A Companion for the Young Imbiber

(( General Discussion ))

Posted by drinkscompanion on October 24, 2007

Spoiling The Kids

I keep hearing we’ve entered the second great cocktail renaissance, a time when the craft of bartending is returning to a professional prestige of the 1890s, that much-loved and heralded Golden Age. That was a time when the craft of a bar was a thing of wonder: tall gentleman in pinstripe shirts and bow ties mixing drinks for their customers, consulting a library of spirits and an arsenal of house-made bitters, all the while being earnestly watched by an apprentice. These were not the bars of our modern era, by and large. No, these were meant for a higher echelon of society, the caste of cosmopolitan culture imbued with their Old World traditions of formality and pedigree. The Bar Man, it seems, lived up to that expectation with his professionalism and knowledge, his depth of skill and a profound passion for the craft. It’s sad – so miserably depressing – that those Debbie Downers of the Temperance League ruined what had been such a fine party. Thanks to the Volstead Act and the 18th Amendment, the profession was thrown to the perils of bootleg liquor (with its substantial impurities) and the exportation of the industry’s finest bar men to foreign lands. And then it really started getting bad.

But things seem to be recovering from Prohibition – finally. According to people who’ve worked much, much longer in the industry than I have, a remarkable transition in the last ten or so years has occurred; customers, by and large, are much more likely to consult a specialty cocktail list than ever before. They’re willing to experiment, to talk with their bartender about what’s going on in the glass, and ultimately to learn what cocktails can do past being an inebriant. We’re coming to a time again, I’m beginning to feel, when the bartender is not only getting more respect, but is holding up his or her end of the bargain. He is the beacon of knowledge in the room, the bad ass that can have extensive discourse on the virtues of large ice, the importance of bitters, how great whiskey is, and always willing to share other places a customer can get a good drink – all at the same time, and with different people. It’s an art in its organization, research, and finesse, and I find it amazing when it comes across as effortless.

It’s this customer-bartender relationship that has allowed so many cocktail-centered bars to open up. They fuel the forward progression of each other, obviously, and I’m very excited to be working in two places now that are at the forefront of that movement in slightly different, though connected, ways. There is an expectation at that level to know your shit – to really know your shit – because the customer knowledge base now is so vast.

Here’s looking at you, fellow internet cocktail geeks.

I’m not trying to pat myself or anyone else on the back. I’m just really happy that there are more and more places popping up that employ dedicated and passionate bartenders, and that they are successful because people want them around. Simple economics – supply and demand – and it’s awesome.

I’m wondering now about the next evolutionary step. At what point do we as bartenders cease being mere booze slingers, and become more like a cook in our practice and education? We find ourselves in the kitchen more and more these days, using the cook’s techniques and consulting the chef on flavor combinations, so why not bridge this gap even more? Eben Freeman’s work at Tailor is a good example of this, where the kitchen and the bar work very, very closely together. Perhaps this is my own personal inclination and interest in the world of cooking, an interest that often has me reading Michael Ruhlman’s and Anthony Bourdain’s books with the intensity of a Harry Potter novel. How lame, I know, but I can’t help myself. It’s like crack.

The mentality of a cook, and the determination with which cooks address their work, either fits with our profession or just my personal ethos – I’m not sure which. If bartenders were trained as cooks, or in the same manner and philosophy as cooks, I think the industry would evolve in absolutely amazing ways. Can you imagine if that particular barrier between front- and back-of-house were broken down in some way? If you’ve ever seen the beauty that is an efficient line during service, you probably know what I mean – God damn it’s inspiring.

And yet the bartender already exists in an odd world of server/cook, expected to provide strong service and produce a quality product at the same time, but I think for myself something more can be done. As I look to the future of my own career, I can’t help thinking about what I can do to be different, to be special. I want to have such a vast understanding of not only the stuff that would normally be found at a high-end bar, but also have an understanding of flavors so deep that I can pick from the hat of classic culinary education in my work. I want to conquer the go-to formulas for cocktails and branch outward. I’m really not sure how to do it, but there are vague murmurings somewhere in mind. Should I think seriously about culinary school? Beg the kitchen to let me work with them? I’m not sure…

Ultimately, I want my customer to take a sip, eyes widen slightly, and stare into their glass, if only for the slightest moment, with the look of Wow.

That’s my utopian idea, and that’s my personal nirvana.

