The other day I sat mesmerized by a gif I sent a friend in a conversation anticipating her visit to Mexico City—a gif of Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes saying “All I want is a drink!” Granted gifs are by nature mesmerizing, but what I was mesmerized by was not the 3 second repetition of Monroe’s request but by this rare feeling of wanting a drink, a drink like that. I was lost in thought trying to remember the last time I had a drink like this, one that wasn’t part of a promotional event or a recipe being tweaked for the new menu, one that my team wasn’t preparing batches in the hundreds or a quick layback to refresh the senses, or even one that wasn’t the ceremonial cold beer at the end of the shift. Not any of these but a real drink, made for me while I am seated. All I want is a drink.
I haven’t had a drink in maybe a year. Not like that. And the reason why is directly related to my dedication to making that drink happen for others. I love to make it happen. I live for it. I’m a bartender. I don’t bartend on the weekends for extra cash, I don’t bartend until something better comes along, I don’t bartend because I’m neglecting the career I should be chasing, I don’t bartend because it is fashionable, I don’t bartend because I can’t do anything else—I bartend because bartending is my calling. It is the vocation that challenges and feeds me, the one that puts me in contact with people I respect and admire as well as people with goals and struggles similar to my own. Bartending gives me the greatest sense of accomplishment when I get it right.
But what is getting it right? What is this vocation called bartending? When Bartender Atlas asked me to provide a few good words on bartending, I figured that a little insight into the life and work of a career bartender might be useful. Not one of those snarky what-the-bartender-thinks-of-the-rest-of-the-world clickbait articles, but a genuine run down of what I do each day.
In the course of working on this piece, it became apparent that there is quite a bit to share on the topic. Because I would never assume someone would willingly read a novella at one time online, we have decided to publish this piece in two parts. The first part will focus on the preparation, study and training that goes into bartending before we even greet a customer. I will leave you there at the end of the piece and part two will pick up where the first part leaves off with the interaction of customer and bartender. The second part will go deeper into the responsibilities, opportunities, and challenges of bartenders in their jobs working with people from owners to teammates to customers.
The Mixology Misconception
While I won’t be running through a list of misconceptions of bartending, I do want to address the difference between the terms bartender and mixologist. I think the first thing that people think of when they are trying to think of a bartender as more than a pair of tits serving shots is mixologist. However, a well-modulated scoff often follows the use of the term amongst bartenders. Historically speaking, the term mixologist and its subsequent derision is as old as bartending itself, invented in 1856 as a joke. (A fact I pull from the treasured of all holy bartending manuals, the BarSmarts Workbook, page 101.)
This by no means signifies the triumph of snobby so-called bartenders. Mixology and mixologist are entirely helpful terms to describe the part of bartending that is mixing liquids in an educated and artful fashion. Also, some professionals are specifically mixologists, they work for brand portfolios or magazines and they concentrate on this part of bartending although they may not be behind a bar every week. Professional mixologists deserve all the respect and kudos for valuable work and research they provide the cocktail community. But I am not one of them. I don’t terribly mind when people use mixologist when referring to what I do because chances are they are trying to show some respect for something that they hadn’t always thought of was respectful. But I am a bartender and mixology is only a portion of what I do.
The Ever-Present Responsibility
Before we get into anything I’d like to invite you to keep in mind something while reading this piece, something every bartender regardless of how fully they embrace their craft must always have at the forefront of their mind. A lot of what I am about to describe will also apply to cooks and others in the hospitality industry, but there is central concern unique to bartending. We deal in addictive and mood altering substances.
There are three mood altering substances in particular that we must always take care with:
- Alcohol is the most obvious and needs no explanation.
- Sugar is obvious once you realize that it has a place in many cocktails and could perhaps influence the strength of your hangover the next day.
- Herbal components in liqueurs and housemade products. Most commercial liqueurs are not of great concern, but when I make my own bitters and vermouths, I must do so with a background in understanding the medicinal components of the herbs used. I don’t mean to say infusing and mixing herbs is dangerous or precarious by any means, but knowing the properties of herbal components can help to make a superior product. It only helps to know and develop an understanding of basic herbalism; which herbs are diuretics or sleep-inducing or even those that contain low levels of poison.
Like many parts of bartending, there are long histories and education on the subject of the curative properties of bartending and how elixirs morphed from behind the pharmacists counter to being widely used in cocktails. I won’t be able to delve too deeply into the particulars of this history in this piece, but if this aspect of bartending piques your interest the first place to go is to the work of cocktail writer and historian, David Wondrich.
What I Think About When I Think About a Cocktail
With the always present medicinal and controlled substance part of bartending at the forefront of our minds, let’s get down to what bartenders do. And as mentioned previously, much of bartending is preparation and consideration of a constellation of concerns from chemistry, culinary, physics, and hospitality. Here’s a run-down of the points my bartender mind systematically checks through when I consider a cocktail whether I am in the middle of service—the time open to customers, preparing a recipe or a menu, training my team, or judging in a competition.
