“Cicerones. It’s nice to hear that plural.”
Intriguing words from Southern Wine and Spirits’ cicerones, the newest additions to a rapidly expanding beer program. They are Russel Gardner, Director of Craft Beer, and Samuel Merrit, Director of On Premise Beer and Non-Alcoholic Beverages. Their mission is to expand the craft beer scene in Las Vegas, as well as educate restaurant and bar staff in areas such as selecting beers to carry, creating food pairings and giving customers the closest thing to a beer that reminds them of home.
For those not yet in the know, think of a cicerone as the beer equivalent for a sommelier. Those seeking the title are required to pass a rigorous test that measures not just the tasting of beer, but mastery of the entire production process, from drafting all the way through serving.
“Our belief and our impetus for getting Sam and Russell is to have the best trained salespeople in the beer business in Nevada and in the country,” said David Bart, Executive Vice President and General Manager for Southern Wine and Spirits. “This introduces our customers to beer education on a level greater than they already know. This is what’s going to make the craft business better.”
The cicerones couldn’t agree more.
“Beer is awesome,” says Gardner, plain and simple. With a wardrobe that could land him in a movie and a mustache that puts the Monopoly guy to shame, the man is an icon of beer. He drinks from a gallon-sized glass as we talk [fear not, it was never close to full], handling it as he would an average pint. Born and raised in Las Vegas, Gardner’s most recent claim to fame is launching the award-winning beer program at Public House at The Venetian.
“I want to drink better beer,” he says about his goals with Southern. “More places in town have to carry better beer. If it’s out there the community drinks better beer.”
“Southern Wine and Spirits has been the Nevada craft and import distributor of choice through Larry Ruvo’s vision and under the leadership of Clyde Burney for many years. We enjoy best in class supplier partnerships with the finest brands in the world! Having highly regarded and respected experts such as Russell Gardner and Samuel Meritt join our team in this effort simply strengthens our capability to educate our employees, customers and consumers, while showcasing our world class portfolio,” added Kevin McCracken, Senior Vice President and General Manager Beer & Non-Alcoholic.
“Everyone is happy to see the beer guy,” Merritt adds. Donning suit and tie, the beer consultant from New York and President of his company, Civilization of Beer, carries a warm, sincere persona.
“You light up the room as the beer guy.”
While Gardner and Merritt both hold the same title and share an unfaltering love for their drink, they come from very different backgrounds. These differences in experience and approach to the industry look to add a holistic perspective in Las Vegas’ efforts to integrate craft beer to a larger market.
“Coming in as a consultant, I deal with the on-premise operations,” said Merritt. He founded Civilization of Beer with the goal of ‘returning beer to its proper place at the American table.’ “I’m able to implement the things I’ve been doing with the last seven years of my company. Las Vegas deserves to be up there with San Diego and Chicago, where craft beer is all over. It’s very validating to make significant changes.”
Gardner’s focus immediately falls to bar and restaurant staff training, a critical element of his leadership at Public House. “People can come into your restaurant from across the country and ask for beers you don’t have in this area,” he begins. “You need to know those foreign beers to find something you do have that compares.”
“You’re a teacher,” Gardner adds. “Teach your staff to do the same thing you do and the customers will learn to appreciate what a good beer is all about.”
The gentlemen certainly have their work cut out for them. Because Southern reaches so many properties, an impressive number of establishments yearn to be ‘shown the light.’
“We’re working with [bar and restaurant owners] to get them whatever they need and the best stuff they’re willing to carry,” begins Gardner. “It’s so easy for Budweiser to come in and offer a bunch of money to carry only their products. Their products are great and there’s certainly a place and time for them, but it takes someone to stand up and bring in a variety of beers for customers to appreciate.”
The two come together on one central idea. “There are two types of beer drinkers. Those who drink for the feeling and those who drink for the experience,” says Merritt. “Anyone can pour a big brand name, but those who let their customers go outside the box will have people returning time and time again for that experience.”
Bars, restaurants and their customers are excited to see their beer experience evolve.