Return to Bartending

by Lance J Mayhew

I've tried to give up bartending several times. The first time, in 2000, I experienced a family tragedy and tried going into corporate America rather than bartend. I quickly realized though, that in order for me to make it as a corporate shill I needed the social outlet that bartending allowed me. Most recently, I gave up bartending to teach culinary school. While I taught classes on wine and spirits, the “mixology” program that I taught was an outdated 1980's joke of cocktail creation. I justified it to myself on the reasoning that any introduction to cocktails was a good thing for chefs, and that they weren't coming to culinary school to learn how to be mixologists. Still, I shuddered every time I had to demonstrate a Mai Tai with flat cola poured out of reused liquor bottles standing in for rum or an Old Fashioned with a sugar cube, orange wedge and maraschino cherry muddled into a paste on the bottom of a glass. I tried to make it up by bringing in my personal spirits collection, sharing everything from moonshine to rare Irish whiskey to obscure gins in the hopes that these future chefs would understand that spirits have a range and depth that take real study to understand and use effectively.

While I enjoyed teaching, I'd begun to realize that my real passions are writing about spirits and cocktails and bartending. With that in mind, I left the world of culinary school and started looking for my first bartending job in over two years. I didn't want to work in a bar per se, I wanted to find a restaurant that had food equal to or better than the bar program. A solid wine list was also important to me and my new home needed to have a small but good selection of tap beers. Amazingly, my favorite restaurant in Portland was hiring a bartender and it met all of my criteria. I'm now proud to say that I bartend at Lincoln Restaurant in Portland.

My first day, I was a little nervous. While bartending becomes muscle memory at a certain point, jumping in and bartending on a Friday night was a bit daunting. I didn't bring my Pug muddler, nor my Alessi shaker, nor any other of my personal bar tools. I wanted to see the bar as it already is, and work it like other bartenders had.

Lineup occurred at 5 pm sharp, with the Chef de Cuisine going over menu items and changes, specials and educating the staff. It was decided to offer an Americano for the specialty cocktail during happy hour and I tried to remember the draft beers and house wines before service. After lineup broke, I walked back behind the bar looking to make sure I hadn't overlooked anything that needed to be prepped. Get It On, the 80's Power Station song came on and I suddenly realized that I didn't know what our standard house shot was. Thankfully, it was a solid two ounce pour and glasses of wine were a full 6 ounces. Good solid, honest pours. That helped relax me until the doors opened.

As nervous as I was, this was still just bartending. The first guests came in to the bar and I smiled, said hello and just like that I was back at it again. I forgot how much I missed listening to the sound of ice being scooped or how satisfying it is to make a guest happy with a drink. I'd forgotten how much you overhear behind the bar. One gentleman regaled his date with a rather violent story of how he caught a four pound octopus, two ladies lamented their love lives at one end of the bar while at the other end, two couples on a double date were starting to relax and unwind over cocktails. It flooded me with memories and I was happy to be where I am the most comfortable; behind the bar.

The night ran smoothly and I started to master the house cocktails. I even had a chance to make an original cocktail on the fly for a guest. It was a fun evening and the rest of the team, from the servers to the line cooks, were the most professional group I've ever worked with. It was both pleasurable and humbling to work with such great people, and at the end of the day, that is really what this business is about isn't it? If you have great people on staff, everything else will take care of itself.

I finished the night by clocking off and sitting and sipping a Berlioni cocktail. Equal parts Cynar, gin and sweet vermouth on the rocks with an orange twist, it was the perfect way to celebrate my return to bartending. Am I being nostalgic? Absolutely. But when things run right in the bar, I don't worry about my torn rotator cuff or my bad back or how the cuts on my hands burn when I cut citrus. Those things don't matter when you have great food, a great bar, and an amazing team to back you up.

I'm pretty excited to be back behind the bar. I'm looking forward to contributing some cocktails to the menu and helping to take a great bar and make it even better. If you ever find yourself in Portland, stop in to Lincoln and say hi. Maybe I can make you a Berlioni and you can share your bartending stories with me. Whatever may happen, it sure feels good to be back behind the stick again and I can't wait for my next bartending shift.

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