The Emperor’s New Clothes

by Gaz Regan · Monday, October 27th, 2014 · Mindful Bartending, words of wisdom

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle in October, 2010.naked bartender  I think it’s a decent idea for us all to take another look at it every now and again.

IF the kids behind the bar these days could go back in time to watch how my generation of bartenders handled ourselves in the ’70s, they’d probably laugh themselves silly. Don’t get me wrong; we did some things very well indeed. Our Manhattans and Rob Roys and martinis, even at neighborhood bars with sawdust on the floor, were as good as you can currently get at any swank cocktail lounge – well balanced, well chilled and well served. We had our priorities right, too. We knew how to show the punters a good time, how to put a smile on their faces, and how to look after them as they needed looking after.

Our margaritas weren’t fabulous, though – most of us used commercial sweet-and-sour mix – and we weren’t the most creative bunch. We were responsible, for instance, for the Woo Woo, Sex on the Beach and the Long Island Iced Tea – a drink that tastes OK, though the recipe is something that a bunch of monkeys with keyboards would come up with eventually.

Although the core chore of the bartender – to make people happy, welcome and cared for – will never vary, over the past decade the mixology side of the craft has changed completely. And I’m happy to say that, just as roadside diners and four-star restaurants coexist nicely here on God’s green Earth, so too do neighborhood taverns serving shots of whiskey and pitchers of beer along with highfalutin’ speakeasies dealing in creative cocktails containing countless complex components. God forbid the day when I can’t get a plate of greasy corned-beef hash and eggs, and God forbid the day when I can’t get my hands on an ice-cold shot of Jägermeister, with a small beer back, too.

Not all drinks being served in today’s cocktail lounges, though, deserve space in a chilled glass. I hate to be the one who says this, but I’m betting you’ve seen it coming. The cocktailian craft has been grossly mishandled of late, and it’s time to rein in a few newcomers to the craft who seem to have missed the point.

Odd ingredients

“Too many bartenders are making drinks with a dizzying array of odd ingredients,” said Erik Adkins of the Slanted Door when I got him stupid ingredients    on this topic. “These drinks are often muddy and lack balance. My big fear is that we are going to leave the public behind.”

Let me say for the record that 21st century bartenders have taught me more about the craft of mixology than I ever learned during my 35 years behind the bar in the 20th century. I’ve no wish for today’s bartenders to stop pushing the envelope. I’m pretty much insistent, though, that we take a hard look at the bartenders who have been trying to blind us with their mad-scientist-type potions while rendering cocktails reminiscent of an emperor’s new clothes. We’ve taken more than a couple of steps forward in recent years. It’s time to take at least one step back.

Age alone doesn’t define bartenders lacking basic principles of mixology, but the mixologists whom I’m about to take my stick to are, for the most part, fairly new to the craft. I’ll call them bar-tweenies because although they act as though they’re accomplished cocktailians, their voices have yet to crack.

Many accomplished bartenders I approached about this phenomenon were reticent to talk. Nobody wants the phenomenon of superstar cocktailian bartenders to come to an end. We’re just getting started, and we all want to see this movement grow. But lack of experience is a growing concern.

“Time behind the stick is a must for one to really be a great bartender,” says Duggan McDonnell of Cantina. “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.”

The competitions that liquor companies now stage might be seen as a problem because many bar-tweenies seem to be under the Sweet Potato Pie Recovery Shakeimpression that if they don’t make a root beer reduction enhanced with a cinnamon-saffron tincture, or some similar idiotic potion, they won’t stand a chance of winning. But these very competitions have made it easier for young folks today to choose bartending as a viable career. And since I make a few bucks here and there judging said competitions, I’m certainly not looking for them to cease and desist.

Besides, competitions aren’t the only new money-making proposition.

Why be a bartender?

“The trade today is teeming with mentors, teachers, influencers and consultants, all trying to find their place under the sun and profit from it,” notes Dushan Zaric, co-owner of the New York bars Employees Only and Macao, “and that is good news as our trade can only survive if it evolves.”

