From Behind the Bar: On Speed

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: Flying Dog "Doggie Style" Pale Ale Red Breast 12 Year (One cube)

Bartenders throw things in the air. We flip bottles. We run around behind the bar like madmen, pulling pints, shaking cocktails, dodging co-workers—delivering drinks as quickly as possible with as much flair as we can manage. When a bartender is working in a busy bar, speed is the entire point. It is both the show and the execution of the show.

I think there's beauty in the speed of it all. Watching a true bartender manage a crowd is like watching an artist create order from chaos. Who gets what, and when? How many orders can she keep in her head? Does he have the wherewithal to prioritize an order of one beer versus a line of cocktails? Serious speed comes with the experience of knowing who to serve and in what order, while knowing exactly where everything is in your station and in your bar.

In this industry, with very few exceptions, making people wait for libations is bad for business, and a slow bartender is one who will soon be looking for other employment. The exception to this rule is the relatively new crop of cocktail bars, where the wait has become a kind of ritual in its own right. The thinking behind this, as far as I can tell, is a kind of reverse-service module, where the amount of time a customer waits for his drink is directly proportional to the quality of the cocktail they receive. On a psychological level, this makes sense; if you waited ten minutes for your cocktail, it must be good, right? A certain cross-section of consumers have been convinced that the longer they wait, the better their cocktail must be. I'm not sure I'm convinced.

Cocktails that come out quickly are not necessarily bad cocktails. On the contrary, the mark of a truly good bartender is delivering delicious cocktails without sacrificing either quality or hospitality.


I've been thinking about speed a lot lately, since I was recently involved in two very different speed-bartending competitions here in New York. Speed Rack is a juried competition for female bartender across the United States, whose proceeds go to benefit breast cancer research. Women from across the country gathered for the finals, to test both the speed which they could make cocktails, and the quality of that which they made. I was honored to participate on a team of 'celebrity bar-backs', and we did our utmost to ensure that the bartenders under our care had every tool available to them to work as quickly as possible.

The other competition was of an entirely different nature. "Rematch" is a global challenge that tasked some of the best bartenders in America, England, and Australia to execute ten Tiki drinks in as little time as possible. Three hundred people gathered to observe and cheer them on, laying bets on who would emerge as champion.

In this last competition, I was a contestant—and in the end, I logged the longest time of the evening. While everyone else was focused on trying to make their drinks as quickly as possible, I took the opposite approach.

While speed is important, it's not everything. I didn't have the tools nor the time to train myself to make ten drinks in less than two minutes (shout-out to Steve Schneider, who did), but faced with three hundred cheering fans, I did what any self-respecting bartender would have done in my place: I made as good a drink as I knew how in as entertaining a way as possible.

Which is sometimes the best a bartender can do.

Watch Michael on Video

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