The Benjamin Button Bartender

by Lindsay Nader

I learned how to bartend backwards. Most of us had humble beginnings, exploring the trade behind a restaurant bar or in a dive, perhaps working our way up through cocktail waitressing or bar backing. Not me. I learned how to make eight ingredient drinks with a whip, a hard shake and a fine strain before I ever held a soda gun in my hand.

My best friend and I dropped out of college and moved to New York City in 2006. She got a job right away at Boss Tweeds in the Lower East Side. I would sit at the bar keeping her company, as she fumbled her way through Jäger shots and car bombs to the tune of cat calls and wert whirls doled out by the creme de la creme of NYC Douchedom. A few months passed and she blossomed into a pro; far better looking than any promo girl, super fast, pours perfect, awesome cleavage, and a walking lexicon of cheeky comeback lines. All of Douchedom was drooling. She had a regular that would tip her $1,000 every time he came in, no joke. I was in awe of her. She wanted to get me a job but I was too chicken to even set foot behind a bar.

I'm sure most of you can relate to this story. But I know some of you can't.

There's an interesting phenomenon I've observed in the world of "Mixology:” Bartenders are learning from the outside in, instead of mastering what's inside the box first. I feel as though I can speak on the subject because I am myself a product of this phenomenon.

Here's an example: at any cocktail bar, on any given night, there is always a young man or woman, currently enrolled in University, or filling an internship, perched on a stool, eyes glistening, full of wonder, glued to the every pour, flick or shake of the bartenders hands. They are ripe with questions and enthusiasm, wanting to sniff unknown bottles and straw taste every drink that goes out. They are fascinated with cocktail culture, they buy books, watch YouTube videos, gather obscure ingredients and begin to infuse, barrel age and bitter make at home. I call this "Benjamin Button Bartending." Ultimately those skills are useless without a proper foundation and understanding the logistics of bar mechanics and classic drink structure.

These young men and women eventually find employment, put drinks on menus, enter competitions and become part of the community. They may work under a mentor and in time create tastefully and visually complex drinks. And that's great, but one thing among many that's missing, is the element of service. I've sat in front of a handful of awkward young guns that can't hold eye contact or make conversation with a customer because they are glued to the drink they're making, or they simply haven't developed the social skill set required of a bartender. This is a problem. So many up and comers seek recognition within the community by making friends with the right people and putting themselves in the right rooms, all with a premature sense of entitlement and the hopes of becoming ambassadors or consultants right away, skipping all the steps in between.

In an article for SFGate.com, Gary Regan refers to this trend as "Bar-tweenies" and is quoted as saying "they act as though they're accomplished cocktailians, their voices have yet to crack."

In the same article, Gaz quotes Duggan McDonnell as saying "Time behind the stick is a must for one to really be a great bartender...Time spent tasting wines and spirits, time spent working as a busboy, time spent eating, and thinking, and traveling, and reading, and practicing the art of conversation."

A Benjamin Button Bartender is not usable outside of their microcosm to larger markets without these said experiences. They cannot themselves become a business if they have not learned all the aspects of the business: understanding cost, volume, inventory, sales, staffing, importing and distribution etc., the nuts and bolts of a bar. They cannot represent a brand or portfolio without understanding how money makes the booze world go 'round. They cannot pitch ideas, charm investors, negotiate terms and broker deals, let alone accomplish building a six drink ticket while having a conversation about how badly the Mets are playing.

That being said, I think it is time to shift the attention off The Bartender as Demi-God, master of all things liquid, and back on The Consumer.

Our patrons are growing frustrated and weary as "Mixology" expands further in the direction of favoring the "Mixologist" and his or her friends, rather than the general public. In the blog sfist.com, Brock Keeling writes "The Cocktail movement...created a backlog of frustrated bar goers like myself, who often find themselves waiting...as the bartender painstakingly takes his or her time making a heady cocktail into a 15 minute art project: peeling the perfect twist, rubbing the essential oils onto the rim, snipping fresh Thai basil from an herb garden, cracking pepper in a mortar and pestle, picking ice from a glacier-sized chunk flown in from Alaska, lighting it all on fire, or whatever is required to prove their muster. So often it's a drink that's about the bartender's ego before the customer's satisfaction."

We've created institutions that will forever immortalize The Bartender. We've pioneered training programs, festivals and retreats for The Bartender. We put them all in one room, in one city, every year for mutual group masturbation. We offer them incentives to compete. Win "The Best Bartender" and you'll get your face on a billboard! Really? How much more can we do?

Let's regain some humility and remember that the profession is about serving. We're not curing cancer, we're not solving crime. Let's shift gears and bring the focus back to drinks for Demand. Drinks for the Customer. Let's continue to impart the profession of bartending as a skill set and trade, not a vehicle to reach celebrity. If we continue to set an egocentric example for our peers and the generation to follow, we'll all be drinking lukewarm hybrid potpourri, staring at a wall and wondering "Where have all the bartenders gone?"

References:
http://articles.sfgate.com/2010-10-10/food/24119381_1_basics-free-e-editions-mixology
http://sfist.com/2010/09/13/where_have_all_the_bartenders_gone.php

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