I learned how to bartend at a restaurant in Madison, Wisconsin in 1976. The man who taught me was a venerable, but scraggly bartender named Frank, who tolerated no one, especially know-it-alls like me.
Frank was one of those rare individuals who seemed to be constantly pissed off. It took a herculean effort for him to crack a grin, and even then he looked more dangerous than amused. His notion of convivial hospitality was to return the correct change.
Personality aside, Frank was an Olympic caliber bartender. For a man of his advanced years his hand speed was amazing and he was a blur when making drinks. Each cocktail he made was prepared with precision. He knew seemingly everything there was to know about the liquors and liqueurs we carried behind the bar. He never sent a drink out in a glass that wasn’t hand-buffed and spotlessly clean. His bar top was always, impeccable clean and free of debris. What Frank didn’t know about bartending wasn’t worth knowing.
Obviously I survived his tutelage; although he never seemed to warm up to me, this despite my winning personality and our tedning together for almost a year.
I think about Frank from time to time. The older I get the more sage his advice has become.
For instance, he taught me not to straighten-up the barstools before opening the front doors. “No one wants to be the first to arrive at a party. That’s the impression you give when you make the lounge look all spic and span like that.”
He taught me never to send out a drink that I knew was prepared incorrectly or for some reason inferior. And if he didn’t have the proper glass in which to serve a particular glass, he’d leave the bar and walk the floor until the found the exact glass he needed empty.
Perhaps the most important thing he taught me was the necessity of acknowledging guests’ drink orders immediately. It could be four deep at the bar, and regardless of how many drink orders he had swirling in his mind, he’d stop, lay out bar napkins in front to the newly arrived guests, listen intently at their order, and say, “You’ll have your drinks right away, I do have three orders in front of yours, but I’ll be back in a flash.” I never saw any guest not respond positively at that. Frank would quickly—and skillfully—prepare every drink, glass of wine or stein of draught. He took as a matter of pride how quickly he could prepare drink orders.
I think of Frank now and again, especially these days when so many bartenders have calling cards proclaiming themselves to be a mixologist. I hardly wonder what he’d think of the trend.
I myself am guilty of describing bartenders in articles as mixologists. When the term mixologist was first applied to bartenders, it was an honorific used to distinguish bartenders who excelled at creating interesting cocktails, and who had acquired a commanding knowledge of spirits and flavor pairings. Furthermore, a mixologist is an individual with a passion for combining elixirs and creating extraordinary cocktails.
An unintended consequence of the rise in mixology has been the devaluing of bartender as a job description. By its very nature, being called a mixologist is like tacking a PhD after the person’s name. No doubt it is similar to attaining an advanced degree behind the bar—and a worthy degree it is at that—but instead of considering mixology as a natural extension of bartending, it’s typically seen as something that elevates the titleholder to a loftier state of consciousness.
While a supporter of mixologists, I am a diehard fan of bartenders. That said, I have a few bones to pick with those card-carrying mixologists who never seem to have spill stains on their shirts sleeves or strawberry puree on their bow ties.
The first bone is to lighten up. Taking pride in one’s vocation is all well and good, but don’t confuse mixing cocktails with brain science. You’re part of a crew, a professional bartending staff. Title aside, it’s advisable to keep your ego in check.
Next bone has to do with time equating to money. I’ve experienced mixologists who take five minutes or more preparing a single cocktail. True it merited its own exhibition at the Louvre, but it came about at what cost? When I see a line at a bar I presume a mixologist is holding court. It is a cardinal sin to keep guests waiting for their drinks—period. If it takes longer than a minute or 90 seconds to prepare a particular cocktail, go back to the drawing board and trim the recipe down. Time is money.
The last bone is the admonition to smile for goodness sake. Why is it that most mixologists take making drinks so seriously? Crafting cocktails should be a joy, a fascinating, creative joy. So smile and convince us you’re actually happy to be gainfully employed.
Since tending with Frank, I’ve worked with scores of bartenders who took enormous pride in making drinks fast and efficiently, all the while caring for a bar full of guests, telling tall tales, monitoring the scores and filling drink orders for the wait staff. They’d rather croak than serve an inferior drink. Bartending is a challenging position and those who do it really well are deserving of professional recognition.
I’m just saying…