I am currently in a bar, writing by candlelight in the aftermath of the catastrophe named Hurricane Sandy. We're all sitting in the dark, and have been for almost four days. We were luckier than many.
'from behind the bar' on Serious Eats
Bartenders are—pretty much by definition—human beings, thus are subject to the same moods, whims, quirks, and personality disorders that others of our species are known to exhibit. The job requires us to suppress these foibles for the sake of hospitality, pretend we've had the greatest day, and spend the bulk of our night being nice to complete strangers. But some people make it really difficult to keep up the facade.
After regaling me with stories of new bars he had visited around the planet, he put his hand on my shoulder and said, "This 'mixology' thing, Michael. Wouldn't you say it has pretty much run its course?"
What makes a good bartender? What about a bad one? What does a good bartender do...and what don't they do? As I train bartenders for my bar, I try to pass along these 20 rules. Do you have any to add?
I've written at length about good bars, but have lately been thinking about the qualities that make one bad. A few common problems rear their ugly heads.
Bartenders throw things in the air. We flip bottles. We run around behind the bar like madmen, pulling pints, shaking cocktails, dodging co-workers. When a bartender is working in a busy bar, speed is the entire point. It is both the show and the execution of the show.
They have a saying in photography. Novices obsess about equipment; experts think about light. For those of us in the cocktail game, I would amend the above statement as follows: Novices obsess about technique. Experts think about balance.
There was a time when I left New York, and left bartending altogether, not certain if I would ever return to either. The months that ensued contain stories for another day, but when I did come back to the city it was pretty clear that the craft and trade of tending bar had once again called my name.
When I was young, I worked in a drug store in the mall, which wasn't nearly as hellish as it sounds to me now. Malls were fantastic back in the days before the internet; every one of the stores had both a bunch of products we couldn't afford to buy, and there were also pretty girls who we could moon at through the windows. I found my first "serious" girlfriend at the mall at the ripe old age of fifteen (if you must know, she worked in the Hello Kitty store). I loved my job, but as good as I thought I had it, I always knew my friend Bill had it better. Attached to the mall was a restaurant in which he worked as a busboy.
I've got one hand on a stroller, and one keeping a pre-schooler from falling off of my shoulders, which is a perfect time to talk about balance. "It comes from the stomach," I told her. "You've got to keep your head up, your eyes forward, and stay ﬂexible enough that you can move around as I'm walking."
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.
A good friend of mine stopped in to see me the other night. It was her first time in the bar and I had not seen her for a very long time. After the initial hugs and how-are-yous, her first comment was, "What, no girls behind the bar?"
Let's say it's early in the shift and your fellow bartender won't be in for another hour. You've got a few people at the bar, and suddenly ten people come in and they all want cocktails, and then the waitress puts in a few tickets. People who have been sitting at the bar already are waiting for another round. You start one order, talk to new customers, pour a couple of beers, and suddenly you realize that everyone is staring at you because they all want something and there's no way you'll be able to get to them until you get caught up. There's a phrase that we use to describe this kind of scenario: being in the weeds. And being in the weeds is never pretty.
People often ask me how I got started in the bar business, and the short answer is: "I lied." Back in the 90s, you could get away with that kind of thing; if you could make a cosmopolitan, a sidecar, and a decent margarita, you were most of the way home.
When you are young and you work in hospitality, you often date in hospitality. Perhaps it is because of the strange hours of your job, or maybe it's because of the types of people attracted to the industry. I dated within my profession for both the convenience and for the personalities I met. Cooks were fun for nights of video games and standing in the back of smoky bars drinking Budweiser while listening to them perform with a band, waiters for their tortured monologues of how they would one day be famous actors. But my favorites were always bartenders.
Things get complicated when you factor in one of the major tools that bartenders use to connect to their clientele: the buy-back. Buy-back, comp, promo; call it what you will. In every bar, there is a certain budget that allows for giving a customer a drink that they do not have to pay for. For those of us who work behind bars, the buy-back is a double-edged sword.
Just under a year in, I was opening up one afternoon and a friend walked in with someone else in tow. The man was introduced as the owner of a hotel in Times Square which had an old bar on the first floor. After telling me in no uncertain terms how negatively he regarded his hotel's bar, he mentioned that its current owner would be losing his lease after more than forty years, and would we consider stopping by to check out the space?
There has been an interesting comment that that keeps popping up in the threads of these columns. It goes something like this: "I'm sick of the trend where bartenders think that they are god's gift to humanity. Your job is to make drinks, not to educate, babysit, or judge people. So do us all a favor; stow the attitude, and do your job."
Bars are societies writ small, and each has iron-clad regulations governing what will and will not be considered acceptable behavior. At one bar, patrons might be encouraged to dance on the bar and take shots with the bartenders. At others, the slightest exhibition of rowdy behavior might get a guest shown to the door.
It's 2012, and bartenders the world over are heaving sighs of relief after successfully surviving the mother of all nights out. I have been a bartender too long to hold much sentimentality for the champagne, horns, and streamers that comprise New Year's Eve, but it is a party, and someone has to throw it, so I spent this year the same way I've spent most others: slinging drinks and counting down to midnight.