Drew Levinson - An On-Premise OlympianJuly 31, 2012 By: Robert Plotkin
Few people attain measurable success in their chosen field of endeavor without devoting years of hard work and continuing education. For some, excellence isn’t a destination; it’s a lifelong pursuit. In the on-premise world, no one better illustrates this type of commitment than Drew Levinson, beverage development manager for Wirtz Beverage Nevada, a liquor, beer and wine distributorship headquartered in Las Vegas. In this city of lights, casinos and world-class eateries, Levinson has earned the reputation amongst the city’s biggest players as the man to call when profits sag or beverage programs become dull and listless.
Like many in the on-premise profession, Levinson fought hard to catch an early break. Unlike most of us though, he nearly missed the opportunity when it came along...and his future employers were pissed. But that’s skipping ahead of the story.
After graduating from Skidmore College in 1997 with a degree in business management, Levinson returned to his hometown of Aspen, Colorado. Pulling a few strings he was able to get a bar back position at a new restaurant about to open named Jimmy’s.
“The restaurant was scheduled to open on a Saturday in time for the Aspen Food and Wine Classic, but the owner decided to hold a sneak preview the night before. Only I didn’t get the message, so I was a no show for my first shift,” says Levinson. “Needless to say it was a jam-packed night and Jimmy spent much of it washing glasses behind the bar. When I showed up Saturday ready to work, I was pulled into the office by Jimmy and the GM and told I was fired for not showing up the night before. They were truly pissed! I pleaded for my job, swore I would be the best employee they ever had and somehow got them to change their minds and give me a shot.”
Six months later Levinson was bartending and six months after that he was Jimmy’s head bartender and bar manager. During his six-year stint as manager, the business garnered national publicity and recognition for its tequila program.
The next career move came in 1999 when Levinson first met Steve Olson, one of the country’s leading spirits authorities and most prominent beverage consultants. Olson asked Levinson to help him develop the Millennium Margarita Program for Grand Marnier. He jumped at the opportunity, and over the course of the next 5 hours, they crafted dozens of Margaritas using the 3 marques of Grand Marnier before selecting three versions that the brand would use for their highly successful marketing campaign.
Shortly afterwards, Olson hired Levinson to join Doug Frost and him in presenting training programs around the country for Seagram’s Sterling School of Spirits.
Levinson admits his schedule became maniacal, but that he loved every minute of it. “On Monday mornings I’d take a physical inventory at Jimmy’s and then place the liquor, beer and wine orders. That night I’d fly to Chicago and meet with the advance team at the hotel. Tuesdays were spent presenting the training for the Sterling Spirits School. Wednesday mornings I’d fly to Dallas and work with the advance team there. Thursdays were spent training. On Friday mornings I’d fly back to Aspen where I would work Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. On Monday morning the whole thing would repeat.”
Levinson continued working at that break neck pace until 2003, when he was offered the position of beverage manager at the soon to open Borgata casino in Atlantic City. The experience proved invaluable.
“To this day I’ve never seen anything like it—even in Las Vegas. The crowds, money, sales volume, fights, hookers, thieves, energy levels, celebrities and sheer exhilaration were unbelievable. There is a saying that one year working beverage in the casino industry is equivalent to 4 years experience in a typical bar or restaurant. The opening year at Borgata was equivalent to 10 years!”
In 2004, Levinson was hired to replace Tony Abou-Ganim as the beverage manager and master mixologist at the famed Bellagio in Las Vegas. Replacing one of the industry’s brightest luminaries proved daunting.
“I moved to Las Vegas to fill the biggest pair of shoes out there,” says Levinson. “The existing beverage program was well established, so I was able to focus more on the details than I ever had at Borgata. However, the bartenders felt a loyalty to Tony so I had a battle on my hands every time I tried to make a change. For example, when I attempted to modify our house Margarita by using agave nectar as the sweetener you would have thought I asked the staff to kill their parents. I literally had to one by one work my way around the casino blind tasting the staff on the difference before they would buy in. Now the Bellagio is one of the largest single users of agave nectar in the country.”
Levinson spent 3½ years as the beverage director of the most prestigious property in Las Vegas. Then in 2007, he accepted his current position at Wirtz Beverage Nevada.
Levinson sees his role as a full service consultant for his clients. “I primarily focus on what is known as the ‘resort corridor’ of Las Vegas, which includes all of the high-end resorts as well as many of the premier, off the strip properties. Among other things, I provide our customers with staff education, menu development, drink development and consulting on their beverage programs.
As Levinson grew into his role, requests for his time seemed to increase exponentially. This past January, he hired Andrew Pollard, former GM of the Vesper bar and property mixologist for Cosmopolitan, to work in his department as their beverage development specialist. Even with the addition of Pollard, Levinson still was turning away opportunities.
“When you commit to being a consultant to your customers, you create a great deal of work for yourself,” contends Levinson. “We refuse to just hand a client a list of cocktail recipes and walk away. For them to be successful, we know that there’ll be at least 4-6 sessions required to understand the client’s needs, educate their staff and train the staff to execute the program properly. However, few things are more rewarding than helping incubate a beverage program from its inception through successful integration into the operation.”
His in-depth experience affords Levinson a unique perspective on the industry and how beverage operators are handling their staffs.
“I cringe when operators don’t commit to training and educating their bar staffs and set their teams up for success. For training to be truly effective, you and your entire management team must also take part in the training. If your staff knows more about a program than your managers, the system will fall apart and they’ll lose enormous respect the operator.”
Equally important, operators have to hold the staff accountable when the training is finished. If the operator doesn’t provide the staff with the proper supplies, ingredients and brands to execute the program, the bartenders will use it to sabotage the program.
As an aspect of his job, Levinson pays close attention to beverage trends. So what’s going to be the next hot category?
“I’m still bullish on the spirits of Latin America, although I must admit the growth has been slower than I would have anticipated. Pisco, cachaça and mezcal all will continue to grow. However, these are still small circles. Unique and boutique liqueurs are where I would put my money. We’re seeing tremendous success with brands that have created their own category of premium liqueur. Whether it be ginger, blood orange, elderflower, the next great flavor is out there and whoever captures the category first with a great product will be enormously successful.”
Levinson’s career seems comparable to that of an Olympic athlete. He trained hard, applied himself and seized all challenges when they arose. So if you’re looking to strap a rocket to your career, train hard, apply yourself and seize all challenges when they arise.