Rob McCaughey is intimately familiar with all parts and processes of the liquor industry.

He started out working in his parents’ bars in England, moving quickly to hotel hospitality, studying systems at the world’s busiest TGI Friday’s, and working in private members clubs and at VIP parties at the height of London’s 1990s rockstar bartending scene.  Eventually desiring a healthier lifestyle, he opened – and quickly closed – his own bar on the UK coast before moving to Spain to where he became a GM and manager trainer at TGI Friday’s, opening restaurants all over the world.  After several years in Spain, he set up a hospitality training consultancy that worked in Hong Kong and Europe before he moved to the Middle East to work again in hospitality.  Instead, he began importing and distributing liquor in Abu Dhabi, eventually helping build an independent distribution company from the ground up.  In Abu Dhabi, he met his wife and they came to Pittsburgh for her PhD program, where Rob met the Dreadnaught Wines team and began running education programs and developing their on-trade presence.

When he’s not teaching bartending and spirits classes, pouring samples of first rate products, or performing wild acrobatics behind the bar, Rob joins us for our Wine & Wieners Wednesdays to pair delightful, surprising wines with frankfurters and specialty toppings.  Megan caught up with him over poutine to discuss his story.

Wine is obviously your current focus, but have you had other seasons in which you’ve been particularly enamored of certain spirits?

“I was a spirits guy, cocktails were always my passion…although I don’t like the term mixology, for want of a better term, it was always where I saw myself in the industry.  It wasn’t until I was working for an importer/distributor when I began taking my wine education seriously.  The Wine and Spirit Education Trust Program was a great learning curve for me, and my boss was a big wine guy.  I was exposed to a lot of wine makers, got to travel a lot, and you get caught up in the passion of the people.  Wine  just seemed to pay the bills a little more.  In my heart I’m always a bartender, which is one of the reasons I teach, it’s my way of keeping in touch with the bar side of things.  Wine was the thing I had to do to do the thing I love, which was spirits.  Now I have an affinity for both.

“I really love all spirits.  Honestly, I like any products with a story, heritage or history that are well made, with passionate people behind them.  You hear all about local, organic, this and that.  That’s all fine but it doesn’t mean good, and I’m always going to pick good over those things.  If I can find great local products, I’ll pick those, but I’m not going to eat or drink things that are inferior just because they are local; a lot of people take it too far, but I like to find the happy medium.”

Certainly we struggle with that balance here.

“It’s important.  And a lot of people get very sensitive about it, especially in Pittsburgh where there is this real sense of community…and I’m a big advocate of local business, keeping money in the community, but it has to be done with a sense of purpose, for the right reasons.  Some people do it to jump on the bandwagon, but when you see people who are doing it because they have a passion and love it, it’s easy to get behind them because they’re doing it for the right reasons.”

What are your favorites from the region and beyond?

“Locally, I’m a big fan of Wigle Genever, Maggie’s Farm Rum and Boyd & Blair’s new rum Stonewall.  I also love the local craft beer scene and I think growlers are possibly the greatest invention ever!  Import wise  I have a penchant for the bitter so it would have to be Fernet Branca, Italian amaros or a cool Czech liqueur called Becherovka that can be found in a few bars in town.

“Something I’m looking at importing that I love from my days in Spain is a liqueur called Pacharán (traditionally spelled Patxaran): think sloe berries and anise.  It’s great after dinner as a digestif.”

What’s the greatest challenge you face when you want to move someone from cheap wine to better wine?  Is it palate, education, price…?

“I don’t think you need to move a cheap wine drinker to a better wine.  I’m not teaching you what’s good or bad, I’m teaching you how to make better choices.  Everyone’s palate is different.  We have this joke, ‘If you like Two Buck Chuck, go buy it; if you like a $200 bottle of wine, have someone buy it for you.’  It’s about understanding the characteristics of something that you like and then expanding your points of reference.  People are more willing to take a chance with beer because it tends to be a more affordable option, whereas with wine it can get expensive so people are scared to step outside their comfort zone.  What I try to do personally is enable people to understand their own palate, what they like and why, and then help them segue from there into new things.  I don’t know if I would ever encourage people to move from cheaper products to more expensive products, that’s not how I view quality.  It’s a very personal thing.

“As a sales person, I’ve never been driven by the bottom line; it’s about building personal relationships and a longer term goal: everyone doing better and having better products.  When I first started working in bars and you asked for a glass of wine your choice was red or white…so the world has come a long way in the last 20 years.  Quality has improved, people are held to account more.  People travel more, have a better understanding of what to expect and they’re more demanding, which makes everybody more honest.  The question you have to ask now is, ‘How do you justify the cost of that $80 bottle of wine when there’s really phenomenal wine for $18?’  And that’s when you have to really sell the story, the production, the labor of love.  It isn’t just about what you’re drinking in the glass, it’s how it got to the glass, and that’s what adds value and takes people on a journey.”

Join Rob at Franktuary on a New Year’s Day journey through brunch as we ring in 2014 and wring out the prior evening’s carousing.  Traditional New Year’s Day foods from around the world will be paired with wine and cocktails from Rob’s arsenal.  11am to 3pm