Serious Eats: Drinks

From Behind the Bar: On Getting What You Want In a Bar

About the Author: You may have seen Michael Neff behind the bar at New York's Ward III and The Rum House. He stops by on Wednesdays to share insights on cocktails and the life of a barman.

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[Photo: Nicci Silva]

What I'm Drinking:
Signatory Ben Nevis 1992 Cask Strength (with a drop of water)
Founder's Porter (1/2 pint)

I grew up as the second of seven children, so the concept of sharing was ingrained in me at a very young age. This was not out of some high-minded ethics on the part of my parents, but a matter of necessity. When finite resources must be shared across a group, ideas like fairness, justice, and equality spell the difference between a happy home and one divided by conflict and animosity.

If three of us sit down to split one piece of pie, I'm the one who will ensure that each slice is exactly equal. I was trained to divide things precisely by a grip of siblings who wanted to make sure they each got exactly their fair share.

Bars and families are not so dissimilar. In a bar, everyone is paying the same amount of money for the same amount of product, so if I pour a whiskey and ginger with two ounces for one person, and pour an ounce and three-quarters for another, they will justifiably want to know why. This concept of equity is constantly in my head, and I will make sure that your pour is exactly the same as the person next to you, not just because it is my job, but because I can't do it any other way.

Any resource can be divided in some form or another, including time. I thought about this last week when I was working on a busy Friday night. Fifty or sixty people were looking at me, all expecting attention and drinks at exactly the same time. In these circumstances, my tendency towards equal treatment can be the difference between a happy crowd and one that is angrily unsatisfied.

Drunk people are selfish. They want what they want right away, and they don't understand that there are a hundred other people just like them waiting for exactly the same thing. What they want is the bartender's time, be it in the form of drinks, conversation, or their bill. It takes an agile person to fulfill all of these needs, regardless of whether you are in a fancy cocktail bar or a corner dive.

When a bar is busy, the bartender sets a series of priorities in his head, which is based on who has been waiting longest, what people are ordering, who needs to pay their bill, and a host of other minutiae that allows him to serve as many drinks as possible to the most people possible. Your actions as a customer also work to raise or lower your priority on that list.

If you snap your fingers, whistle, yell across the bar, or (gasp) try to reach over and grab the person tending bar, you are automatically lowered on that list of priorities. Your bartender may be employed to serve you, but that does not give you an excuse to summon them as you would a dog. Politely raising your hand will get you a bartender's attention without raising his ire. The first skill good bartenders learns is heeding their peripheral vision, so trust that they know you are waiting and will get to you in the shortest amount of time possible.

Less egregious sins include stutter-step ordering. I approached a man on my busy Friday, and he ordered a cocktail and a glass of wine. When I returned, he ordered another glass of wine. When I returned with that, he ordered a beer. As much as I might like to be this person's personal bartender, the time he wasted was time where other people were not getting my attention. Additional ordering just means he was skipping the line.

The best customers are those who know exactly what they want, order clearly and succinctly, and acknowledge the fact that they are one of many people who all want the same thing. If you can make my job a little easier, you will be rewarded with faster drinks, my gratitude, and maybe a drink on the house. While bartenders are committed to service, that means the service of everyone. It is in our interest to serve a lot of people as quickly as possible, but remember that, in a bar, we're kind of like a big family. Your bartender works very hard to make sure everyone gets their slice of the pie.

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