Bartending Straight Up

Recently, the New York Times ran an article about one of my favorite bartenders in New York, Doug Quinn of P.J. Clarke's. The Times has started a new feature that will run every Friday with Frank Bruni -- the former food critic-writing about bar culture. Well, I think that's great, because after reading thousands of articles about new cocktails and their esteemed creators, I find it refreshing that anyone is taking on the subject of bartending and bars head on, and not just from the perspective of what is put in one's glass.

What's so interesting and refreshing about such an article? Because for the first time that I can remember, an article touched on the subject of some important skills that a great bartender possesses. It used to be that a good bartender was someone who listened, ran the bar, created the mood...and now, there are the dwindling few who actually know how to tend a bar, and that is what makes them stand out and it sets them apart right now.

You see, tending bar is much more than creating drinks with fresh ingredients and homemade bitters and syrups and being able to wax on about the history of the cocktail, and I think it's time to open the "dialogue" that will help make our drinking establishments better places to spend time in. I won't go into great detail today about what I think makes a great bartender, but twenty or thirty years ago, good drinks were made, but the bartenders also had personalities, and many were unique characters. They were fast, facile, knowledgeable about current events, business, the arts, and were pretty good with their fists if they had to be. Thank god the era of fisticuffs is behind us for the most part, but you get the picture.

To me, bartending is like jazz: there is a basic framework, but lots of improvisation and it all happens over the bar, not behind it. A great bartender likes people and knows how to make an evening happen. They are the hosts of a party that happens nightly in their "home," the bar where they toil. In these troubled times, there is no finer solace than the confines of a well-run bar. When managing bars, I always said that I'd rather hire a personality behind the bar than a technician, because customers are always forgiving of those who have charisma and charm. You can't teach those things to anyone.

Recently, I read a blog post by Michael Baeur of the San Francisco Chronicle entitled "A bartender's dilemma: Mix cocktails or appease demanding diners?" I'm pretty sure Mr. Baeur wrote that article to be provocative, but I found it to be a touchstone on precisely what is wrong with the bar as it is being presented in today's restaurants. It touched on the subject of a bartender not being able to meet the customers' expectations of quicker service at the bar due to the complicated cocktails that he had to hand-make.

First of all, bartenders should control the bar...period. They run the show. They set the tone, and the pace, and by doing so, they command the respect of the customers. That said if the bartender can't handle the multi-tasking that a busy bar requires, there is a problem. Sometimes the pace is such that a bartender has to make a drink while taking an order and they should be able to juggle both.

If proprietors have created complicated house cocktails that were designed for their establishment while not taking into account the reasonable demands of their customers, then either the bartenders are too slow, the bar is understaffed, or the bar program needs modifying to meet those demands. Small or boutique bars can more easily get away with demanding cocktail programs precisely because people who frequent such places expect to have to wait, and usually the type of food served is a simpler menu that suggests a more relaxed and cocktail-focused atmosphere. Usually they are small, and so the critical mass isn't exacerbating the ability of the bartenders to create these cocktails.

I've alluded in previous blog posts to the evolution of the American drinking culture in the last few decades, and how much it has evolved since I began in the business. The most positive, and exciting change that has occurred in bars over the past twenty or so years, is the enthusiasm, creativity, passion, ingenuity, and a demand for quality that has been forged initially by people like Dale Degroff -- he of The Rainbow Room and Polo Lounge fame -- and furthered by a new generation of younger bartenders who have taken the craft to a better level that it has been at since pre-prohibition days. Before prohibition, there was a respected craft regarding the making of cocktails, and the first cocktail books were written before the turn of the last century.

Cocktails were a unique American expression, at that time, and if you went into any fine hotel or restaurant in the latter 19th century, you had a choice of some very tasty concoctions, many of which are still being served today. They are considered "the classics" and all good bartenders today make them on request, and have a respect for their creators.

Once prohibition took hold, many barmen lost their jobs, and the bartenders that worked in speakeasies in those days were not as skillful as their predecessors had been. The reasons for that are many, but I am not here to discuss the history of the cocktail, because it has been done quite well by people like Dave Wondrich, and William Grimes. What is important here is that the lowered skill sets required for making cocktails in fine establishments remained pretty much the same for many years from prohibition to the 1990s. What is expected from today's bartenders is quite different, not only because many bartenders have raised the bar of quality and knowledge by returning many of the oldest cocktails to the American repertoire, and oftentimes using a jigger to measure them, but also because most major newspapers and culinary periodicals have been running stories about cocktails now for at least ten years, and consumers have become better educated as to just what constitutes a great cocktail.

Those things are very important, and go a long way towards creating an identity to an establishment, and to conveying to guests that those establishments are about quality in service, and also in ingredients in all they make not just in the kitchen but behind the bar. But, a bar is a church, a confessional, a communal meeting place where people who might have never met each other, or who may never see each other again, have a chance meeting and who knows what could happen. A place where one can go and unwind or meet friends and relax. To run such a place requires a long list of skills, each one as important as the other. Among those skills is making a great cocktail. But if all a bartender did was make cocktails and leave the bar to run on its own, I guess we would have a window where a bartender would simply take an order and slide the drink through and collect the requisite amount of money.

Sadly, many bars can feel that way because the bartenders aren't interested in what is happening at the bar, they are more interested in being the show, and not realizing that it is the customer who is the real show. That is what has been lost in the current translation of our cocktail culture and we need to repair it, the sooner the better.

"Bartender" is therefore my choice as the title which all who toil in the craft should use. A mixologist to me is someone who creates cocktails, and that is only a part of what makes a bartender. "Bar chef," while it makes sense because it is only the kitchen and the bar that create things that customers consume, sounds pretentious and that is not to my way of thinking, what bartending should be -- pretentious. Bartenders become celebrities to the people they serve because they are looked after. That is what is paramount about the job.

There are many out there who create amazing cocktails, and that is what has made this era the most exciting for us in years. But...lets, not forget that what happens over the bar and between bartender and customer in the intimate confines of the bar, is what is most important. Combine the two skills, and you really have something special, the complete package. Winner: the customer. Okay, bartenders?

I'll see you when I see you!