the 2013 Iron Mixologist competition, and how they have shaped your approach to mixology?

I have had several memorable moments, too many to count, but at the end of the day, it has always been the people/friendships I have made over the years that have truly shaped my approach to beverage development.  There are so many creative individuals in our industry who inspire me each and every day to try new techniques, explore interesting combinations in flavor, or challenge the boundaries in cocktail aesthetics that we could talk about it all day.  I appreciate all those I meet, because no matter their professional skillsets or accolades, they all have something creative insights to offer.

Image: Spirit of Gallo Team BCB 2023 Event - Bar Convent Brooklyn 2022 (From Left to Right - Tad Carducci, Alastair Menzies, Chris Chamberlain, Stilo Pimentel, Sergio Muniz, Victoria Canty, Shaun Tapia, Reza Esmaili, Emma Kuhl, Raj Nagra)

Gallo Spirits has seen the resurgence of vodka. What factors do you think are contributing to this revival, and how does it fit into the modern cocktail scene?

Vodka is unique in that many believe that it has ‘no flavor,’ when in fact, there are many flavors within the spirit that can be pleasantly amplified by pronouncing flavors found within or even the act of aeration.  The resurgence of the Martini, even elevated tableside Martinis, is a great example of this.  Historically made with gin, an elevated Vodka Martini is wonderfully simple and provides a platform to retranslate a vodka’s character by the vermouth, bitters, and even garnish chosen.  We can dive deeper but understand that vodka offers not only new consumers an entry point into spirits but can re-introduce spirit enthusiasts to a category well worth exploring. 

In a world of complex cocktails, you advocate for well-constructed libations. How do you balance simplicity and innovation in your cocktail creations?

Creative cocktails do not need to be complex in their build.  Many times you will see a cocktail with 6-8 ingredients listed on the menu, but increasing the number of unique ingredients used only increases the difficulty of finding balance.  It's fantastic to see creative bartenders now using elevated culinary techniques to develop ingredients intensified with flavor – for example: sous vide infusions.  Using these newly created complex ingredients can amplify the simplest highball into a fully developed complex drinking experience.  This act of culinary prep, and others like it, is so refreshing to see as we are witnessing the evolution of the bar towards a more ‘back-of-the-house’ flavor approach.

Speaking of classics, the Espresso Martini made a strong comeback and has stood its ground on cocktail lists. What do you think is driving this resurgence, and what unique twists can we expect to see?

There is a reason why Starbucks has a line around the corner – people love coffee.  With the recent increase in quality and accessibility of both coffee and coffee liqueurs, it makes total sense.  Also, its simple build allows bartenders to explore various base spirits and interesting complementary flavor combinations.  Look for Tequila and traditional Mexican Coffee variations to take hold in the foreseeable future.

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As an expert in Latin American spirits, how do you see these spirits influencing the global cocktail landscape, and what are some standout Latin American cocktails?

Let's start with agave spirits – not just Tequila.  Yes, tequila and Mezcal are the reason that the agave category is exploding right now but understand that agave can grow in various regions around the world.  Can spirits created in these regions be called “Tequila” & “Mezcal,” – no – but look for Agave-based spirits from Australia, South America, and even here in the US have started to come into the market.  As this happens, you will see these regional bartenders using these products (as well as the traditional tequila and mezcal) start to explore the regional cocktails to which this spirit originated – Mexico.  They will look past re-inventing the Margarita & Paloma, but begin to explore elevating cocktails such as the Batanga, Matador, and so many more.  In addition, agave is a complex agricultural product like grapes.  There are many comparisons that can be made between the two and South America offers many fantastic grape-based spirits – like Pisco.  The list can go on, but look for agave-based spirits to be the first to truly take the global market by storm.

Image: SoG Team Trip Event - Focus on Agave Educational Experience 2023 (Front row from Left to Right - Trevor McLachlan, Chris Chamberlain, Kristi DeVita, Ramsay Hyatt, Natalie Converse, Natalia Cardenas, James Vicente, Rob Salcido) (Back row from Left to Right - Katie Robinson, Josh Dornellas, Sarah Hojnacki, Ryan Papp, Eric Timme, Claire Wittowski, Madison Wedel, Steve Carey, Christina McClelland, Micaela Castele)

In your role, you work with a diverse team. How do you foster creativity and collaboration among your colleagues in the realm of cocktail development and innovation?

Our beverage/cocktail development team comes from a hospitality background, so listening and service are at the core of our being.  This promotes collaboration, creativity, and a true understanding of dealing with difficult situations.  We were born as productive multi-taskers.  It's as simple as that.

Image: Grapes of Craft PDXCW Seminar Event - Portland Cocktail Week 2023, (From Left to Right - Reza Esmaili, Marlo Gamora, Chris Chamberlain, and Emma Kuhl).

Christopher Chamberlain, the Senior Manager of Spirits Academy at the Spirit of Gallo, embodies the spirit of innovation, tradition, and creativity in the world of mixology. With his wealth of experience and expertise, he provides valuable insights into the art and science of crafting exceptional cocktails and the resurgence of vodka. As the cocktail culture continues to evolve, Chris Chamberlain remains at the forefront, shaping the industry's future one well-crafted libation at a time.

In conversation with Malvika Patel, Editor and VP, Beverage Trade Network

Note: Header & Index Image Source: Christopher Chamberlain and Spirit of Gallo

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