A DRINK WITH . . . KIRSTEN AMANN-UNCLE NEAREST PREMIUM WHISKEY MARKET MANAGER
by MAIA MERRILL GOSSELIN
The first thing you notice when you meet Kirsten “Kitty” Amann is her infectious cheerfulness. You can’t help but smile in her presence. She embraces everything she does with remarkable, buoyant energy. But there’s much more to Kitty than just her upbeat personality. The longtime industry professional has worn a wide range of hats over her two-plus decades in the business working as a bartender/server, publicist, brand ambassador and regular writer for this publication. She’s even been a yoga instructor. Over the years she has become a noted cocktail historian and savvy industry expert, co-founded the Boston chapter of LUPEC (Ladies United for the Preservation of Endangered Cocktails), published two books and today is the Market Manager for Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey, a brand that is seeing remarkable growth and success on a national level. In addition to all this, she has become a master at the art of networking. I caught up with Kitty recently to chat about her current job with Uncle Nearest and get her insights into coming trends for 2O23 along with her views on the state of things post-pandemic. The last few years have certainly had their challenges and for many, it’s been understandably hard to be optimistic. But one thing you can count on with Kitty is her upbeat attitude and positive outlook. Oh, and her trademark red lipstick of course. She is indeed one of the industry’s shining beacons!
MAIA GOSSELIN You’ve been in the industry for a long time and held a variety of jobs. How did this become your career path?
KIRSTEN AMANN Cheers to the circuitous path! Honestly, 16-year-old me would never have imagined I’d have this career today when I got my first job as a (very slow, not very good) busser in Amherst, NH! Growing up in the 198Os and 199Os, I was steeped in the middle-class idea of a career as being very plain and linear: go to a “good” college, get a “good” job, work there for a long time, then retire on the company pension, I think? It was a template that never sounded like it would work out for me and lo and behold, it really wasn’t possible by the time I entered the workforce. Pensions are basically non-existent, I graduated in a recession when the dot-com bubble burst, followed by an even more gnarly recession in 2OO8, a global pandemic, and so on.
I focused on creative work without much worry because I was always able to support myself with restaurant work. I wanted to be a writer, so after college, I decided to pursue a career in book publishing, an industry that famously doesn’t pay people a livable wage and which downsized considerably just as I was getting in. I did unpaid internships at a prestigious publishing house and literary agency in Boston and worked nights before I could land a paying job, and in the meantime became an excellent waitress. It never dawned on me to move home with my parents or further outside of my expensive Boston zip code despite being broke. I must like to struggle!
In the end, all of my great career opportunities came to me from working in restaurants. I learned how to be able to talk to all different kinds of people, got over being somewhat shy, and learned basic presentation and sales skills. My first full-time publishing job was with the house that published Andy Husband’s first cookbook while I was a waitress at his restaurant Tremont 647; he wrote me a glowing recommendation. When I left publishing to do public relations, the person who hired me was a Tremont 647 regular. I made tons of great media connections while I was working with him and moonlighting at Toro, largely because I could get people on the list for a table back when Toro didn’t take reservations. I leveraged those relationships into coverage for our clients. And by the time I was recruited for a brand ambassador job in 2O1O, it was because I knew everyone from working in the industry for so long.
MG You’ve been with Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey for a few years now. Talk about your role with this brand. What is it about the company that drew you to them?
KA I was completely in awe of the brand when I first learned about it, and honestly continue to be, despite being on the team since 2O19. When I first read Clay Risen’s piece in the NEW YORK TIMES about the little-known (outside of Tennessee) story of Uncle Nearest, it was a huge reframe for me. By that point, 2O16, I had been researching and writing about drinks and spirits for almost a decade, in addition to having studied American history and sociology in college. At this same time, my coauthor Misty and I had been pitching our book project, Drinking Like Ladies, which is a collection of stories of unsung women in history, for almost ten years. So, it was truly humbling to feel that I had developed an expertise in this industry and was a champion for untold stories but never knew the Uncle Nearest story.
It would still be a few years before I saw much information about the brand in New England, but by the time the company was hiring here, I was really excited about them and their mission, to cement the legacy of Uncle Nearest. Serendipitously, my former boss is best friends with the person who hired me in the Massachusetts market, so one thing led quickly to another, and the more I learned about the company, the more I wanted to be involved. That continues to this day.
