The Shepherd and the Flock

by The Bon Vivants

All the special people out there that love to support the trade we ply on a nightly basis are lost.  They are lost in a sea of mega million dollar advertising, of cultural mythology and lore past down from older siblings and ornery grandfathers, or tabloid, celebrity rehab, and outright messes.  “Tequila makes me hump strangers and puke.”  “Whisky brings out the devil in me.”  “Gin.  You're an idiot!  Why would I drink that awful tasting garbage?”  “No Absinthe ever! I ate mushrooms one time and then ended up wearing plastic sheeting and playing with peanut butter and...”  And so on, and so on. These sad souls are lost in the haze and fog of the backbar; they are lost in not having a drunken identity.  They find themselves ordering a (fill in blank with premium) vodka and soda, but asking for a twist to somehow claim their place in the pantheon of drunken identities.  By this we mean, James Bond, Dean Martin, or any other drunken celebrity with a signature drink associated with them.  These lost souls wandering the desert parched and in search of a good drink need our help.  Lord help us all if we don't help them.

“Yes,” paragraph one is a bit hyperbolic, but, we have your attention.  We are back to the reoccurring theme of our guests, and how better to serve them.  We all personally know bartenders who learn some new information or technique, and then take this new found power and decide it is their toy, not to be shared.   They snub out the guests that have the audacity to show some underbelly and ask a question.  If this applies to you, you have been called out.  We care greatly about this luxury that is alcohol - this “holy spirit” that is the stuff of magic and other worlds.  We have knowledge about its history, how it’s made, who makes it, and the integrity with which they do so.  If we keep this to ourselves, we will continue serving all the drinks that bore us to death.  The sad truth is that until being invited to taste something new, most people herd up and drink “what he's having.” 

About ten years ago in San Francisco, some pioneers led the charge to end the dark ages, i.e. the seventies, eighties and early nineties.  San Francisco proves to be a great example because of how small it is.  It has been very easy to put it under a microscope and study what has occurred over ten short years, and further, chronicle the changes.  Amongst a myriad of other observations, over these last ten years, our cocktail lists were reflective of our collective lowest common denominator, or more clearly stated, our guest whose palette hadn't quite caught up yet.  Over this period of time, we saw a shift to fresh juice, we did the muddled fruit salad thing, we used a ton of egg white, we worked through only brown and bitter, we went to the super obscure classic place, and we made a bunch of foams and other bizarre homemade ingredients.  Now, our menus are not only reflective of a sense of balance, restraint, sophistication, and individuality on the part of the bartender, but they are also, and most importantly, reflective of these same spirited virtues on the part of the guest. 

Menus should not solely reflect the evolution of the bartender, but rather, it should most importantly reflect the evolution of our customers.  To be clear, this phenomenon is not unique to San Francisco.  It is most abundant, in the most “cocktail-evolved” cities, least abundant in the least, and at some point between there in the bulk of all the rest.  The most sophisticated menus will always pop up in the places where you find the most sophisticated clientele; that goes without saying.  But this is true in both micro and macro senses.  For example, cocktail menus at bars and restaurants in a certain neighborhood will align with stereotypes of the type of person frequenting that neighborhood (sometimes for good, sometimes for bad).  With that being said, all of the cocktail menus in that city are more evolved than the cocktail menus in every neighborhood except for one, in the city fifty miles north of there, and all of the cocktail menus in that state are more evolved than all of the cocktail menus except for one in the state sitting five states to the west, and so on and so forth.

So how do “we” get there?  Share.  Be gentle and make your knowledge inclusive.  It makes ordering fun for the guest when they know a piece of history, or some fact about production, or why we use it the way we do.  With this comes the responsibility of knowing what you say is true, and not making up some bull to get through the moment so you can make the next drink.  These moments are Sunday to Wednesday times - when you are not three deep.  Also with this comes the responsibility of knowing when to shut up.  Empowering our guests makes our jobs easier and more enjoyable.  When our guests become nerdy collectors of the same information we collect, it begins to spread like wildfire.  A well tended flock will reap many rewards, for all parties involved, when the spirit of excitement and sharing is present.  That is not something that is just spontaneously achieved.  That is a trust you earn, and evidence of a relationship built with your guests over many moons.  It is the explanation for why “vodka soda, no fruit girl” has now blossomed into “Sazerac girl,” and why “whiskey ginger guy” has morphed into “anything spirituous and bitter is fine with me guy.”  Even better, they also will become your loyal regulars and friends.  So just remember, what you create, is only as good what your guests allow you to give them.

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