Cover and feature photos by Audrey Dempsey • Infinity Photo

Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits recently made the prudent move to step up the training of its Wine, Beer and Spirits Academy by appointing Brian Van Flandern Executive Director of Mixology, Spirits Education and Special Events. The industry veteran, who spent 25 years as a bartender in NYC, comes with some quite impressive credentials, and enough accolades to fill several pages, including being named ‘America’s Top Mixologist’ by The Food Network, opening Thomas Keller’s Per Se and serving as the Michelin three-star restaurant’s head mixologist, authoring award-winning cocktail books and appearing on various TV programs such as the CBS Morning Show and Foodography on the Cooking Channel. 

We sat down with Van Flandern to learn about his storied career and how he plans to apply his vast and impressive experience and knowledge to his new position at Southern Glazer’s.

Can you tell us about the training you received when opening Thomas Keller’s Per Se?

My career didn’t really start until 2004 in New York City, when by a fortunate chain of events, I landed the coveted job as the opening head barman. It was an eye-opening experience that forever changed the course of my life. Chef Keller’s passion for food and his legendary attention to detail was infectious. It was an incredibly stressful joy to come to work every day and learn, in detail, about every single facet of the restaurant’s operations. 

Our opening training was nothing less than a full culinary education. For six weeks, we had the owners of top purveyors come in twice a day and instruct us about everything you could think of from the front to the back of the house. We learned voluminous tomes about salt, olive oil, coffee, tea, bread, poultry, woodcock, pheasant, grouse, quail, beef, pork, heirloom vegetables, caviar, glass eels, truffles, and so on. We tasted dozens of varietals of garlic, tomatoes, beans, cheese, chocolate and so much more…and that was just food. We learned about marking, clearing, presenting, posture, flatware, glassware, art, interior design and even took an 18th century ballroom dance class, with a feather in hand, to learn to be more graceful when walking through the dining room. 

I was very excited when we finally got to the training on fine wines, beers of the world and distilled spirits. Finally, I could contribute and show off my knowledge on a topic that I was comfortable with…or so I thought. It was then, that a much younger Francesco Lafranconi (on recommendation from Larry Ruvo and Steve Wynn to Chef Keller) trained the opening staff on distilled spirits. I learned more in three hours than I had in the previous twenty years about the products behind my bar. I was so inspired and fascinated with the knowledge and stories behind each label that I spontaneously became an encyclopedic sponge. Since then my knowledge has increased 10,000-fold. 

What did you learn about flavor profiling while at Per Se?

I was taught by Chef Keller and Master Sommelier Paul Roberts the art and science of flavor profiling, how to compose flavors on a plate and pair them with great wines to complement the incredible compositions being prepared in the kitchen. With this philosophy in mind, I learned to take ‘risks of epiphany’; using flavor profiling, I could pair esoteric or non-traditional wines (and later spirits) with fresh ingredients and discover an ardent universe of new flavor combinations to share with our guests.

I understand you were the first bartender to make your own tonic water from scratch?

Well, yes and no. In 2004 I was credited as the first bartender in modern history to make his own tonic water from scratch using cinchona bark powder sourced from Brazil. This was a full year before ‘Fever Tree’ came on the scene. Today, making your own tonic water is almost passé as thousands of bars around the world are sporting their own unique recipes.

What did you do after leaving Per Se?

In 2008, I left Per Se and branched to out on my own to try my hand at private consulting. I was extremely fortunate to be courted by Diageo to become their first ever global brand ambassador for Tequila Don Julio and was part of the original team that designed their World Class Cocktail Competition, helping to define the rules by judging regional finals in over 40 countries around the world, sending the winners to the World Class finals. As a founding member of the USBG New York chapter, now the largest national chapter (formerly Vegas), I was instrumental in bringing Diageo World Class to the United States.

You’ve appeared on numerous TV programs. What are some that are most memorable to you?

I appeared on The Barefoot Contessa with Ina Garten, after which The Food Network called me ‘Americas Top Mixologist.’ I also did several episodes of Bar Rescue with Las Vegan Jon Taffer, including a positive ‘uplifting’ episode shot at UNLV set to air in late July or early August of this year. 

What books have you written?

I’ve written five award-winning cocktail books including Vintage Cocktails, Craft Cocktails, Celebrity Cocktails, Tequila Cocktails and the most recent Whisk(e)y Cocktails, which is set to be released in September with a book launch right here in Las Vegas. 

What different spirits do you feel confident in speaking about and how do you prepare for your presentations? 

Today I lecture on Vodka, Gin, Tequila, Rum, Whiskey/Whisky, Brandy, Mezcal, Cachaça, Genever, Aquavit, Eau-de-vie, Vermouth, Amaro, Pisco, Grappa, Singani, Baijiu, Raki, Sake, Soju, Shochu, Aguardiente, Sherry, Port and hundreds of various liqueurs. I try to learn the stories about each label, their histories, awards, distillation techniques, ageing practices, yeast strains and various quality control standards. 

What do you hope to accomplish in your new position with SGWS?

I will be assuming the role of Special Events Director, as industry legend and new friend Michael Severino slowly transitions out of the position and takes on a more leisurely role as a consultant. This tremendous opportunity will allow me to embrace the community and get to know the major players in Las Vegas and throughout Nevada. 

My primary objective is to service the community by giving back through education. It’s not just good business, it’s part of SGWS’ mission statement to give back to those who have supported us so generously over the years in a meaningful and tangible way. Thanks to visionary philanthropist Larry Ruvo, Southern Glazer’s has become a magnet for those who have a passion for excellence within their respective fields of study in the beverage industry. 

For now, my job is to listen and learn. The collective talent and knowledge within the walls of SGWS is staggering. I am learning their culture, past and present, and working with their incredibly talented mixologists and events teams to review projects that have already been set in motion. 

Following in the footsteps of my longtime friends and colleagues Francesco Lafranconi and Livio Lauro, it is my intention to build upon their legacy and solidify SGWS Senior Managing Director Larry Ruvo’s vision of making Southern Glazer’s Bar Academy the preeminent beverage and service standards training facility in the world. 

What are some projects you are planning?

Future projects on the horizon include expanding the wine, spirits and beer education and certification programs; partnering with UNLV to expand their world-renowned hospitality and leisure management program within the halls of SGWS; and implementing a barista training and certification program, including the first-ever barista-cocktail certification. 

And, perhaps most exciting, per the direction of Larry Ruvo, I will lend my experience to establish a service standards training program based on the principles of Michelin. Students coming out of the academy will be in high demand within the industry with a certification in hospitality, armed with my knowledge of Michelin three-star service skills as well as comprehensive beverage knowledge and culinary oriented mixology certificates. 

How has your move to Las Vegas gone for you and your family?

This is a dream job and the whole team at SGWS has been extremely welcoming to me, my wife Kelly and my beautiful daughter Katherine Rose. So far, we are genuinely enjoying the city, but it is the people that drew us here and it is this wonderful embracing community that has reaffirmed that my instinct to pull up roots and settle down in Sin City was the right choice. I have come home.

For more information on how your team can benefit from SGWS Beverage Education or Hospitality and Service Standards Program, you can reach out directly to Brian at
702-248-3306 (work), 702-902-0126 (cell) and via email at brian.vanflandern@sgws.com.