From Behind the Bar: On Being Nice

From Behind the Bar

Tales from our resident bartender.

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.


[Photograph: Jessica Leibowitz]

What I'm Drinking: Santa Teresa 1796 Solera Rum (one cube) Tap Water (no ice)

I began my bartending career in Seattle in the mid-90's, when the microbrewery revolution was transforming how people drink beer, and the philosophy of using fresh, local ingredients was pervasive in restaurants and on the upswing in bars. This was before the bubble popped, so every internet startup had an office with an on-site masseuse, and paper-millionaires populated the slew of new bars and restaurants that popped up to house them. Those of us who worked in these joints were both a close community of friends—but we were also stiff competitors. We competed for jobs, clientele, and bragging rights.

The nature of that competition still has a big impact on how I do my job. Quality food, interesting wine, and fresh cocktails were all assumed. We competed by trying to outdo each other with service. Who was the first one there when someone needed to light a cigarette? Who was the most attentive, most knowledgeable, or most accommodating? The very first thing I was told about being a bartender was that you have to be a nice guy. Everything else will follow.

There is a direct corollary between those days and now. If the nineties gave us beer, the beginning of the 21st century has been all about booze. We're now mid-swing into a spirits revolution, which has happened in large part because a small group of dedicated people worked to remind the imbibing public that a cocktail can be more than something pink served with a sugar rim. Awareness of the history and diversity of American cocktails boosted craft distilleries, which further fueled the cocktail craze.

We who make cocktails are once again in a tight community, and still in competition for jobs, customers, accolades, and attention. Unlike Seattle in the 90's though, the metric we use to determine the winners has changed. Because the re-emergence of the cocktail has fueled this change, the making of cocktails has become the new standard by which we are judged. The focus has shifted from the experience you have while drinking in a bar to the cocktail you're drinking itself.

This shift has had some disturbing consequences. We now find it necessary to categorize ourselves and the joints in which we work. It's not good enough to say I work in a bar, it must be a "cocktail bar." People use the term "mixologist" to designate one who makes cocktails, and increasingly, one who makes cocktails with an attitude while doing it.

Using the cocktail as a measuring stick tends to create bartenders that are trained to make an excruciating number of cocktails, and very little else. Many new bartenders are being extensively drilled on the history and execution of cocktails, then unleashed on the public with the belief that there exists an orthodoxy that dictates what people must drink, and how they must drink it. They present their wares to the public, and expect the public to conform to the rules they've been told are universal.

What's missing from their training is a large measure of what a bartender actually does. Yes, we make cocktails, but we are also the host of the party. A bartender is part salesman, part showman, and part mixologist. It is our job to be many things to many people, from chaperone to enabler, and the first part of that job is to talk to people. Period.

So I will pass along the advice I received when I started working behind a bar. If you're just getting started in the beautiful business of working in bars, start with being nice. Then you can make all the cocktails you want.