A few weeks ago I celebrated the 40th anniversary of my becoming a bartender. My under-the-table employer ran a high volume college bar located just off State Street in Madison, Wisconsin, home of the University of Wisconsin. It was appropriately named University Klub. I guess spelling club with a “K” is what made it so swank.
Anyway, I started out as a bar back. I washed glassware, poured draft beers, fetched buckets of ice and cleaned off the bar top. On game nights the place was jammed to the rafters with hard drinking frat boys and draft dodgers. On non-game nights the place was just seedy and classless, and jammed to the rafters with hard drinking frat boys and draft dodgers. It was a tough place to work. Not many Martini drinkers there.
After about four months, I felt I had learned everything there was about washing glasses, pouring drafts, fetching ice and wiping down the bar top. So after memorizing a handful of recipes in Old Mr. Boston’s Drink Guide, I tendered my resignation and went looking for a real bartending job.
I was lucky. I got hired on at a medium-priced restaurant and started working with a hulking, short-tempered bartender. I spent half my time fearing the man and the rest of the time trying to stay out of his line of sight. He was, however, a fast, efficient and highly skilled bartender from whom I could learn a lot. At first I was relegated to washing glassware, pouring draft beers, fetching buckets of ice and cleaning off the bar top. Over time, though, Lurch let me start making drinks. Despite being a smart-ass neophyte, I gradually learned the ins and outs working the stick.
It’s now forty years later and my bartending days are over. Contracting Parkinson’s pretty much ended my chances of making a comeback. Pity, I think I’d like tending bar at a small place quite joint where I could get home in time to catch re-runs of Gilmore Girls and be in bed by 8pm.
Anyway, the question for today is what changes have I seen in mixology over the past 40 years. If you’re in a hurry and have just enough time to read my response, the answer is today we make better drinks with better ingredients.
For example, when I started bartending we only carried bulk-produced, crappy-assed liquor. There were no artisanal, small batch spirits from which to carry and suppliers were a decade or two away from bottling single malt whiskeys or 100% agave tequilas. On our back bars we stocked Rock & Rye, Apricot brandy and Slivovitz. American rye whiskeys had fallen out of favor, while Canadian blended whiskies were all the rage.
Today the mantra of mixologists is the better the spirits, the better the resulting cocktail. And now we have access to the finest spirits made. Between the craft distillates and high quality legacy brands, we have at our disposal the best and brightest spirits our palates can discern.
The second aspect of better ingredients encompasses the fresh movement, the only tenet of which is to whenever possible use fresh ingredients in your bars’ cocktails. It’s why drinks made at home taste so much better than those consumed at a bar. Because we’re using real juices obtained from real fruit. Keep your high fructose corn syrup, flavor additives and artificial ingredients. If it’s not real stuff, what’s it doing in our cocktails?
Last and not least, we’re better at our craft than ever before. While it’s difficult to compare bartenders of yore and those working today, there are so many educational outlets available for bartenders and mixologists alike. There are trade magazines devoted to drink making and then there are the ongoing efforts of the United States Bartenders Guild. That access has had a huge impact on the professionalism of the whole industry.
The fact that I started bartending 40 years ago only makes me feel ancient. Bartending is a demanding and time-honored position that requires a person of honed social skills and an understanding of alchemy.
Which is why I spent 20 of those 40 years as a bar manager. Management was an organic move for me. My personality and social skills make me better suited to stay out of the trenches and lead by example. Plus, it ensures I’ll be home in time for to catch re-runs of Gilmore Girls and be in bed by 8pm.