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Letters to an Aspiring Bartender, #1

by The Bon Vivants

Dear Aspiring Bartender,

Remember, most of us start in a similar place.  You've just turned twenty one or twenty two - you are graduating from the vodka cranberry to the Sapphire and tonic.  You have just finished your shift waiting tables in some mediocre joint and you've overhead the cool older kids talking about this bar that is the place to be, and you follow.  Chefs, bartenders off shift, and older cooler waiters with sinus infections abound order drinks with names that don't include the two elements that make up the drink.  You watch and listen, and try to be cool, and get drunk under the table.  Then they laugh, take care of you, and make sure you get home.  You overhear someone say, "You know the definition of an alcoholic? Someone who drinks like us, and isn't our friend!"  Laughs all around.  Your initiation is over.  Your eyes are open and the curiosity chord has been struck.  Now what do you do?

There is so much to learn all of a sudden.  Speyside vs. Islay, Highland/Lowland Tequila, Gin as opposed to all the other botanical driven juniper spirits that are "Gin."  You don't want to wait tables anymore.  Now you want to be the rock star, shot caller, big baller holding court behind the stick.  How do you get there?  SLOWLY....  We always say the drinks are twenty percent of the process; learning to control an undulating mass of drunken maniacs is something that needs to be learned over time.  There are an infinite number of informational learnings that are critical to the development of your bartending prowess.  Here are the first ten:

1.  Take your time.  Read and ask questions about who the real badasses are.  Then passively go and drink at their bar after your shift or on your day off.  Watch, listen, absorb.

2.  Read.  Start with Degroff.  Check out the bloggers.  Find Michael Jackson (the one without the glove and fake nose).  Gaz, Wondrich.  The big bad Abou.  Maybe even Beattie.  Look for the overlapping proportions in a recipe and ready yourself for the concept of "balance."

3.  Spend your own money at a liquor store, not a bar.  Buy some ingredients and mix a few at home.  Don't get too cutsie.  Classics.  Negroni, Manhattan, Margarita, Cosmopolitan, yes we said it, Mojito, Gin & Tonic.  Play with ratios.  When they are right you know.  There is a weird thing that happens when you are getting started where you think you have to really taste the booze for it to be a good drink.  Wrong!

4.  Practice shaking and stirring by copying the folks from #1.

5.  Humbly offer to work for nothing (i.e. stage in the kitchen) for one of your newfound heroes from #1.

6.  Remember the Karate Kid part 1.  Miyagi said he will teach Daniel-son.  He also said don't question his methods.  If you have chosen your sensei wisely, this rule applies.

7.  Show up early and stay late.  Imagine yourself a mid-westerner, meaning don't be such a f*cking whiner.  Strong work ethic will do wonders for your growth in this business.

8.  A general rule is, if someone has to tell you something three times, you are not worth their time.  Listen.  Listen.  Listen.  The best bartenders are nosy bastards.  They listen sideways, they listen through the chaos, they are spies of all things happening in their domain, and they sponge.

9.  Humility is the Willy Wonka golden ticket.  Masaharu Morimoto made sushi rice for close to two years and was the night porter at his first job.  He worked seven days a week.  It's a marathon not a sprint.  He's done well for himself.

10.  Smile, raise your chin from your chest, look people in the eye, and when you inquire into their well being, mean it!  Again drinks are twenty percent of this job.  The true nature of the job is to make friends.  If you aren't friendly, but do like this sort of adrenaline, take a job in the kitchen.

Once all that feels good, then it’s time that is on your side. Being a bartender is like being a bricklayer or carpenter or a bottle of Chartreuse - you get better with age.  So sand the floor, paint the fence, and don't question it, but ask lots of questions. 

Young aspiring bartender, we look forward to further correspondence.  Until our next letter...


We remain sincerely,


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Comments (12)

posted Over 2 weeks ago Shaun Naborn
What you've posted is agreeable, but they should know too that being a bartender requires discipline, skills that will be a lot more than 20% and great interest.
check this out:
posted Over 2 weeks ago Fred Buehn
You know what I am not amonymous. I agree with him but I think skills account a little more than 20 percent. Personality makes a lot of it but also you need the skills to make good cocktails and knowlege of the spirits you are serving. Make bad food they wont come back this also applys to drinks. But if you need bartender to just put ice in glass mix with soda and opening bottles of beer you better have someone with great personality because thats all you got.
posted Over 2 weeks ago Anonymous
Clearly written by a Bon Vivant.
posted Over 2 weeks ago Anonymous
I'm surprised- never have I heard BV's speak badly about another brand/bar. I don't know them personally but speaking to them in passing I quickly learned that they do tell it how it is- which is why they have such a strong following.
posted Over 2 weeks ago Anonymous
I recently sat near the Bon Vivants at a well respected SF restaurant and listened to them painstakingly talk trash about several great bars and their staff. My group and I were all restaurant professionals and stunned by their EGOS.

Perhaps they should write an article about humility & discretion.
posted Over 2 weeks ago Anonymous
You had me up to the point of the snarky "if you aren't friendly, go work in the kitchen" comment. To imply that kitchen workers are unfriendly is rather elitist. I'm a chef and am friendly as hell. I know plenty of a$$hole bartenders who make great drinks. Jerks are everywhere. You just have to learn how to fake it as a bartender. Other than that off putting comment, I agree.
posted Over 2 weeks ago Experience Tequila
Well said. I think these apply in a parallel way to aspiring professionals of just about any discipline. Salud!
posted Over 2 weeks ago Anonymous
Here Here!!!
posted Over 2 weeks ago Anonymous
Along with Gaz' " Bar Tweenie" blog, these shoulf be copied and handed out to every NEW bartender coming into the industry. Good job, and great advice guys!
posted Over 2 weeks ago Anonymous
Well said, gentlemen.
posted Over 2 weeks ago Anonymous
posted Over 2 weeks ago Anonymous
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