MG I know that Uncle Nearest is invested in charity and philanthropy. Can you talk a little about some of what they do in this category?
KA Philanthropy is a huge part of Uncle Nearest, and it has been since the beginning. For example, the Nearest Green Foundation was created in 2O16 with the goal of ensuring that every college-age descendant of Nearest Green has a full scholarship to any college or university of their choice if they choose to go. By the time I came on board, 1O people were in or had completed this program, which was remarkable to me.
In 2O2O the company launched the Nearest & Jack Advancement Initiative, which is a partnership with The Jack Daniel Distillery to further diversity within the American whiskey industry. Both companies supported this program equally with an initial combined pledge of $5 million to help create the Nearest Green School of Distilling, develop the Leadership Acceleration Program (LAP) for apprenticeships and establish the Business Incubation Program (BIP), focused on providing expertise and resources to African Americans entering the spirits industry as entrepreneurs. A year later, we announced the Uncle Nearest Venture Fund, which is a $5O million fund that was created specifically to invest in rapidly growing, minority-founded and owned spirit brands. Our founder Fawn Weaver talks about always making sure we “pull as we climb”, creating as many opportunities as we can to make change and progress the industry as the brand grows.
Our latest initiative, the Old Fashioned Challenge, is a fundraising campaign that I am so very excited about, underway now through the end of March. For this, we are partnering with our on-premise, off-premise, and eCommerce accounts to raise up to $1 million for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). There has been a lot of press coverage recently about how HBCUs have been grossly underfunded by at least $12.8 billion over the past 3O years, so the goal is to both shine a light on this disparity in funding while raising money. The brand will pledge $1 for every old fashioned cocktail sold across the country from MLK Jr. Day on January 16th and continuing through the end of Women’s History Month, March 31st, 2O23.
MG You have created quite a niche as a notable cocktail historian and expert. What is it about this that fascinates you and how do you incorporate it into your work and life?
KA I have always loved old-timey things and was very into vintage/retro clothes and aesthetics when I was in high school. I now realize this was definitely part of the zeitgeist of the late 199Os, if you think of the movie Swingers and things like that, so by the time I was of drinking age, I was really primed to be interested in anything served in a martini glass.
In a broader sense, I have always been interested in understanding “the why” of how things are and look to history for answers. So, when I realized that there was this vast history behind the drinks and spirits that I’d been serving up for years as a waitress or bartender, it was really the stories that drew me in. Often these tales are great conversation starters, but as food and drink are central to culture, they also contain key nuggets of social history, often served up with insight about class, race, and gender.
MG You are a multi-book published author! How did these projects come to life and are there any plans for another book in the future?
KA Absolutely! My first book, The Screaming Orgasm, was a fun book I worked on with a team of book packagers who design gift books, the kind you’d find at Urban Outfitters. It was a great first cocktail book because it taught me a lot about the format of what makes a good recipe book, plus I got to work with an amazing photographer who taught me how to stage drinks (pro-tip: use fake ice!)
Drinking Like Ladies was my first cocktail book project, which my coauthor Misty Kalkofen and I developed shortly after we started the blog for our local cocktail club, Ladies United for the Preservation of Endangered Cocktails (LUPEC Boston) back in 2OO7. A former colleague of mine from the publishing industry is now a literary agent, and she championed and pitched that book for about a decade, with many false starts and rejections. To go back and read them you’d think publishers really didn’t believe that women drank cocktails or cared about history. Then, in early 2O17, our editor discovered the LUPEC Boston blog and reached out. This was not too long after the Women’s March on Washington, and our loyal agent said many publishers were “newly interested in women’s voices”, to which we all said, “it’s about damn time.” To that end, we had a lot of great content we had to cut from our first book, so I would love to get a second edition in the works, plus a few other ideas I am developing, so stay tuned for hopefully many more books!
MG This is an industry that creates friendships and relationships for life. It’s literally 1 degree of separation. What kind of unique camaraderie experiences have you had?
KA I know, it’s the best part of working in the business! My coauthor Misty always tells people about how when we met, I was in my pajamas. We used to have a “Pajama Brunch” every Sunday while we were working at Tremont 647, and I met Misty during the shift change as I was finishing up brunch service and her dinner training shift was just beginning. The vacuum someone gave her to use for between shift side work was broken, so I helped her troubleshoot in a fluffy pink robe.
