So you want a career in the drinks industry?

People want to work in the Drinks Industry but sometimes they just don’t know where to begin to get the job they think is out there.  They are passionate and enthusiastic about the product — usually wine but may be spirits or beer — but are stuck on the outside looking in. How do they get from where they are – an enthusiast having completed a drinks qualification like a WSET course, perhaps – to turning their passion into a job and ultimately a career?

I have been in that position, and have now spent a long time in the Drinks Industry. From the perspective I have gained, I know the challenges involved in getting into what is seen from the outside as a glamorous business. I have tried to do two things with this article: One, an overview of what the industry is, that itself is divided into two parts: (1) inside a drinks company and (2) the route to the consumer; Two a very short look at how you might turn your passion for the drinks industry into a career.

I apologise in advance for the ‘nuts and bolts’ deconstruction of the drinks business. The prospective hire may not consider the wine business to be a consumer goods business. They will no doubt look at it as a romantic world of flavours, smells, great characters, beautiful vineyards, sleeping barrels. And it is all of those things. But unless you are the proprietor of a small winery in the South of France producing just enough to keep you in seafood platters, you will need to have the scales pulled from your eyes to see that at its heart, the modern drinks industry is big business with big drinks businesses running it.


Part One: Inside a Drinks Company

I am concerned here with big drinks businesses. For small businesses (craft breweries or wineries), my suggestion is to either start one yourself, or get a qualification in one of the production disciplines (winemaking from The University of California Davis or the California Polytechnic, or brewing and distilling from Scotland’s Herriot Watt, for example). There are no short-cuts. If you want it that badly, you’ll do what it takes to learn the skills at the bottom.

By ‘a big drinks business’, I intend a national or, more likely, a multinational organisation whose intention and purpose is to produce and sell alcoholic beverages at scale. There is little difference in the operational model applied by a big drinks business and any other large business concerned with making and selling consumer goods. As such, a large drinks business will require the skill sets that any other consumer packaged good business does.

What are the skill sets required to succeed in a big drinks business? And what are the roles within these businesses? How important is a passion for the product?

I’ll begin with an overview of the structure of a typical big drinks business. By understanding how they are put together, the prospective hire will be able to see where they would like to fit and be able to look at the skill set required for each of those business units, roles or disciplines.


grapes on a background of mountains and vineyards


Supply (Making Stuff)

The supply side of the business is the start of all products. It includes brand innovation, product testing, consumer demand research, and product analysis. It covers the sourcing of raw materials – this might be growing grapes or buying grain, so it covers purchasing and trading and it covers packaging, from label design to bottling lines. It covers plant management, whether that is a distillery or a winery, and ownership of production; from distillery manager, to master blender, wine maker or head brewer.

It then covers the supply chain which, while much may be outsourced to external logistics companies, requires planning managers for it to run smoothly. The liaison between the Supply side of the business and the Demand side is the job of the supply and demand planning team who collate commercial forecasts (a good guess at how much the sales force think they can sell) which then feed down the supply chain so that the purchasing managers buy sufficient raw materials and sufficient goods are then produced to meet demand. Or that the winemakers make sufficient wine to meet demand, etc. There is a necessary antagonism between Supply and Demand. The job of Supply is to minimise costs, the job of Demand is to maximise sales.




Demand (Selling Stuff)

The demand side of the business is concerned with the commercial stuff: sales, marketing, category development, business insights. Within these roles there is huge variety. Sales roles range from entry-level customer development roles, to international and multinational commercial managers (making global deals with global firms like Walmart or Hilton International). The structures of these teams and this business unit varies across companies within the industry.

CPG or Consumer Packaged Goods businesses are a collection of the brands they sell. And those brands require Brand Marketing roles. For businesses with portfolios of similar brands, Category roles, like Category Development or Shopper Marketing are also important. Customer Marketing roles are essential in applying the brand strategies to what happens in a customer’s store.

Brand Marketing, like Sales, encompasses a number of roles. Brand management, Innovation and Commercialisation roles, Digital roles and PR. Marketing is the part of the business that ‘owns’ consumer demand. In theory, the marketing roles are some of the most important to a consumer brand business because it is these roles that seek to understand consumers and their requirements and develop communication and brand strategies that meet those consumer requirements.


General Roles

Big businesses need a number of general roles to operate. These are not unique to the drinks business.

