What Is A Bartender For?

By Matt Ray |

“What Is A Bartender” is Neat Pour‘s new bimonthly column exploring just what you’d think from the title. In each installment, Matt Ray will share answers to the query from different bartenders. In this first piece, Ray dives into the origin story.

I’ve had a long day. Work was hard– way harder than it should have been. Alcohol is not a “want” kind of thing today. There is a bar I’ve got in mind and I head that way, through traffic and past the streetcar. I’m going to sit down and speak and wait and then receive what amounts to a spiritual spit-shine.

But which is the more important part of this interaction; is it the drink or is it the bartender?

Cocktail bartending is a strange amalgamation of a range of skills–a lot of skills, actually. Bartenders are asked to simultaneously be an encyclopedia and a best friend. They are supposed to be very fast, but also very good. Buddy-buddy, but professional and on and on and on…

When confronted with this list of almost contradictory attributes, one is forced to ask which one holds priority. Any attempt to answer this question plunges many bartenders into an existential crisis. What is the one thing that a bartender actually is—or should be?

An easy starting point is the customer. Following the high-mark of the modern Cocktail Renaissance, a customer-driven approach has made a huge comeback. You may think that all bars subscribe to the ol’ “customer is always right” mantra, but you’d be wrong. For example, you’ve probably been to a bar with their PA set to 11, the music blaring so loud that you can’t talk to your friends. The subtext from the bar in these cases is “we want you to order and leave as soon as possible”. The message is the bartender-equivalent of those plastic booths at Wendy’s.

Likewise, if you’ve ever felt obligated to impress your bartender with your order, or even worse, like you disappointed them, then you have been in a bartender—not customer—driven establishment. I know bartenders who are driven to depression by orders of vodka-sodas. I also know many who also regularly chastise the customer for ordering that clear cocktail, employing either direct scolding or the passive-aggressive body language of a surly teenager. Remember those bars in the early days of the cocktail renaissance that refused to carry vodka? Seems like a distant memory at this point…

I’m not suggesting that great bars are buying stock in vodka companies (Tito’s massive profits notwithstanding), but they carry vodka and serve it gladly to anyone that requests it. At the end of the day, what do you care if a customer orders a vodka martini? If a bartender is insulted when a guest orders what-they-came-to-drink, one must ask: who are the staff there for? The guests, or themselves?

“But I want to save those guests from themselves!”, the well intentioned barkeep might protest. That attitude was popular in the early days of spreading the gospels of sherries and amari and slings. And some bartenders did “rescue” a few souls from drinking the thing they originally came there to order. There’s no data to show how many people preferred this result over the alternative. I suspect that there will never be any peer-reviewed papers on the number of conversions from dirty martinis to more “respectable” highballs, like Fernet & Coke.

The secret ingredient here, might be consent. A bartender may confuse a guest’s presence in their cocktail bar for implicit consent to take them on a journey through all the Ramos-variations they can stand, but that’s assuming a lot. The only assumption that is ever safe for a bartender to make is that the guest that sits at their bar is thirsty. Or possibly hungry. Does your bar serve food?? You know what– scratch that. Just assume they need something and you don’t know what it is yet.

But like the Never-Vodka bars, the numbers of potential converts are dwindling. Everyone in the major markets KNOWS what a Sazerac is and most still choose to order a Gin & Tonic. The cynic might say its the increased competition that is changing the tides of customer service, smaller market shares, and slimmer profits. For better or worse, the trend seems to be a return to bars and bartenders that are community-driven and people-centered, as opposed to knowledge-driven and cocktail-focused.

There was a time when having a technocratic understanding of cocktails made a great bartender and being able to memorize tombs of forgotten classics made them the intellectual equivalent of Socrates (who thought that the act of writing things down would rob students of their ability to memorize the complete works of Aristophanes.)

The current trend, thankfully, seems to be a return to the idea of the bar as a public-space, as well as a stripping-down of the pretentiousness that has plagued our industry. Kirk Estopinal of Cure Co. and Cane & Table once said, “some people that work in bars forget that bars can be fun.” Some lucky cocktail bars are rediscovering their communities and reconnecting with the people that are kind enough to put themselves out there, to drive or bike or bus to our bars, and give us their money, their time, and their trust.

Let’s give them a good time, yeah?

There are a lot of things a bartender could be for a guest (too many, really, considering the level of pay). So I’ve initiated my own version of a peer reviewed study. I am asking bartenders the simple question, “What is a bartender?” Over the months ahead, I will regularly pen columns detailing the answers I get. The goal will be to find the one thing that, if these industry-professionals had to choose, would the essential function of a great bartender.

To kick things off, I felt it appropriate to close this inaugural column with the first answer I received. NOLA’s Kim Patton-Bragg is practically evangelical when it comes to service. She also has a flair for poetry, so I leave you with this digestif.

“A bartender, is a pusher, bouncer, a matchmaker, a beard, an atheistic confessional, comedian, historian, a pharmacist, tour guide, an accountant, and a cat herder. [A bartender is] a human trying their damndest to make the humans across the bar forget about their work and problems while we are doing our work and putting our shit aside until we are off and rely on another brother or sister in arms to pour us a shot and to be what we had served for hours before.” –KPB


Photo by Jane Donuts.
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