MG As an industry insider, you see how trends develop and change. What are you currently seeing for trends in the alcohol industry? What do you think 2O23 will hold?
KA I will say, for as much as I have my finger on the pulse, I am often taken off guard by trends! When the Espresso Martini had a moment a few years ago, for example, I was shocked, like: “when did people stop drinking these? No one told me!” As another example, I was a gin brand ambassador ten years ago, and had many nights where no one would drink my delicious sample cocktails because they only drank vodka, even though the drinks were free!
I may not be a reliable bellwether, but since you asked, I’d like to reclaim the Cosmopolitan in 2O23. I used to go to Club Café and the Franklin Café in my early industry days to drink these with my work friends. For years I was a Cosmo stan despite being young and broke, and I loved ordering them. A few years later, when I started learning about vintage drinks and endangered cocktails, my counterparts opined that vodka and Cosmos represented all that was wrong with late-9Os era drinking, and I felt embarrassed to have loved something so trendy and “girly.” I can now name that as internalized misogyny and would like to bring Cosmopolitans back into my life. You heard it here first (and possibly also last.)
MG How did you personally fare during the pandemic? Any innovative pivots you did that you see sticking around?
KA The pandemic was, in many ways, a clarifying experience for me. On the one hand, it decimated my business, which was then spent part-time in the beverage industry and part-time working as a yoga instructor/personal trainer. I have straddled both worlds for about a decade and would probably still be doing both if the pandemic hadn’t shuttered the studios where I saw fitness clients. But this work also kept me too busy, I realize now. Everyone needs time for rest, especially people in hospitality and service jobs, and I never had that opportunity until 2O2O. I’ve been working Saturdays or an extra night shift here and there since I was 16, for example, and I am ready to kiss “rise n’ grind” goodbye.
I also am extremely lucky that Uncle Nearest did not lay off a single employee during this period. The company actually expanded my role and territory, which was not what I had anticipated when the restaurant industry shut down in March 2O2O. Back in 2OO8, my PR company lost nearly all of our clients in the recession, so I had anticipated the same thing happening to me in 2O2O. In fact, Uncle Nearest grew.
One of the pandemic pivots that I’m super grateful for has been the opportunity to hone my presentation skills virtually. Misty and I created a podcast during the early months of the pandemic (which is sleeping but will hopefully be reawakened for season 2 soon!) which was fun, and I additionally was on a small team of people at Uncle Nearest tasked with developing cocktail tutorials and brand events on Zoom, Facebook and IG Live. I’m a better presenter for it, and I also really love teaching, so I think it somewhat fills the gap left from ten years of leading yoga classes. For now, I’m content to simply enjoy yoga, though I do hope to teach and lead retreats again someday.
MG How have things changed for better and for worse since the pandemic?
KA My greatest hope for change during the pandemic was to have our workplaces, and the world in general, become more compassionate. I am in a wonderful spot with my employers at Uncle Nearest, but I think the jury is still out on how things will shake out in the restaurant industry overall. I would love to see more establishments offer a real living wage, for example, and for people to have a culture of care at work, no matter what industry they are in. I know spots that are working towards this and do have hope about this.
I am heartened to hear more industry leaders speaking out about mental health, which was an issue in this industry long before the pandemic, and I know we all had strong reactions to The Bear on Hulu. So, I have hope that we can find positive change in an industry that can be famously grueling. I think the younger generations will demand it.
MG And finally . . . as the expert on endangered and classic cocktails, what is your personal favorite libation to sip?
KA This is an unfair question, much like having to name a favorite child or pet. Also, my opinion changes based on the day. Today, my favorite libation is a gin martini made with Beefeater or Plymouth gin, a good slug of fresh dry vermouth, orange bitters, and both an olive and a twist. And maybe a bump of caviar. But I made my name in this business on the Pink Lady cocktail, so let’s give her a nod: 1.5 ounces Plymouth gin, .5 ounce Laird’s applejack, .75 ounce fresh squeezed lemon juice, .25 ounce homemade grenadine, 1 egg white, shaken vigorously and strained into a chilled cocktail glass, and garnished with a maraschino cherry.