A Hamburger Today

From Behind the Bar: Bars, The Universe, and Everything

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[Photos: Nicci Silva]

What I'm Drinking:
Anchor Steam (Bottled)
Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage 2001 (w/a drop of water)

Understanding the universe is a difficult proposition. We've got our little rock at the shady end of the Milky Way, nestled around an insignificant star, where we nurture the illusion that the infinitesimal amounts of time we call a lifespan has some effect on the vastness of the cosmos around us. Anyone who studies quantum physics can tell you that it's a madhouse out there, and our place in it is of questionable importance. Does the universe exist because we're there to observe it? Or do the galaxies swirl their way through the dimensions, ignorant of the fact that an upstart race of sentient beings keep beating their fists against their chests screaming, "Hey! Look at me!"

If I don't want to blow my own mind, curl up in a ball, and give myself over to the fact that my place in the universe is equivalent to a cosmic dust-bunny, I focus on the things that get me up in the morning. My family. My wife and daughters. The community of people I am proud to call friends, partners, co-workers, colleagues, and collaborators. For me, the comedy and drama of life is the point itself. And as any good playwright knows, every performance needs a backdrop. Throughout much of human history, that backdrop has been the local bar.

Bars exist at a beautiful nexus of time and space. They simultaneously help connect us to our lives and escape them. Bars of any stripe are more than bricks and mortar—they are the collective experiences of all who frequent them.

I was recently sitting over an after-shift beer with one of my barbacks. He was going through a bit of an existential crisis, one which many of us who have been in this business for any length of time would recognize. What am I doing here? Am I wasting my time? The service industry for many people in this country is a treading-water career, one which supports you while you learn to do something more valuable. We professional bartenders have made great strides recently in legitimizing what we do for a living, but it's still easy to look at a life-long bartender and see nothing more than a failed actor.

While I don't claim to have the answers for everyone, I could tell him how I've lasted for sixteen years without feeling like I've failed at something better. It's simple; I can't name much better. The service we bartenders provide is vital, both for communities and individuals. A good bar defines the outlines of a community. It is the clearinghouse of ideas. I can't count the number of business plans and project outlines I've seen jotted on the back of coasters.

I don't claim that we are perfect. Yes, people get drunk in bars. And yes, that can be a problem. But more often, it's not. More often, that little jolt of hooch gave a nice young man the extra bit of gumption to go talk to that girl sitting with her friends. I have been there when many a wife met her husband. On a purely human level, what could be better than that?

People drink in bars for many reasons: sometimes to find solace, sometimes perspective, sometimes to find joy in the art of flavor, and sometimes they just want to put the trials of life on hold for a few hours and enjoy themselves. If you're lucky, you meet someone like yourself, and the universe does what it does. Whatever the reason, we rely on the magic of fermentation to help us through our short time on this planet. We always have, and I hope we always will.

The reason I work in bars, and the reason I am proud to help create them, is because I think they are vitally important. While bars might not be the center of the universe, they are often the centers of communities. We rely on them when times are tough. We flock to them to celebrate victories and lick our wounds in defeat. When we are lonely and have nowhere else to go, there is a door open somewhere through which we are welcome. Someone will talk to you. Someone will acknowledge your existence. Bartenders might not be firemen, but we have our own way of saving lives.

Is working in this industry a waste of time? This is the shortest answer I can give. Those of us who distill your spirits, squeeze grapes for your wine, craft your cocktails and pour your pints do what we do because we love the process, we love the craft, and we love the community. We do it for ourselves. We do it for you. And, in many ways, we do it because it must be done.

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How About A Drink?

Schrodinger's Cat was a thought-experiment postulating a simultaneous state of existence of non-existence. For some reason, this led me to pair Mezcal and Bourbon. You see, a cocktail is both perfect and undrinkable—until you actually taste it.

Get the recipe »

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