To fathom what’s going on, let’s take a look at why people become bartenders in the first place. It’s fairly safe to say that the vast majority of people who like to work behind bars enjoy the smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd. That’s why you see a plethora of men and women behind the stick wearing multiple tattoos and/or piercings, outlandish hairstyles, colorful clothes and, in the case of the men, facial hair in various hues and guises. We’re dealing with big personalities and big egos, for the most part. Trust me on this. I’m a bartender.

Once these good folk have landed a job they find themselves among a team of like-minded people, and quite often they’ll do whatever it takes to stand out. This is something that hasn’t changed one iota in the 40-plus years I’ve spent in the business, and I dare say that it goes back a few centuries further than that.

charley bartender

There was a time, though, not too long ago, when newcomers to the craft didn’t stand a chance of getting a glimpse of the spotlight until they’d spent a good long time carrying ice, stocking shelves and squeezing limes. That’s one aspect that seems to have changed.

Dominic Venegas, spirits maven and bartender at Smuggler’s Cove, recalled his first days in the business in the 1990s. “We bar-backed and we didn’t ask to be bartenders until the bartenders we served thought we were ready to take a stab at it,” he said. “The bar backs that I’m currently working with want to be bartenders now. They are as green as they come.” Venegas reckons two years is about right before getting a shot at a bartender position.

Unfortunately, the use of ludicrous ingredients isn’t the worst thing that the bar-tweenies have brought to the craft. Many can’t even shake a drink properly. They know to dry-shake – without ice – drinks containing eggs to properly emulsify the ingredients, and this fairly new procedure has enhanced the craft tremendously. But I also see guys shaking a drink over ice for no longer than three or four seconds. Not long enough to cool the drink, let alone chill it to the correct temperature.

Charm and Poise

If one doesn’t shake a drink for 10 to 15 seconds, or stir it over ice for about double that amount of time, not only will the cocktail be too warm, but it also won’t have been diluted enough, and here’s another bone of contention that some bar-tweenies have been flair drinksspouting of late. One contingent of this group believes dilution is bad. Oh, dearie, dearie me. Cocktails are meant to glide down the throat with amazing grace; they aren’t meant to be in-your-face ruffians looking for mischief on a Saturday night. There’s a time and a place for a high-octane this or that, but well-crafted cocktails have far more charm and poise.

Other parts of methodology need to be re-examined, too. I see many bartenders using lighters to flame the essential oils of a citrus twist. But lighters are awkward; the bartender usually ends up spraying the oils across the room rather than on top of the drink. Matches work far better.

Finally I’ll have my say on homemade ingredients. Bitters, tinctures and similar potions are supposed to bring the other ingredients in a drink together in harmony. They are not supposed to dominate the glass. If they do, you’ve either added too much or the potion is completely out of whack – and I’ve seen this in commercial ingredients as well. If inexperienced bartenders don’t understand this, it’s time for them to spend a little more time hauling ice before they are let loose on an unsuspecting public.

Speaking of the unsuspecting public, you’ll be happy to learn that you have not been forgotten. Jeff Hollinger, co-owner of San Francisco’s Comstock Saloon, wasted no time in getting to the nitty-gritty of this business.

“Ultimately, what a guest is looking for is friendly and efficient service, and a chance to forget about a bad day, or to celebrate a great day, with a good (expletive deleted) drink,” he said. “Too many of our peers have gotten too caught up in the perceived importance of their drinks and their status among their peers. What too many (inexperienced bartenders) forget is that what we do … isn’t all that important in the grand scheme of things. We’re not saving lives, we’re making drinks, and if that’s the case, then we owe it to our guests to learn how to tend bar and properly mix cocktails before doing anything else.”

Alien Brain Hemorrhage

We’re at a point, then, where we’re faced with a bunch of inexperienced bartenders who seem to be trying to fashion dovetail joints before they’ve learned how to hold a chisel. We want dovetail joints. We want to be wowed at the bar. Let’s hope that today’s young bartenders will be strong enough to take a long look at what they’ve been doing, correct their wrongs and move forward so they can wow us some more. I have faith that will happen. Now where’s my Jägermeister? 

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