3 Responses to “(( General Discussion ))”

  1. Jack said

    Jeffrey Morgenthaler, eje from eGullet, and some other folks had a discussion about bartenders attending culinary school awhile ago. I don’t recall exactly what went down, but I definitely came away with mixed opinions. Learning about flavor pairings and techniques and such would be fantastic, but the concept of bartenders being trained in the same manner as cooks really gives me the creeps.

    Granted, I’m neither bartender nor chef, but I don’t think that “the mentality of a cook, and the determination with which cooks address their work” suits the sort of bartender I’d want serving me. The flashy young bartenders at most of Dunedin’s exclusive cocktail lounges embrace a similar philosophy, and it does pay some dividends: their cocktails are inventive, always good, and occasionally downright spectacular. But in my estimation, none of these guys are truly good bartenders – precisely because they’re too much like chefs. They know their shit cold, they experiment incessantly… but they focus so hard on their drinks that they forget about their patrons. In doing so, I believe they’ve lost the hospitality element that seperates and dignifies their profession in the first place.

    Hospitality is all about reciprocal relationships, but the nature of those reciprocal relationships has evolved differently in the kitchen and behind the bar. There is some truth in those jokes about chefs doing absurd things to patrons’ food – the emotional connection, the sharing between consumer and producer has been severed. Many diners have come to expect and prefer this, because they don’t like the sense of obligation that tends to creep into direct exchanges between producer and consumer. Restaurant food becomes just another transaction. Somebody hands you a catalogue and takes your order. They relay that order to somebody else, who commences building what you chose and sends it down an assembly line. Eventually the finished product is delivered to you. If it meets your satisfaction, you pay. If not, you send it back and demand a refund. When you think about it this way, eating at a restaurant isn’t so different from going to the Apple Store and buying a computer. Bars, by contrast, have evolved into an inherently social phenomenon that derives its strength from interconnectivity. Just consider the respective spaces they occupy: average restaurants consist of isolated tables and booths that provide significant personal space for their occupants, whereas the unique bar experience comes from forcing people to crowd, thus directly participating with each other and the mastermind behind their drink. Moreover, when you think about it, the bar isn’t particularly well-suited for conversation. You often can’t talk with anyone other than those on your immediate left and right, plus the bartender whenever he or she is directly in front of you. Yet somehow that image has become synonymous with togetherness.

    What does all this boil down to? In my experience, people tend to visit restaurants when they want to insulate themselves. They go to cocktail bars when they want some interaction. I’m not sure whether this divergence is a cause of the evolution of kitchen and bar, or a response to it. Whatever the case, I think it’s a critical distinction that permeates the very fabric of the industry. So before you rush off to distinguish yourself from other bartenders, make sure you’re really innovating and maintaining that which sets bartenders apart from cooks in the first place.

  2. drinkscompanion said

    Jack, thank you for the thoughtful reply. I really appreciate it.

    The distinction I was after is a little more like a professional amalgamation, not necessarily a jump from bartender to a cook behind the bar. What I’m really interested in, I think, is the possibility of training future bartenders with the same kind of rigor and professionalism as cooks – the formal schooling in technique, an emphasis on economy of movement, classic drinks, the ways to approach a new drink, etc. While we bartenders like to believe our recipes come from creative impulse and skill, really we’re following a small, though essentially solid library of formulas that we tweak ever so slightly.

    Gary Regan does a really fantastic job of categorizing these formulas in his book, The Joy of Mixology. What I’m after is not necessarily the dogmatic education of bartenders, but establishing a little bit more prestige in a business that is so frequently full of people with no understanding of the basics. How many times have you been to a well-stocked bar (with fresh juices and a solid back bar) and ordered a classic, well-known cocktail – say a Sidecar – only to get something not even close? The drink is relatively simple, and while it’s easy to mess up, it’s really not difficult to get close if you know it. Really know it.

