Philip Duff talks Tales of the Cocktail and the advice he'd give young bartenders

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Philip Duff is Director of Education at Tales of the Cocktail – the premier cocktail conference-come-festival for bartenders and industry professionals worldwide. Educating and up-skilling bartenders is one of Tales’ main objectives, and Philip’s been overseeing that indispensable component of the event for over half a decade. He reads every single submission that flies in from every corner of the globe, before pulling together seminars from the best and most pertinent ones.

That’s easier said than done. Especially compared to the early 2000’s when Philip was first educating experts as an international brand ambassador. As he told the Living Proof podcast last week: back then, “everyone would listen to you and nobody was on their phones!”

Technology has compelled Philip to tailor Tales’ content to be even more progressive and insightful than it already was, as more and more expertise has found a place online.

He says, “Now, all the knowledge is on the internet, so people like me, when we teach, we can do the dapper, overloaded attendees a favour and aggregate the information and distil it down to what you really need to know and give our own opinion.

“That’s something that lies behind a lot of Tales seminars: lots of different points of view on a very big topic, but how can you walk out of that room with actionable things that you can use to up your game, personally and professionally, as you walk out the door? That’s one of the overriding principles.”

And on top of that, Philip makes a point of bringing left-field concepts and ideas to the attention of those who attend the annual event. He says, “basically, if it’s online, we want to have the stuff that’s not online. We want to have the speakers that maybe aren’t so well-known, that are maybe in different languages and definitely from other parts of the world.”

Unsatisfied with simply plucking lesser-known ideas out from the crowd, however, Tales of the Cocktail has continued to evolve to explore trends, products and the profession as a whole on a deeper level. Having to think outside the box in recent years has drawn Philip to focus on topics that wouldn’t have even been thought of when Tales began 15 years ago.

“We want people to understand principles, not just recipes of cocktails. We want them to understand increasingly, things like psychology, social justice and health and wellness,” he says.

Philip’s shrewdness in this area is similar to that of finger-stirring aficionado Gaz Regan, who’s a good friend of Philip’s and runs a ‘Mindful Bartending’ program. Gaz is booked in to appear on Living Proof on the 21st of January, so stay tuned for more on that front.

Philip’s advice for young bartenders

It would be remiss of us not to ask the chief educator at the industry’s chief education conference for the advice he’d give young people starting out today. Philip’s done it pretty much all of it: he’s bartended, mentored others, owned a venue, promoted brands and produced spirits. He’s well placed to draw on his experiences and the experts he’s met along the way, to provide a somewhat of a roadmap to success.

Here are Philip’s non-negotiables for anyone looking to follow in his footsteps by forging a career in the electrifying world of bars, spirits and cocktails.

1. Study people

Philip says, “One of the best things you can do is go and work in a dodgy pub. You will get to know a lot of old, maybe sad, loser-like people – principally male. They’ll have more stories than you can shake a stick at, and they’ll be able to teach you how to talk, how to listen, make jokes and you will learn to empathize. Those people skills will persist after all the cocktail training and everything. Very, very important.”

2. Travel

Philip: “Not just the Australian, two years abroad … Like, really travel. And ideally, learn another language.

“Learning another language will make you better at reading guests … I’m bilingually fluent in Dutch and its one of the most useful things ever. Not that I speak Dutch a great deal, but learning another language taught me to read people.”

3. Follow the experience instead of the money

“I’ll be very transparent here, I didn’t do this. I was a mercenary little prick and followed the money every single opportunity that I could. But the smart thing to do is not to follow the money - follow the experience and expertise. If you have to eat cheese sandwiches and live in a bedsit just to work in one of the world’s best bars, do it, because it is so worth it.”