District Craft Guild Reaches Uncharted Territory as Leadership Changes
Dan Searing is a bartender, business owner, booze rep, author, husband and father. Many people would find their effectiveness as a leader of anything with so many other responsibilities impossible, but that’s exactly what Searing has done. The sum of his years as vice-president of the D.C. Craft Bartenders Guild (D.C.B.G.) really demonstrates the passion The Punch Bowl author continues to have for the organization.
“I think that there are few things in this world as powerful as a group of people getting together to organize around a common mission,” says Searing. “I think that’s exciting.”
In the coming month, Searing officially hands over duties to his elected successor, Gyspie Soul mixologist Jo-Jo Valenzuela. Searing and his ranking colleague, Owen Thomson, succeeded by Bourbon Steak’s Jamie McBain, leave their leadership roles to two acclaimed District barmen.
“I think [Valenzuela] and Jamie are going to do a great job as the new leaders,” says Searing. “They are both really committed and really intelligent and people who I’m always happy to see.”
When asked about Searing, Valenzuela reflects on his kindness and willingness to teach. Sponsorship, he says, is one of the hardest parts about organizing an event. Searing can be relied on to complete that piece of the puzzle.
“It’s just a pleasure to work for him,” says Valenzuela. “For me, it’s just really some big shoes to fill.”
The importance of an active guild representing members of the service industry should not be understated. The mission of the D.C.B.G., according to its website, mention two important characteristics of a true craft cocktail community: education and contribution.
“To contribute to the growing national and international community of craft bartenders,” the D.C.B.G. website says. And “to encourage the [dissemination] of knowledge and innovation in craft bartending with a focus on hospitality.”
Searing embodies those values as an admirer of history and a teller of stories our society seems to have forgotten. Once, at a guild meeting, he cited a grand tradition of parliamentary procedure in saloons and taverns to move along a vote by roll call.
“There was a time and place in history where the existence of a guild of tradespeople in a city was sort of a guarantee of a minimum level of craftsmanship,” says Searing.
This is a time of transition for the D.C.B.G. It has enjoyed little competition as it neared a decade of operation. Suddenly, the United States Bartender’s Guild, a national organization unaffiliated with the D.C.B.G., has a chapter in the city. For the past year, it has acquired over 120 members. According to the president, Taha Ismail, it is the fastest growing U.S.B.G. chapter in the region.
To make things more challenging, the guild experienced what Searing calls an organizational trough in the past few years. Still, the annual Repeal Day Ball and Rickey Month Competition, organized by the D.C.B.G., continue to be successful.
Since last January, both Searing and Thomson have sought to quicken the guild. The effort, Searing says, has focused on more activities, events and educational opportunities. With the reduction of leadership responsibilities, Searing will have more time so he plans on giving back to the organization and fulfill the educational mission.
“I think that seeing new leadership takeover will give me the opportunity to spend that time in a different way,” says Searing. “Coming up with educational events and opportunities.”
“It’s something we’ve always wanted to have more of in the guild and I think there’s an almost unlimited opportunity for further educational activities as our community gets bigger and the bartending world gets wider,” he says. “Not everyone has to learn things the hard way.”
Searing looks on his role as vice-president with nostalgia. The D.C.B.G. has been an organization that has brought some of the leading personalities in the restaurant and bar industry. He recalls some of the more memorable moments he experienced as second in command.
“Making punch along side Dave Wondrich at the Repeal Day Ball a few years ago was pretty gratifying because he is someone I admire so much,” says Searing when asked of his fondest memories in the role.
When I admit to Searing that I have always felt lucky I got to experience his service behind the bar at Room 11 (which he owns) before his drink-making work became isolated to conventions and events. He acknowledged the absence, having not been behind the bar very much in the last few years.
“That’s my dirty little secret. I’m one of the least bartender-y bartenders in town,” says Searing. “That relationship between bartender and patron is one that I miss very much and that I’m working on coming up with a practical way for me to have again on a regular basis.”
“I mean there are fewer things that are more satisfying to me that making something and sharing it with someone and seeing them enjoy that creation.”
There’s almost a ministerial-quality to Searing whenever he speaks. He is authoritative but warm.
“You know one of the things that I have always loved about the hospitality business is the esprit de corps,” says Searing. “And I think there is a very strong esprit de corps in our bartending community in D.C. Even as things have grown.”
You appreciate getting a slice of his time — but, more importantly — he seems to appreciate it more.