Modeled after U.S. military challenge coins, the Fernet Branca coin is the equivalent of gold stars for bartenders. Like military coins, they are given to those with exceptional talent and knowledge. Once received, they are to be carried at all times, enabling recipients to enter a bar, produce their coin, and challenge others to also produce theirs; those who are caught without them must then buy a round of Fernet Branca for the coin holders. The Fernet Branca coin is just one of many accolades Lucas Bols Global Brand Ambassador and first female World Champion 2014 Kate Gerwin has been awarded in her career. In addition to carrying several prestigious coins in her pockets, she also has one tattooed on the back of her neck.
“Fernet Branca is known as the ‘bartender’s handshake,’” Gerwin says. “If you walk into any bar and you see that bottle there, you know it’s the real deal; you know there are real bartenders there. I wanted to get a tattoo with my friend, who’s also a bartender, so we decided to get our coins tattooed on us so we’d always have it on us.”
Looking back at her life, it’s not surprising that Gerwin became a boss among bartenders. The Napa native and sommelier planned on a career in wine. She opened a restaurant with her ex-husband; he was the chef and she created wine pairings. “We saw a need for cocktails, too, so I started creating cocktail lists,” she says. “They got very popular, and I found that cocktails gave me an outlet for my creativity that wine didn’t.”
Gerwin sees both disadvantages and opportunities to being a woman in the bartending business. “The unique challenge — that’s changing now, getting a little easier — is that a female bartender is not just a bartender the way men are. Men aren’t male bartenders, they’re just bartenders. When people ask me how I feel about winning, I say I am pissed off! I was the first female Bols champion–and it’s 2015! That’s crazy!”
She has also learned how to use biases to work in her favor. “Because I am a woman and because I’m covered in tattoos, I get underestimated a lot. I’ve had older gentleman walk up to the bar—I tried to help, but they want my male cohort to make their Old Fashioned,” she recalls. “One day, I offered to make their drinks for them. I told them, ‘If you don’t like it, it’s out of my pocket; I’ll pay for it.’ And they all said it was phenomenal,” Gerwin laughs, her smile audible. “When I was younger, I used to get really mad about being underestimated,” she says. “Now I enjoy it. It’s an opportunity to make folks look at their own ideas and possibly change and grow.” A leader and innovator in bartending culture, Gerwin strives to regularly facilitate growth and change—and we salute her for it.