What an incredible time to be a bartender — there are so many fantastic opportunities already set up for us to learn from those who came before us. I haven’t been bartending for all too long, but I can see a massive shift over the last few years, so I am sure those who have been working in the industry for much longer can feel it too. We are working in a time where you can go away to summer camp and tour historic distilleries on the Bourbon Trail. We can travel to iconic cities, like New Orleans, for Tales of the Cocktail and revel in their rich history and listen to the greats speak on the advancements in our industry. We can go to a library, a book store, a department store, heck — we can go to Anthropologie and pick up a book on vermouth and cocktail culture. There is a wealth of knowledge at our finger tips, and so many of us are taking advantage of it. It truly is a great time to be a bartender — we have the ability to know, with certainty, the history of what we are pouring for our guests every night and a story behind it. What I present to you today, my comrades behind the stick, is the the question of what you are doing with that education.
I was at a fantastic seminar at Tales of the Cocktail in 2015 where the panel spoke on a similar subject. So often, we can become so inspired by rare ingredients, history, and the little known facts that we can lose sight of what we are truly set behind the bar to achieve — an exceptional level of hospitality. Unless we strive to keep this goal at the forefront of our minds — the books we’ve read, the classes we’ve attended, all can become a detriment to our character — something that can set us apart from our guests and has the potential to create the feared pretentious bartender (insert ominous music). Now. I am not saying that because we aim to learn we become “that which shall not be named” — not at all. I am urging you to take a look at yourself personally and professionally and think what you want your education to provide you and your guests. Only we can prevent ourselves from reaching this point.
So, I suppose we should define our ideas of a pretentious bartender. We all have the same ideas — the quiet bartender who doesn’t engage their guests in thoughtful conversation. The one who scoffs at making a vodka red bull or a shaken Manhattan. The person you need to flag down (which we all hate anyways) to get service. Notice how all of these qualities have nothing to do directly with being an educated bartender? So where did this go wrong? When did an elevated level of education cause us to think we know better than our guests — the ones asking us for what they, themselves want? (Oh, and the people paying our bills!) How on Earth could we know them better than they know themselves within a mere few minutes seated at our bar? I believe the solution to this seemingly rhetorical question is in our motives and our delivery.
Is our goal as bartenders to show how much we know on a subject or to show how much we know about people? Or is it a combination of the two?
Our education has told us simple things such as the “proper” way to serve a martini — and the exact recipe for a correct martini. The proper way to make an Old Fashioned — which is (as an open minded bartender would agree) a pretty difficult thing to get a room full of bartenders (or guests) to agree on anyways. We have been told, and agree, that certain things are best enjoyed shaken, stirred, at room temp, etc. — things that we have been taught by our predecessors and we have learned with experience. These things that we’ve acquired along the way, many of our guests do not know or understand. That’s ok! They only know what their parents, friends, peers, co-workers, etc. drink. Often times people don’t extend their repertoire for fear of ordering something they won’t like or something that they will be judged on. I love the question “what is your favorite guilty pleasure cocktail?” It’s a trick question, in my opinion. I will openly tell you that I love a chocolate martini, but that I would feel really weird ordering one at a cocktail bar (unless they put one on the menu). But you know what? That’s my own issue. There is no such thing as a guilty pleasure cocktail — there are only cocktails you like and should not be ashamed of ordering. That being said, we can admit that these exist, but it is in equal parts due to the way bartenders react to receiving these orders and they way our friends react when we order them.
We have a great power to be able to help steer our guests outside of their comfort zone — to try something new. Our education on these subjects can easily sell a top shelf whiskey or turn a Cosmo drinker on to a new spirit or cocktail. So how do we skate the line of educating our guests in a way that they appreciate while and do not feel discouraged? How do we engage them in such a way that they thank you for your time and they look to you next time for a recommendation? Again, our motives and delivery come in to play. A guest orders something that makes you cringe? Don’t ask them “Are you sure you want that?” That’s not only rude, but makes them feel embarrassed. Try a different approach — “Good choice! Whistle Pig is a truly fantastic whiskey. Have you ever tried that on it’s own instead of with coke? …(insert fun story, historical context, etc.)” Now that you’ve opened the door, perhaps they are working with you — listening, excited and eager to hear your input. Maybe they just shut you down with a “no.” Then it’s time to swallow your pride and let this one go. There will be another chance. Open the door for communication. There is a reason people choose to sit at a bar. There is a beautiful, genuine interaction with human beings. It is something I am convinced will never go away, despite the increase in social media and technology.
To bring it all home, I urge you all to think about how you demonstrate your knowledge with and for your guests. Think of your co-workers and how they demonstrate what they know. Think of your favorite bar and your least favorite bar. There are very clear reasons for why they hold these places for you, and I would be willing to bet part of it has to do with the level of service, passion, and hospitality served by each individual working there. Education is an incredible tool — one I urge everyone to use, as it is helping to progress our industry forward. We should all use this to be an inspiration to our guests and our co-workers. Use this to create regulars and relationships — be smart and be kind. If all else fails, consider the golden rule — Be the bartender you would want someone to be for you.