From Behind the Bar: On The Holiday Season

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: Pelligrino (Time for a Break)

In the space of a week, the world lost three brilliant thinkers. Václav Havel—poet, president, and revolutionary—will have to listen to the Plastic People of the Universe from up in the Cosmos. Christopher Hitchens is busy decomposing somewhere; no after-life for a rational atheist like him, thank you very much. And the man who gave the world "Bread and Jam for Frances," Russell Hoban, passed away in London on December 13th.

It's been a tough week for writers. So it goes.

Of the three, I will miss Mr. Hoban the most. His is one of the main voices in my head when I think about stories. While I have no great connection with the badger Frances, Hoban also wrote a book called "The Mouse and His Child" that I have read at least once every six years since the day I was born.

As a child, I loved this brilliant fantasy about animals who can talk and wind-up toys that come to life. As I got older, I began to appreciate a writer who could also layer the darkness and anger of life in to a story meant for children. Subsequent readings revealed a poetic work that was rich, dense, and beautiful.

I owe Mr. Hoban a lot, because his was one of the first books that showed me how stories could be told. I mention him here because, for me, making a good cocktail is very much akin to telling a good story. The nuts and bolts of making a drink, its ingredients and how they are mixed—that's the easy part. A truly great cocktail weaves an entire experience, which begins the moment you sit down at a bar, peaks through conversation, selection, service, and consumption, and ends when you stand up to walk out the door. The experience is the true challenge of making a good cocktail and creating a good bar.

Without the story, people would just stay home and make their own cocktails. Without the story, why would you need a bartender at all?

"The Mouse and His Child" also taught me a lesson about Christmas, and the holiday season in general, one which was echoed recently by the great Gary Regan. If the modern bartending world has a godfather, Mr. Regan is it. In his weekly Ardent Spirits Newsletter, Gaz (as he is better known) reminded us that, while the holidays are a season of cheer for many people, for a lot of others it is a time of depression, especially those who have lost a loved one.

Russell Hoban begins his tale in a toy store at Christmas—he paints a picture of the holidays as a time of both bliss and sadness. During the holidays, our emotions are distilled to the point that happiness becomes Joy, camaraderie becomes Cheer, and love of friends and family becomes Good Will Towards All Men. At the same time, sadness can quickly turn to despair. As Gary Regan reminded us that as bartenders, we are often the ones people turn to when they are lonely and depressed, and we have a responsibility to those who come to us for a little extra help.*

While we bartenders can't solve the world's problems, we can do our part to pay a little extra attention to those who sit across our bars. I would like to thank Mr. Regan for the reminder, and Mr. Hoban for a life of stories well told.

On that note, here's to a joyful, merry, safe and sane holiday season, and a happy new year to you all.

*If you know of anyone who has lost a loved one and needs a bit of extra help to get through, I'd like to point you toward a fabulous organization for widows that my sister runs—they know about dealing with loss during the holidays, and are there to chat about it.