From Behind the Bar: On Orthodoxy

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.


[Photo: Jessica Leibowitz]

What I'm Drinking: Pappy 15 Yr Bourbon Old Fashioned (Yes, sometimes my life is awesome.)

They have a saying in photography. Novices obsess about equipment; experts think about light. For those of us in the cocktail game, I would amend the above statement as follows: Novices obsess about technique. Experts think about balance.

This was made abundantly clear to me during a recent search for a new expert bartender to hire. The task has proven difficult to accomplish. One would think that, in New York City, there would be a plethora of skilled folks both able and willing to do the job. Not necessarily.

There's an irony to this because we in the bar business are more educated in cocktails and spirits now than at any point in our history. I can point to twenty people who can tell you the evolution of mezcal as a spirit, or the difference between Fins Bois Cognac and that of Borderies. If I had a bar that made nothing but the Martinez and the Ramos Gin Fizz, I would have my pick of the litter, especially if I were not concerned about the environment in which these cocktails were made or the speed with which they were delivered.

But I was looking for a real bartender for a real bar that also makes real cocktails, and the right combination is difficult to find, mostly because a gap has grown between those who make cocktails and those who can tend bar. This gap defines the issue that faces all of us in the bar industry right now.

The meteoric rise of the cocktail in the last few years has necessitated the implementation of orthodoxy where none had existed before. Bartenders like Sasha Petraske developed systems of training that enable people with very little experience to replicate cocktail recipes "correctly." Unfortunately, his acolytes have gone out in to the world with the idea that what they learned is not merely a way to do things, but the way.

The problem with orthodoxy is that it brooks no dissent. If a young bartender is sent out into the world with a system, how can he be expected to evolve? Especially if he has been told that that system is the only correct way to do his job? The current cocktail climate is one where someone with virtually no experience can spend time with a jigger and a stack of cocktail books, and expect to get a job behind a bar. More than that, they can pretty quickly enter the marketplace as a "bartender," regardless of what they have done, where they have worked, or how long they have been in the business.

These new cocktail-makers focus most of their attention on technique, sidelining anything else that makes being a bartender important. Which method of shaking is correct? Whose recipe for an Old Fashioned is the most old fashioned? They cling to technique because it is the only thing they have been taught, and they don't yet have the years on them to figure things out for themselves.

I wasn't so different myself. When I was a young bartender, I was perfect at my job. I had mastered copious numbers of cocktails while simultaneously holding down the fort Thursday through Saturday night. I was the newly-minted bar-manager for a fancy restaurant in Seattle. In short, I had it all figured out and, in retrospect, I'm sure I was a bit of a nightmare.

I look back at myself from those days and laugh. What I realize now is that I had everything so figured out that you couldn't teach me anything. If time didn't quite mellow me, experience certainly did. Almost two decades later, I have learned that the most important things about working behind the bar have nothing to do with me personally, but the service I offer people and the experience they have while sitting at my bar.

In terms of mixology, hundreds of thousands of cocktails later, there is nothing more important than balance. That's what time teaches, and I hope this new wave of bartenders stick around long enough to figure that out.