From Behind the Bar: On Cocktails & Superheroes

From Behind the Bar

Tales from our resident bartender.


[Photo: Nicci Silva]

What I'm Drinking: Mirror Pond Pale Ale (Bottled) 50-50 Bache-Gabrielsson XO Cognac and Jameson Irish Whiskey (Not recommended)

My daughter wants to be a butterfly for Halloween. No, a rabbit. Okay, a butterfly rabbit, which would be a nice follow-up to last year's Fairy Princess Elephant. She's three, so we haven't yet had to ride the "When I grow up, I want to be...." roller-coaster, but I imagine it will be something along the same lines. I look forward to long conversations comparing the relative career benefits of crime-fighting-archeologist-ballerinas and pterodactyl-playwrights.

My own career choices were equally hyphenated when I was a kid. I used to walk to school in a Steve Austin costume and tell my teachers that I wanted to be the Six Million Dollar Man. Perhaps I watched too much television, but the idea of a crime-fighting cyborg astronaut was too much for my five-year-old mind to resist. Batman was another hero around our house. I was fascinated with the possibility that, with a sufficient number of pockets, a mere mortal could stash away enough gadgets to save a whole city. If truth be told, I still am.

I am now grown, and the closest I'll get to being a cyborg is the fillings in my teeth. But my fondness for Batman's utility belt does have an echo in my adult life: I am known to always carry tools, at the very least a flashlight, pen, and pocket knife. They serve me well on a daily basis, though I don't think I've saved the city as a result of carrying them. Yet.

What does any of this have to do with bars, bartending, cocktails, or spirits? Maybe nothing directly, but what you get is an snapshot of who I am, how I got that way, and choices that I might make in the future. How did you come across this brilliant insight? It was easy; I told you.

I'm writing this as a follow-up to last week's column. There was a fascinating sub-set of commentary that took enormous exception to the idea that a mere bartender could presume to know anything about them. Who do I think I am, anyway? To clarify my previous contention that what you drink says a lot about you, I'm going one step further and declaring that everything you do says a lot about you. The value of a good bartender is his ability to read these cues and respond accordingly.

Think about your favorite bartender, then think about why you like him (or her.) Most answers come down to the fact that he knows what you want the second you walk in the door. If you're a creature of habit, he's got your martini chilling before you find a seat. If you're adventurous, he knows your palate, and is able to customize his creations with your preferences in mind.

How do you think this is possible if the bartender isn't paying attention to you?

For me, this is where Batman comes in. One of my favorite questions to ask people when they are contemplating a cocktail is, "Who is your favorite superhero?" Your answer says a lot about what motivates you and what you wish the world were like. I like the superhero question because it is simple, thought-provoking, and ultimately paints a pretty specific picture of who you think you are and who you wish you could be.

Why is this information necessary for me to make you a cocktail? It isn't, at least not in the literal sense. But it's not meant to be a literal question.

Good service is about anticipating people's needs, and I can't anticipate what you might want if you are a stranger to me. My job becomes to get to know you as well as possible in a short amount of time, then craft an experience based on what I've learned.

There is a reason why bartenders cannot be replaced by vending machines. Humans are social creatures, and our brains are hard-wired to evaluate what you say, who you're with, how many times you've come in, the manner in which you hold yourself, the newspaper you're carrying under your arm, the time of night you arrive, and millions of other points of data, and use them to ensure you have as customized an experience as possible.

So if you were to ask me how I "presume to know you" based on choices that you make in my presence, I will say the same thing I said above: "It's easy. You told me."