For over two years I worked as bartender at a small town whisk(e)y bar, pouring pours, slinging bevy, shaking cocktails, eavesdropping on sordid affairs, and offering unqualified therapy advice. For the most part, I really enjoyed it. The place, the one and only Amherst Coffee, provided me with an exceptional education in whisk(e)y, old world wines, mixology, and beers. I feel confident in saying that I can make a Manhattan that will leave you wondering why you haven’t been buying drinks from me for years. One of my favorite creations, the Goldie Hawn (featuring a Spanish anchovy as the garnish) met with (almost) universal praise. During down time I would chat with my regulars and concoct various drinks to suit their tastes. When it got busy, I had no trouble hauling ass back and forth, always trying to ensure that my bevys were better than any other in town.
I assumed that when I moved to New York City my well rounded education and experience would make me a prime candidate for any bartending position. I found out, very quickly, that is not the case. In a city that is often considered the cultural center of America, where image and money are often the driving factors, there is an unfortunate absence of quality in the bevy world. That is not to say that this city doesn’t offer some of the worlds finest. It’s just not always as good as you would expect it to be. Hell, sometimes it’s downright shameful what places offer for what they charge.
The standard practice for hiring bartenders in the city seems to be that the applicant will come in and tend for 3-4 hours as the management observes. Bully! In my experience, one of the key elements in the art of bartending has to do with knowing where your ingredients are so you can actually engage in the social element of bartending, instead of swearing under your breath every 5 minutes because you grabbed the wrong bottle. Add to the fact that most bars are dark, labels are illegible, and New Yorkers are thirsty, and you have a recipe for disaster. Knowing where your well liquors are is no trouble. Discerning different wine labels, written conveniently in obnoxious cursive in another language, is just about impossible.
My first experience was in SoHo at a tobacco bar. They gave me a 5 minute run down of the POS (glowing computer register thingy), showed me where everything was, and let me loose. I had spent the past few days studying their drink menu so as to be prepared. Didn’t help to say the least. Considering that the average cocktail price was around $15, I assumed (incorrectly) that they would make an effort to give a shit about what they served. I asked a lot of questions. Too many apparently. “Do you shake or stir your martinis? Do you go heavy on the sweet vermouth in your Manhattans? How big are your wine pours? 6oz? 8oz?” I didn’t really receive any answers so after about 2 hours I just started doing what I do.
About an hour later they told me I could go home and that they would be in touch. I called several times over the next couple days before someone finally picked up.
“Sorry, but we are looking for a “star bartender.” Yup. Those were his exact words. So I asked what I did wrong. “You seem like a nice guy and you seem to know what you’re doing, but… you’re just too slow and you ask too many questions.”
Oh I’m sorry, I just thought you might want me to do things the way you want me to do them. I’m not Tom Cruise and this is not the 80’s.
If you expect me to flip a flaming bottle of Stoli Razz in the air while pouring shots, flirting, you can just sit on it. I make drinks, and as much as people go to a bar for atmosphere, company, to forget something, they are also willing to part with $15 for a cocktail. If all they wanted was to get fucked up, I recommend the shot-and-a-beer program, which is cheap and only moderately offensive to the palate. When ordering a cocktail, you want it to be great. Or at the very least good. When no one cares what’s going into it, you’re bound to get screwed more often than not.
My other experience was at an Italian restaurant in the West Village. The Italian guy (a real deal Italian, as in made in Italy) that was training me was clapping the mint he put in his mojitos instead of muddling it with the drink. Wanker. He then served a Manhattan with no bitters. I couldn’t hold my tongue.
“No bitters?” I asked.
“Nope. We don’t have any.”
If you can’t already tell, I love Manhattans and get pissy like a fat kid at Whole Foods when they get abused. Once again, at $15, it should be good. At $15, it should have what it’s supposed to. I couldn’t take it. It suddenly dawned on me that a large portion of the supposedly informed citizens of this great city have no idea what quality as far as bevy is concerned. Also, it seems almost everyone loves Peroni, which is some schwilly Italian beer. Just because it’s Italy’s version of PBR doesn’t make it any good. Worldly hipsters eh? Even worse.
Everything in this city is driven by volume. To an extent, I can understand that. The monthly rent at some of these spots is probably more than I make in a year. But c’mon people. Try, for just a minute, to give a shit what you’re serving.