From Behind the Bar: On Thanksgiving

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: Alice Gao]

What I'm Drinking: Laughing Dog ESB (half-pint) Clan Denny 30 Year Single Grain Scotch Whisky (neat)

When you're in the bar business, you often have to work while others stuff their turkeys, unwrap their presents, or kiss their Valentines, so you learn pretty quickly to detach celebrations from particular days. That said, I have always enjoyed the trappings of Thanksgiving: the food, the emphasis on family, and the idea that every once in a while it's nice to remind ourselves that we have something for which we should be thankful.

The stories bartenders tell usually take a different tone. No one wants to hear anecdotes about a really nice guy who causes no trouble and tips well. People want to hear about trouble-makers. Stories about what makes us angry are always the most interesting, so they get told on a more regular basis.

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I'm going to do what I would have done if I had sat down at my own family's table. Our tradition is pretty common; before I am allowed stuffing, I must briefly state something for which I am thankful. As I can't be there this year (yep, working...), I'll list a few things here.

Whisk(e)y is back. We have bourbons again, and they are delicious! Scotch distillers like the great Jim McKewan from Bruichladdich are pushing every conceivable boundary they can find. Craft distilleries are popping up all over the country. Rogue geniuses like Marko Karakasavic from Charbay and Cheryl Lins from Delaware Phoenix are redefining how we will drink whiskey in the coming years. If you don't know what I'm talking about, don't worry. These days you can find out.

Spirits are multiplying. Now that people drink cocktails again, companies are realizing it is both necessary and profitable to provide those of us who make them with the ingredients we need. Extinct spirits that existed only on the pages of dusty cocktail tomes are now coming back into the market, and the numbers of bottles I can reach for when making drinks has multiplied exponentially. Haus Alpenz is one of my favorites for the season, with their phenomenal allspice dram, but a detailed list would be too long for this space. I am thankful that we now have options when selecting rum, tequila, mezcal, gin, pisco, and (yes) vodka.

Speaking of cocktails.... People have begun to think about what they drink in a way that is unprecedented in my lifetime, something for which all of us are extremely grateful. There are entire bars that specialize in cocktails, and people who line up to drink in them. Television shows like Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire have helped popularize the culture of cocktails, and given people motivation to explore with bravery and gusto. We are at a magic moment, where our options of consumption are only matched by the enthusiasm of those who show up every night to consume.

Food is fantastic. Many of us who make cocktails drew our first inspirations from chefs, and some of our best ideas come from combining the skills of both the front and back of the house. I am thankful that a restaurant like Marc Forgione is in the world, created by people who are committed to quality, service, and the idea that food can be both irreverent, adventurous, and delicious.

I am lucky that the list of things I appreciate is so long that I can't include everything, so for the rest, I'll propose a toast. To the giants on whose backs we stand. To the thousands of drink-slingers who quietly kept the craft of bartending alive for decades.

I'm thankful for every customer who has earned the venerable title of "Regular." For barbacks, and their commitment to learning their craft while doing the most grueling parts of the job. For those who love good beer, good cocktails, and good times. And for the community of bartenders, from those who work in cuffs and buttons to those who work in jeans and t-shirts. I am privileged to work in a world where all of you serve to inspire me.

On a personal level, I am extremely grateful for the community which is Serious Eats, from all of the people who care enough to read and comment, to the editorial staff who have been extremely supportive and encouraging. So to all of you, my thanks.

Happy Thanksgiving.