    I would definitely agree with you about the attitude and inherent social nature of the Bartender. There is a difference, though, in types of bars. I’ve now worked at two very different spectrums of the business – on one side, a high-volume, nerve-crushing drunk fest, and the other a high-end, mellow, seating-only cocktail lounge. Both require very different approaches to customers, cocktails, etc. I only point this out to illustrate that the social nature and circumstances of a bar are by no means universal. One is meant as an adult playground complete with all sorts of tomfoolery, a social late-night cacophony. The other serves as a more intimate and intellectual setting, giving the customer a chance to engage with the bartender, see what is happening in the creation of their drink, learn from it, and if with companions, a place to chat. If a bartender in that setting (as it sounds like with your local guys) can’t engage the customer, I would agree that they’ve got a problem. If they can’t do that, they’ll never fully be able to serve the customer. Bartending is more than knowing the cocktails on a list – at a certain level, customers will trust your abilities and knowledge to take them somewhere they’ve never been. If you can’t build that trust, and aren’t able to know the tastes of your customers through more than just conversation about spirits, then there isn’t much you can do. A stab in the dark? Maybe, but it won’t hit the bulls eye.

    But you’re talking more about a larger sociological idea. The bar versus the restaurant. As you might find out, that separation is dwindling when we’re talking economically. Money is to be made in liquor, and at the high-volume end of the industry that’s all fine and good. If, however, you wish to establish your business with quality in mind, the necessities of have some food in the house (to say nothing of the necessary prep area for high-end cocktails) is very clear to me. This might be a very New York thing – where the small, often quiet cocktail bar/restaurant where people go not to isolate themselves, but to socialize, have been very successful – but I think the model is smart. If you want to establish a bar as a place where the craft is appreciated, and your bartenders and customers can really interact, a small place is gold. Not to say you won’t get a good drink at a busy and lively bar, but my experience says probably not.

    My interest in culinary education is not to break down the wall between the kitchen and the dining room/bar. It’s to establish an understanding for myself of ingredient and method, maybe even to enter a kitchen one day. I guess I might not see “bartender” as my ultimate goal. I enjoy it now, but there are others things I want to experience. I love this industry, and want to know everything about it.

    Thanks again for your reply and for making me think more about my post.

  3. Jack said

    No probalo, friend. Thinking more is always the point! You’ve given me some things to mull over myself.

    The moment I got started on your first paragraph, I found myself thinking about The Joy of Mixology as well. It’s usually not the first book I grab when looking for recipes, but the classification scheme is a fantastic learning tool.

    I agree that the cocktail world would benefit tremendously from some kind of baseline education. And your example of an improper Sidecar really hit home, because I actually got whacked with a really disappointing one just this past weekend. Place called Albar. Looked quite classy and had a great selection, but the bartender had never heard of the Sidecar, and when I gave him the proportions – here’s the kicker – he warned me haughtily that Cognac, Cointreau, and lemon juice would make for a horrible combination. Um…

    Anyway, the guy packed a DOF with ice and poured the Cognac and Cointreau directly into that, then walked off. By the time he returned with a sliver of a lemon wedge, a significant portion of the ice had melted. He squeezed about a dash of lemon juice into this watery concoction, threw out the lemon, and charged me ten dollars.

    Sacrilegious? Perhaps, but from his perspective, he was totally right on all counts. That combination of Cognac, Cointreau, and lemon juice was indeed simply terrible.

    You’re quite right about the diffuse purposes and situations of bars – I based my post entirely around sorts of bars I bother with (relatively relaxed ones that look like they give a damn, as opposed to those that appear to be simply a party venue). That means I wasn’t really considering the first sort of bar you talk about…

    …but interestinglly, not the second, either. I’m not sure how prevalent such establishments are outside NYC, SF, and Seattle. Y’see, I thought more about the situation regarding the flash bartenders here in Dunedin and had a revelation. Yeah, they pretty much just focus on their drinks and otherwise ignore the customers. But for the most part, that seems to be what the customers want them to do. There’s a chill place called Copa down a back alley on George Street. They’ve got a crack squad of ‘tenders; no menus, you just give ‘em a classic name or tell them you want something sweet with berries or something that’s been lit on fire or something with Ramazzotti and away they go. Meanwhile, the patrons just walk away – even if they came in alone – and talk to someone until the bartender informs them that their masterpiece is ready. I’ve gaped as these guys brulee fruit a la Jamie Boudreau, poking and sniffing and adding dashes of herbs and spices, then pulling all sorts of amaros off the backbar and going to town… and then suddenly realized that I’m the only person watching. When the recipient tries the drink, they simply remark on how good it is and turn away. Bartender, you are dismissed!

    I’m not sure what to make of this yet. Just thought I’d share, since this is the conversation that brought me to that realization.

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