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How A Booze-Soaked Tradition Bonds Employees At This Well-Lubricated Startup

Bespoke Post has a literal ice-breaker for its new hires–by asking them to make fancy cocktails for the team.

Back in 2012, when Bespoke Post was just a startup with handful of people, it began as many new businesses do: with conversations around beer. The gang met for a weekly happy hour at Lolita Bar on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which offered pints of better-than-average brews for $3. (The bar has since gone out of business.) Like at a lot of companies founded by young folks–like a lot of companies, period–booze found its way into Bespoke Post’s DNA early.

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Then, in the summer of 2013, the drinking took a curious twist. It might have had to do with the fact that Bespoke Post, which sends men monthly boxes of various products each month (new fashion, grooming supplies, or food) had recently begun to send cocktail kits to their customers. Or it may have just grown out of a spontaneous flight of fancy on the part of Rishi Prabhu, the company’s founder.

“We wanted to give the interns a fun way to contribute,” he says. “We were like, ‘Why don’t you each make a cocktail?’” (The interns were all over 21.)

The tradition began modestly. The first intern simply stirred together some Don Julio, soda, and lime. “That was all it was,” says Prabhu. But everyone had a good time–a better time, even, than at a happy hour where others were the servers and mixologists. Soon a second intern made a cocktail. Then a third. The summer ended, the interns went home, and no one thought much more of it for a little while.

Then, in October of 2013, Bespoke Post hired Amber Luan to help with operations and merchandising for the brand. Remembering how fun it was with the interns, Prabhu asked Luan if she would make a cocktail for the office, somewhere around the two-week mark of her employment.

Recalls Luan: “I was just starting the job, and I was anxious about that. It was a new group of people I haven’t met, and I was like, ‘Shoot! They’re gonna judge me from my cocktail!’” Perhaps having a bit of fun, Prabhu and the others did nothing to make the task less intimidating. “They told me things like, ‘You have to blow us out of the water,’” recalls Luan. Lest she think it was just a joke, they started teasing her: “When’s the cocktail? When’s the cocktail?”

Amber Luan

Luan finally bit the bullet (or Bulleit if you prefer). She scoured the Internet for ideas, and finally set to work. That Friday, she presented the cocktail to the group. “I was freaking out,” she recalls. “I didn’t want the ice to melt. I had to plan out the timing of everything.” It was starting to look like her cocktail might be a disaster.

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Finally, she passed the cocktails around. Her coworkers-turned-judges sipped slowly.

Recalls Prabhu: “It was amazing.”

Luan, it turned out, had crafted a cocktail with vanilla-and-cardamom-infused vodka, seltzer, pomegranate juice, and mint. She had infused the vodka herself. “I wanted to make something different,” she says now with a shrug, a few paces from the wet bar in Bespoke Post’s new Flatiron District office space.

“It showed so much foresight and thoughtfulness on her part,” says Prabhu. “And it was a great bonding experience for the rest of the team. And since then, every subsequent person has stood on the shoulders of the person before.” That’s because with each new hire, Bespoke Post insisted on reiterating this curious on-boarding ritual.

Theresa Hensley, a designer for the company, recalls hers: a gin-and-tonic using rosemary-infused gin and pomegranate San Pelligrino. “That was my first cocktail,” she admits. “It was nerve-wracking! They pump it up a lot and it scares the shit out of everybody.” (Reaching for a term to describe the practice, Prabhu initially says, with a grin, “I don’t want to say hazing…”)

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Justin Sundheimer, hired at the end of this September, just presented his cocktail. He describes it like a waiter describing specials on the menu. He used lapsang souchong tea (“basically it’s black tea leaves dried over smoking embers, with a bush fire flavor to it”), infusing it in bourbon. Then he slow-cooked cranberries for five hours (“just until they popped”), muddled them, put them through a cheese cloth, and added some pure cranberry juice. Then he added cinnamon, maple syrup, and both the juice and zest of an orange.

Justin Sundheimer

He, too, had never made a cocktail before. But he tried it out on his befuddled roommate, so by the time he presented to the group, “I was pretty confident,” he admits.

The cocktail brought down the house.

Woe to the next hire, who must outdo Sundheimer. And the growing Bespoke Post plans to make several hires in the coming months. (Should the company ever hire an alcoholic, he or she will presumably get special dispensation. As it is, at least one employee–hired before the ritual became institutionalized–doesn’t drink much, says Pradhu.)

With a recipe as byzantine at Sundheimer’s, one wonders: Has Bespoke Post reached a kind of Peak Cocktail, beyond which the quality must necessarily decline?

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“I don’t know if that will happen,” says Prabhu. “Everyone puts their unique spin on it. And it’s not really about the cocktail at the end of the day. It’s an opportunity for everyone to come back here and chill out for a while. This is just the vehicle to make that happen.”

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About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.

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