What does the cocktail consist of? What is the recipe? Is it a classic recipe or, even if it is a signature cocktail, is it based on a classic recipe’s measurements? What is the aim of the original recipe? Is the aim to showcase a liqueur? To balance something sweet with something citrus? To provide light refreshment or a heavy dose of spirit? Does the fundamental concept of the recipe meant to highlight herbal notes? Or is it meant to blend contrasting flavors to come up with a third well-blended flavor? How does this recipe stay true to an original concept while bringing out more citrus notes or deeper bitter notes? Will this gin classic work with a substitution of mezcal? Would this recipe be better balanced with a split base? —Split base is using two brand or distillations in the place of one. Does the recipe need a bit of simple syrup to balance and blend or perhaps a bit more dilution? Is the flavor 2-dimensional or 3-dimensional, and how to we get it to operate in surround? How does the flavor of the cocktail work with the way the cocktail feels in the mouth?
How will this recipe be served? Shaken or stirred or built in the glass? How is the dilution present and how much dilution? How does the ice break down in the shaking tin? What size ice is best to shake for the desired texture of the cocktail? How long to shake or stir to attain the dilution and temperature? How fast? At what temperature is this cocktail the best enjoyed? What kind of glassware presents the cocktail in the best way? Does the glass open up to release aroma or is it thinner to keep temperature? What kind of ice will be used to serve the cocktail? How big? How does the ice look in the glass? How will the cocktail taste freshly-served to the customer? How will it taste after a few minutes? How will it taste if someone lets it sit for a while? How does the garnish function in the cocktail? Is it offering an accurate advertisement of what is inside the glass? Does it complement the notes present in the cocktail? Will it be in the way of drinking the cocktail? If it is in the way of drinking the cocktail, is it a pleasurable experience? If the customer does not appreciate the garnish, how will it be disposed of? On the table or a napkin or a provided dish? How will the garnish look in the emptied glass?
This is just tip of a gigantic iceberg for me in particular since not only do I carry the name and responsibilities of a bartender, but I also lead our team as the head bartender. In addition to these concerns in a few paragraphs are volumes of queries dealing with planning and costing that go into each cocktail. Add to the detailing of costing each cocktail that we are also putting a collection of cocktails together to create a nuanced menu. Not only is this a balancing act of curating a collection that is balanced in what it offers to customers by means of flavor profiles and alcohol strengths, but the costing must find its balance as well.
When it comes to a menu, the head bartender is often the one who must schedule the subsequent production for housemade ingredients, when to make products so that they are always at top freshness and flavor. We also are responsible for the training and development of everyone on the team to provide a consistent level of service. But this leadership and direction of the team is not only relegated to the mixology part of bartending. As head bartender I also train our staff to embrace their own (positive) idiosyncrasies and personalities when it comes to…
What is behind the liquid we put in a glass and slide across the bar to you? A cocktail is very rarely drunk only for the purpose of quenching thirst or tying one on. A cocktail is a carefully crafted experience from start to finish, and hopefully it is an experience that will lead to your own stories of celebration or healings of sorrow. When I write a menu, I not only like to train my team to make the cocktails, but I also train them on the stories behind the cocktails. At the bar I head, when we come up with an original signature cocktail we attempt to choose a name that is not only catchy but has a story (or two) behind it.
Good cocktails have more than one story, or at least more than one version. There can be multiple versions chronicling the invention or use of certain classic cocktails. My advice as to how to ascertain which one is the most correct? I suggest to settle the matter to enjoy one or two of the cocktail in question while debating the merits of each story. My job is not to be the end all be all of what is the most authentic—or better yet, to be the most authentic you must be able to know a few good versions, know why you make your version the way you do, and be able to tell the stories with panache while leaving room for your guests to live their own story for the evening.
To prepare for storytelling is the same as studying classic and contemporary recipes: read a lot and travel whenever you can. There is no end to the book learning for a bartender, whether it be cocktail study or history or contemporary events or whatever subject the bartender finds interesting. A bartender needs to be able to hold a conversation with anyone. We need to be jack-of-all-interests knowing how to small talk as well as address a wide array of topics that interest your client base. My own academic background gives me a wealth of topics I am prepared to toss about in conversation, but I also cultivate a knowledge about popular topics like sports or movies or music. I will add a very important note at this point: all bartenders should follow the age-old table etiquette rule of not engaging in conversation about politics or religion at the table (or at the bar). Leave it to your customers to debate as they will, but the bartender must stay elusively out of taking sides. Bartenders, if anything, need to be diplomatic at all times.
Another important place for education and preparation for bartenders is to know your spirits and know your brands. Every cocktail you hold in your hand was, at some point, corn or grapes or wheat or rye or agave. What was eventually distilled (in any manner of ways) had to be planted, cultivated, harvested, and prepared. Bartenders are only the people flipping the bottle upside down and mixing things together while telling you some tall tale, but every alcohol that gets poured into the jigger has a whole host of people that went into its careful production. Bartenders need to know and respect each ingredient and to be able to inform the guest of these stories and product information as well.
One last note. With any part of the conversational and education giving aspect of bartending, the bartender must be able to read the needs of the guest and hopefully impart whatever level of engagement the customer is welcome to receiving—not mindlessly clobbering the poor people on the other side of the bar with arcane bartender knowledge.
