From Behind the Bar: On Balance

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: 50/50 Mix Averna and Michter's Rye Whiskey (two cubes)

When you have kids, walking down the street is never just walking down the street. It's a science project and vocabulary primer rolled in to one: What color is that tree? What do we call that furry little animal that just ran out of the garbage can? I was walking with my daughters the other day, one passed out in a stroller and her older sister on my shoulders. The older one loves to talk, loves to listen, and absorbs new information like a sponge.

So 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."

The conversation drifted to other things in life that need balance. It's the same when you're trying to stand on one foot. It helps when you're dancing, which is a common activity in my household. Balance is a vital physical skill to learn, because it enables you to go through life with the confidence that you're not going to get knocked over with the first little push.

I immediately thought of how balance comes into play when working behind a bar. We are in a physical business, and usually work in a limited amount of space. How I move while tending bar has a lot to do with how successful I can be while doing it. On a busy night in most bars, there is a least one other bartender back there, not to mention barbacks and whomever else.

Physically navigating around a group of people in a space that is maybe three feet wide is one of the first skills that new bartenders are required to master. If you and I are working in the same small space, we have to figure out the nuances of how to get around each other. A good sense of balance is vital when I have to reach around one guy for this, one girl for that, and still deliver a pint of beer that is full to the brim without dumping it on the floor, myself, or (heaven forbid) on a customer.

Cocktails themselves require a different kind of balance. In a cocktail, you don't ever want too much of one thing. Sweet balances sour and bitter. Booze balances all of them. Every element of a well-balanced cocktail contributes to the whole, without stealing the spotlight from the others.

Learning balance is the hardest part of making cocktails, because it only comes with experience. Take a classic whiskey sour. You might read a recipe that calls for 3/4 ounce lemon, 1/2 ounce simple syrup, and a measure of whiskey. But which whiskey? How sour is this lemon?

We live in a world that is constantly changing, and all of those elements can combine to make a perfect cocktail, or a drink that's totally out of balance. An experienced cocktail maker tastes every cocktail as he or she makes it, and adjusts ingredients on the fly. A drink has too many moving parts to stay constant, and a recipe that I might know by heart will often have to be adjusted based on the slightest variation.

As I tell my girls, life is like that, too. We lean this way and that. We have to adjust as we go. We give a little more effort to our work, or step back and focus on family, always keeping an eye on the balance so we can wind up with a happy result.