When you prop yourself into a tall stool at your favorite watering hole or at a brand new bar that you are excited about, it is your bartender who can make or break your experience. From welcoming you to listening to what you like to drink, taking your order, and delivering a glass of booze, that person behind the bar affects the way you feel while you are there. Our city has great bartenders and many of them have been spotlighted this week on Eater for Cocktail Week.
The buzz around mixologists has not always been great though. Much grief has been expressed around the trendy hipster booze shakers who come up with innovative names for themselves- think Bar Chef, Liquid Architect, Cocktologist - care more about their vest and mustache than the guest, and add too many ingredients to a drink for the sake of appearing original. Eater asked bartender Kevin Burke of Colt & Gray to look at his profession and recognize the most egregious offenses of some of those serving behind bars. This is what Burke had to say.
1. "Bartenders" that spend more time on their mustache/costume than asking how a guest's day was.
Unfortunately I'm not surprised these days when I show up for a cocktail-bartender competition looking like I walked on the set of Boardwalk Empire. Everyone is wearing their mixologist costume and is polishing their tools with a reverence that only reminds me of Ernie McCracken polishing his balls in Kingpin. All of the attention to make sure you look the part of being a bartender leads me to wonder if being you is more important than tending to those at your bar. You can learn my name, but if you're waiting on me and are more drunk than I am, are you going to care about me?
2."Bartenders" that couldn't give a fuck if the Rockies are over. 500, have no opinion if Patrick Roy can coach a Hockey team, and think Syria is something you need to see a Doctor for.
My first item on my prep-list when I was a barback was to bounce down to the bodega, pick up a copy of the Times, the Post, and the WSJ, as well as two coffees, one with one sugar, for the opening bartenders. As I was moving the ice from the basement to the second floor dining room, the bartenders would settle on the corner and have their coffees, they would pull apart the papers, read the headlines, go over the box scores for the week, and skim the opinion pages for the fights of the day. As they were setting up they would banter back and forth, arguing that the Mets were on the uptick and that Yankees may struggle against the Sox in this home swing. It was important that they were able to hold court on both sides of positions so they wouldn't offend anyone, but also have some intelligent additions to the conversation. This is great advice for life, let alone bartenders. The best bartenders in the world are probably the best listeners.
3. "Bartenders" that can't pour a beer, have no opinion on Sancerre v. Vouvray, and think fake-boutique rye whisky is more important than a shined glass or well-pulled shot of espresso at the end of a meal.
With the exception of a few highly-focused bars around town, most bars and restaurant bars carry a wide array of product. I've dined at my fair share of bars around town and am still surprised in the attention to detail that is placed on six garnishes in your cocktail, but pouring a glass of wine into a glass still streaked with lipstick that is decidedly not my color. If you're going to actually argue with my friend sitting next to me about whether it's appropriate to pour Bourbon in a Manhattan and then insist that Al Capone's family still makes Templeton Rye in Iowa, it's about attention to details. Great restaurants and bars are obsessive about details because they're important. Great bartenders are also obsessive when caring about what their guests care about.
4. Don't even get me started on lazy bartenders that can't be asked to cut fresh garnish for every shift.
Limes and lemons are very generous, even with a moderately sharp cutting instrument you can manage to slice some fresh citrus and store it properly. The first thing I see when I sit at a bar is the garnish station, are the limes a little gray and are the lemons starting to pull away from the peel? No thanks. After getting the papers my job was to arrange the garnish station, making sure that the prettiest fruit was set out and arranged and that wheels and wedges were sliced just-so. Gray garnishes make for bad drinks.
5. "Bartenders" who approach their job as "being on a stage."
Having worked with professional actors behind the bar and having spent a fair amount of time on an actual stage for a significant amount of my life I can say what I enjoy the most about being behind the bar is akin to the feelings of being in the wings. A great bartender is comfortable being part of the supporting cast, a character actor, or someone pulling the levers allowing the magic to happen. I really believe that our guests should be the ones that feel like we are supporting their endeavors to have a great night. They deserve to be well-lit, well-watered, and well-fed; it's the least we can do. Bartenders aren't members of the cast that unfolds every night, we're the people doing the work to make sure that the show will go on.
6. "Bartenders" who feel it's ok to get loopy (or very loopy) on the job.
The industry is widely split on whether to have a drink behind the bar. I don't forbid my staff to have a little glass of beer around 10 o'clock when things are starting to wind down. We have been known to whip up a round of DTO's at the height of the dinner crush as a little part of the social contract to hunker down, and do our jobs really well. When out after work with a few of our cooks our server/bartender was engaging in a little chit chat and mentioned that he had just returned from Scotland and was terribly hungover from the trip. He said his cure was to keep drinking whisky and smoke a little weed to keep the hangover from 'setting in.' After 35 minutes of watching him trying to deliver our round twice to our neighbors and filling our water glasses until they overflowed. We did the best we could and just retrieved our drinks from the service well after they were watery, insipid, beverages. I was really surprised next time I was in to be waited on by this same bartender. Judging by his actions, the next time he was still working really hard to keep that hangover from 'setting in.'
7. "Bartenders" who disregard their mise-en-place.
Tools, garnish, and bottles are placed in exact placement behind a bar. In a cocktail well, we will group cocktail ingredients next to one-another. The syrups and juices are always in the same order in the iced bins, bottles are faced out, and pour spouts are directed to face the left so the label faces the guest. There are always two wine keys, two church keys and a book of matches directly on the left of the POS. Tools really belong in their spot. All too often a bartender will stuff a church key or a dry cloth in their back pocket. This interrupts the mise-en-place of a bar at the same time the only thing I can think about as a guest is fart particles on every tool being used behind the bar.
· Leo's Revenge From Allison Widdecombe of Williams & Graham [EDen]
· The Cocktail Heatmap: A Guide to Where to Drink Now [EDen]
· Lucinda Sterling on Transcontinental Bartending, Scrutiny Behind The Bar, [EDen]
· All Cocktail Week 2013 Coverage [EDen]