There’s the Telling and Then There’s the Doing
Believe it or not, we are still in preparation mode before a customer even walks through the door. This next piece of bartending preparation is often overlooked, especially with those that favor the mixology aspect and the erudition that accompanies it. This crucial piece is physical performance. There are three main parts of the athletic training of a bartender: strength and endurance, flexibility and working flair, and choreography.
It is necessary to physically train yourself as a bartender. I am better at it at some times than others, but if I want to get the most out of my job, I have to be fit. Firstly, so I don’t hurt myself. Secondly, to not get as sore in those certain spots bartenders know all to well. And lastly, I have to last 10 hours at a consistent rate of service and hospitality. Bartenders tend to work long shifts. We are on our feet preparing for the shift, we stand throughout the shift, and we clean after everyone leaves. Bartenders work on their feet on average about 8-10 hours, but shifts that are even longer are not out of the question. We must have not only the physical capability of this particular kind of endurance as well as the basic strength of carrying cases of booze, fruit, etc. We have no choice but to do the best we can to eat well before the shift, drink lots of water, everything you would do to survive a marathon.
Strength and endurance is key but nothing without maintaining flexibility or we will hurt ourselves. During the marathon or a shift, we also have a bar full of people watching us. Not only do I stretch and train my flexibility before a shift, I try to incorporate flexibility during the shift with what some call working flair. A lot of what I do when I am mixing cocktails may come across as showmanship with minor flair elements, but these are actually techniques to save my mid-30s body from wear and tear. I am a stickler for keeping elbows up and floating when pouring or mixing. Absolutely no slouching. These rules are so that we not only look good performing the making of cocktails, but also to keep your body aligned and working to save your back.
Along with proper alignment is the body knowledge of how to execute the movements behind a bar. I train on not only how to shake a cocktail, but how to amend my body’s flow so that the force of the shake isn’t impacting my shoulder negatively but catching and working that force through instead of against the body. I’ve also had to train to flip a bottle upside down with the muscles of my lower arm to save the strain of the shoulder and neck, and then how to cut it elegantly in the air for the visual entertainment of the guests. Also, when double stirring or double shaking or a mixture of the two, it isn’t only to look like a monster behind the bar making drinks fast, but I also train to be ambidextrous as one of the best ways to minimize repetitive stress injuries. This is a sample of working flair, a consciousness of the elegance of making a cocktail in the service of the health of the body.
The last piece isn’t necessarily physical training but the consciousness of the preparation of the bar in service to the dance that is team bartending through the night. It is the pre-planned map of where the bottles and ingredients are for the efficient composition of a cocktail. Each cocktail has a rhythm, a choreography. For example, if you were to ask me for a negroni, I could pantomime exactly how to make negroni from behind any bar I’ve worked at, the body memory of a bartender is not to be understated. I consider this choreography in writing a menu as well. I think about how myself and my team will move when we make a drink. Do we need to open a fridge, is everything in arm’s length? Will we share certain garnishes between stations or will all garnishes be available at each station? How will it look to make a daiquiri? A Manhattan? How does it work at each station? A well-planned choreography assists in each point of the physical endurance and flexibility and should not be overlooked.
And Then Finally, A Customer Walks into a Bar…
I think many times when a customer gets that salty stuffy yet overly-preachy bartender, what you are really getting is a person that just wants to be recognized for intense study and training but doesn’t know how to utilize said study and training. Then, when you order your vodka soda, you get the attitude because that salty bartender isn’t feeling recognized by you on how much work went into just being present to hand your drink to you. I make no apologies for bartenders with attitude problems. Unfortunately, these bartenders may be well-trained, but not in the most important aspect of bartending: tending to the customers at the bar.
I will make whatever the customer wants, and I love making it exactly the way the customer likes. However, sometimes I can see that what is being ordered isn’t being ordered because it is the best thing for the customer, but the easy, comfortable option. At these points, I will offer suggestions to expand upon the customer’s comfort zone. Expand is the key word here. I don’t want the customer to ever not be comfortable. Their comfort level may be restricted, but I’m not going to toss someone over the fence of where they want to be.
There’s a Maya Angelou quote that floats around discussions of service in the cocktail industry and I’ll reiterate it here as well since it is so good: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Honestly, it doesn’t really matter what I serve you or what stories I tell you. What matters is if you felt comfortable, cared about, and ultimately, following Sasha Petraske, if you felt cool. The bartender’s focus is not on being cool in and of themselves, but to make the customer feel cool, feel appreciated, feel at the top of their game. All the preparation and training I have outlined in this first part is to accomplish this and this alone.
This is the point that I told you I would leave you for the moment, at the bar with guest and bartender yet departed on their journey for the evening. All the study and preparation in the world can be rather impressive in size and detail to consider, but what bartenders do with this understanding is ultimately what matters. We’ll continue to explore aspects such as the bartender’s role as therapist, babysitter, community organizer, competitor, and public figure in Part II. Until then, Bottom’s Up!