Strategic level roles will decide on where the business needs to go in the future, where to put resource, which brands to invest in. Big drinks businesses will have roles devoted to pricing and invoice process management; trading terms negotiation teams and the usual functional support or back office roles: IT, Legal, Finance, Compliance, Audit and Risk Management, HR, Corporate Communications, Corporate PR, etc. These are roles that are not unique either to CPG or drinks businesses but will have specific implementations within it. But, I am sure that being General Council for a drinks company is more interesting than for a washing powder business!

That then gives a very brief overview of the typical large drinks business. Where you fit will depend on what you enjoy doing, what you are good at, what you can do.


Part Two: The Route to Market (and the Consumer)

At the end of this section I will touch briefly on the agency or wholesale distribution business. While these are not producers (though some become that) they are an important part of the route to market particularly for smaller scale products or products that are new to market.


Customers (Retailers)

The Drinks Business does not stop when the goods leave the warehouses of the producers/suppliers. It then passes to the retailers to ensure that the products get to consumers. These retailers are split into the On trade (consumption on the premises) and the Off trade (consumption off the premises).


The On trade


Barman pouring wine from shaker and serving it


From bars and pubs to clubs and restaurants, to event management companies, and caterers and hotels, the array of on premise retail is bewildering. All have different roles and require different skills. So there are cocktail bartenders, restaurant consultants, hotel purchasing managers, restaurant sommeliers. Some of these roles, like a master sommelier are highly knowledge intensive and can take years to learn properly. Some of them require some kind of ‘apprenticeship’ where the ropes must be learned on the job and there are no short cuts. These are roles like cocktail barman or ‘mixologist’. Bigger businesses might be chain restaurants, multi-site pub groups, hotel groups or big caterers like Compass Group. These companies require the same skills as big drinks businesses and the usual functional roles (sales, marketing, finance and so on) apply.


The Off Trade




Usually split into Grocery and Impulse channels in the UK for simplicity. Impulse covers Cash and Carry, Wholesale, and Convenience and Corner Shops. Independent Specialists and things like Fine Wine Merchants sit here too. Roles include Buyers, Planners, Merchandisers, Client Relations specialists. Some roles are highly transferrable; a grocery buyer for example, and some are very specialised; the Private Client Manager at a wine merchant, say.


Agencies/3rd Party Wholesalers

Properly, these should be categorised with off trade. However, they are in essence dedicated sales forces of specialists. An independent agency will import and then sell wine, spirits, beers from a number of different producers. They operate like a big drinks business in some respects but they do not produce anything. The value these businesses add is in the selection of the products they offer. Agencies can offer a route into the industry for passionate, knowledgeable but not functionally skilled people. The role of Sales Representative is the normal entry point.

In the United States, the role of these Agency/Distribution business is abnormally important. This stems from a legal separation of production, distribution, and retail called the Three Tier System. So while in the UK, a large drinks business like William Grants will be able to sell directly to the likes of Tesco, the same William Grants in the USA must sell first to a distributor in order to reach the equivalent retail outlet, Kroger, for example. As a consequence, the scale of the US distribution businesses is vast. They support all the roles you will find on the Demand side of a big drinks business with the addition of logistics.


Peripheral Roles

More than most consumer goods industries, the Drinks Industry supports a huge number of jobs outside of itself. Specialist drinks journalists and commentators, bloggers, writers and a huge number of consultants, consultancies and agencies, all thrive on the back of the Drinks Industry. Not to mention the liaison between the Industry and Government in the form of Industry bodies and lobbying firms.




Turning your Passion into your Career.

There is a very serious question that anybody interested in a role in the Drinks Industry needs to answer first.

Why do you want to work here?

If you find you have a passion for the product but do not have any of the skills required for the functional roles, my advice is to go and get those skills. Understanding the Industry as described above should help you to figure out where you would like to be. Getting the right skills upfront will make your career more interesting and fulfilling. While the entry point of Sales Representative at an Agency might be one of easier roles to get, it is also one of the least well paid and ultimately most frustrating and unfulfilling.

Being passionate about the product is important but it is not sufficient to succeed and have a fulfilling career in this industry. In some ways it would be better to be passionate as a collector or hobbyist and just enjoy the knowledge that you have of this wonderful business. But, if you have decided that you want a career in the Drinks Industry, do the legwork to get the skills necessary to add value to the company you want to work for.

Ben Booth, Managing Director of International Wine LLC,  kindly submitted this article for us – you kind find out more about him here


For some of the latest drinks industry jobs, see Fluid Fusion, a leading recruiter for the drinks industry

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