From Behind the Bar

Tales from our resident bartender.

From Behind the Bar: On Being in the Mood

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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[Photograph: Jessica Leibowitz]

What I'm Drinking:
Tecate (Can, dressed with lime juice, Cholula, and salt)

If you're having a bad day when you work in a bar, you don't have the luxury of retreating in to a corner and warning everyone to back off. We work in public, and have our customers' eyes on us at all times. They watch what we do, notice when we bark at one another, comment when we're not performing at our best, and make decisions about where they choose to spend their time and money based on what they see.

Hospitality requires both commitment to delivering service and enough humanity to make sure that service is delivered in the most genuine way possible. The commitment part is hard enough for a lot of places to manage. If you get that far, you then have to get past the human factor, which means the mood of the staff has an enormous impact on how a joint runs. It is impossible to be in a good mood at all times, so the general mood of the staff is one that needs to be recognized and managed. A dour staff makes for a bad night, and sometimes a word or two of encouragement is all it takes to prevent disaster.

Mood has a further impact when you're making cocktails. A good cocktail comes from the hands, the head, and the heart. The hands part is obvious, and entails the skill of the bartender and the tens of thousands of times he might have shaken, stirred, poured, or muddled. The head is no less essential: the thought process behind a cocktail's creation, the creativity, planning, and attention to detail needed to choose and balance its components.

The heart is the hardest to define, and involves all of the esoteric elements that I believe make a cocktail great. From the heart comes presentation and the undefinable something that separates a cocktail made by a human from one dispensed by a machine. This component is often called skill, love, belief, or magic and is (I believe) the one thing that truly elevates a great cocktail from a good.

If the most important part of the cocktail comes from the bartender, its execution is subject to the same moods we are. I cannot make a good cocktail if I am in a bad space. Believe me, I've tried. In the rare moments that I have been in an unshakable funk, my drinks are not delicious. When this happens, I have to hold an emergency meeting with myself. Maybe walk around the block or sneak a quick shot of Fernet. Anything that will bust me out of my mood, so I can walk back behind the bar with the confidence necessary to deliver the service that people have the right to expect from me.

I have been making cocktails for many years, and have never been able to come up with a satisfactory explanation as to why how a bartender feels has anything to do with the quality of the product he puts out. That said, there are rules about dealing with staff that I've seen across the industry that everyone generally abides by. These rules, I think, stem from exactly this phenomenon.

You never chastise someone right before a shift. Sending them out to deal with the public when they feel like they've failed at something is a recipe for a bad night and bad experience for the guest.

Never comment on someone's appearance when they're going behind the bar. As I mentioned before, we're in the public eye. If someone tells you that you should really get a haircut before you're walking out to serve the public, you spend your whole shift thinking everyone's looking at your hair.

There's time enough for corrections after work when the adrenaline is bleeding down. Pre-shift is all about building people up. (In my head, I'm listening to the laughter of my own staff who can tell you from experience that things don't always work out this way. But I try.)

If you're having a bad day, my job is to listen to your woes and commiserate as much as possible. If I'm having a bad day, I have to suck it up, wait until my shift is over, and hopefully find a friendly bartender somewhere who can do the same for me.


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