Four Noble Truths

by Jeff Burkhart

The lights had just dimmed and the music had come up, not that I really noticed because I was doing far too many other things behind the busy bar to really pay attention to something like that. Let’s just say I was aware of the change. I was also very aware of the fact that at least a dozen or so eyes were peering at me intently. Such is the Friday night rush.

A short young man in a porkpie hat and a turn of the century waxed mustache jockeyed back and forth on the periphery of my vision. First on the left of the woman seated directly in front of me, then to her right, and now back on her left. All of this I could see without looking up, because I knew instinctually the moment that I did, he would probably blurt out an order. And at the present moment I was busy making six very different drinks.

I have heard new age gurus talk about trying to live in the moment. One Friday night behind a busy bar and they wouldn’t have to try. In the middle of the rush you either live in the moment or you sink like a stone. The minute you worry about why something is, or what is coming next, any number of the people attached to a dozen peering eyes will bring you right back to the present.

Finishing up the drinks, I finally looked up at the mustachioed man.

“Can I get you something?” I said wiping my hands on a bar towl.

“Do you have any cucumber simple syrup?” he asked.

“I have several simple syrups, but no cucumber,” I answered.

“Do you have any house made ginger peach bitters?” he asked.

I was now painfully aware of the other sets of eyes peering at me.

I felt sweat trickle down my neck.

“I have peach bitters,” I said. “But it’s not house made,” I added trying to speed things along.

“Do you have any house infused kaffir lime vodka?”

This time, instead of answering I handed him our house cocktail list.

“I do have all this,” I said. I then took several orders from several of the people belonging to all those other peering eyes. Eventually I returned to him.

“Well?” I said as kindly as possible under the circumstances, being keenly aware of two new waving hands just behind him.

“At my bar we make a Kaffir Lime Cucumber Gimlet with peach ginger bitters,” he said.

“So what?” I thought, although what I actually said was something like, “Very interesting.”

Mr. Mustache then launched into a spiel about his specialty cocktail expertise.

About 30 seconds in I raised both my hands.

“Can I get you something?”

“Oh no, I was just curious. I’m a mixologist you see…”

In the middle of the cocktail rush, he had just monopolized several minutes of my time for nothing. Consider this equation if there are 30 people in a bar and there are two bartenders, if divided equally each person gets about 4 minutes of time total. For the entire hour. That means ordering, making and paying for their drinks all comes out of those 4 minutes. If someone else uses more than their 4 minutes then that means that someone else is going to get less. It’s just simple arithmetic.

You might think that people in the restaurant and bar industry would be keenly aware of things like that. But I can’t count how many times over the years that the last two people in the restaurant on Xmas Eve are two restaurant employees from another restaurant. Or the person giving unsolicited advice during the rush is a bartender from a bar down the street that is going out of business.

At the turn of the last century, bartender and author Cocktail Boothby added a chapter to his book American Bar-Tender called Boothby’s Ten Commandments. In it he outlined ten good rules for bartenders at work. Rules that apply even today. It is in this spirit (and in keeping with some new age philosophies) that I humbly submit a slightly different take.

Four Noble Truths for Bartenders Not at Their Own Bar.

  1. Don’t offer unsolicited advice. You really have no idea why they do things the way they do. And even if you do, and are even right, they probably won’t appreciate it.
  2. Don’t try to impress someone who is busy by bragging about yourself or your bar. This is their show and their bar. It’s kind of like going to see a comedian and having a member of the audience ruin the show by constantly interrupting the routine.  
  3. Don’t order drinks that only you know how to make, are incredibly obscure, or that only appear on your specialty cocktail list. The likelihood that they will have the ingredients to make them is not high, and while you might be impressed with them, that person behind the bar is not going to be.
  4. Do unto others as you would have them do to you.* This might be the most important. If you don’t appreciate someone coming in at exactly closing time, then don’t do it yourself. It’s really as simple as that.

* OK this one is not mine. The concept appears in religion and philosophy going back to almost the beginning of recorded history.

Jeff Burkhart writes the Barfly column for several West Coast newspapers and is the author of Name Your Poison and the What Do You Know About Wine? calendar. He is also a regular contributor to National Geographic Assignment and an award winning bartender at a Northern California restaurant. Follow him at and contact him at

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