‘Knowledge is meant to be shared,’ says Bacardi’s Kevin Brownlee
Countless bartenders have arrived at their profession from unlikely origins, but Kevin Brownlee doesn’t consider his career trajectory odd. He believes he simply traded one education role for another. A former public-school teacher, he transitioned from sitting behind a classroom desk to standing behind a bar after realizing his greatest love is hosting, as well as constantly improving his knowledge of spirits and cocktails. Honing his skills in revered Vancouver dining rooms such as West, Pourhouse and AnnaLena, he subsequently won multiple awards, including first place in Grey Goose’s Pour Masters competition. Brownlee is now Portfolio Ambassador for Bacardi.
“West Restaurant was my first proper foray into the cocktail world, but it wasn’t my first bartending gig—that was in Winnipeg, where I grew up, when I was 19. I worked as a barback at a place called Muddy Waters, which was a smokehouse and blues bar upstairs, and the lower patio on the Assiniboine River was a reggae bar. So, it was reggae music, rum drinks and draft beer. To this day, it’s one of the most fun jobs I’ve ever had.
“I worked in public education for 10 years, but I always bartended on the side. Had I made a decision to go back to university and pursue a degree and then a master’s, perhaps that might’ve been the road for me. But hospitality was such an inviting industry. Being able to host people and show them a good time is something I think comes from my family. My dad and his brothers worked in restaurants when they were young, and throwing parties was always something we did.
“Knowledge is meant to be shared and, thankfully, when I got on board at West, I really started to see what it was going to take for me to become one of the best bartenders I could be. Having some incredible mentorship with David Wolowidnyk and Sabrine Dhaliwal, and getting introduced to the bartenders who were at the forefront of the industry here in Vancouver, really inspired me to better my abilities and learn as much as I could soak up. I was working at Pourhouse at the same time, and that was where I really started to come into my own, because I was able to more freely express myself.
“I attribute a lot of my success to working at AnnaLena. As a team, we were all working really hard. It was challenging, because it’s a one-bartender bar—there are only eight seats on it, and the style of cocktails we were making was fairly labour intensive. It took a lot out of me, but it was totally worth it. I was able to continue to compete in cocktail competitions, and had a bunch of success representing myself and AnnaLena. That drew a lot of media attention.
“My work now as portfolio ambassador [for Bacardi in B.C.] is pretty all-encompassing, but it’s primarily focused on educating bartenders and industry professionals, and there’s some consumer education as well. It’s getting people engaged with the brands we work with—connecting to them in a personal way—so that they can take the experience of the brand back with them to their bars or their homes. B.C. has an incredible amount of talent—there are a lot of amazing bartenders in this province, and they’ve shown really well in international competition. One of the nice things about a provincial role is there’s opportunity to travel with young bartenders who are competing on a global level, so I’ve been fortunate to go to London, Paris…. I hope we’re able to do that again soon.”
—as told to Michael White