I have worked in some of the finest of fine dining in Tribeca to the private cigar lounges in Midtown Manhattan. I’ve servedto the shady neighborhood beer bar on the Lower East, the shadier speak easy on skid row, all the way the most exclusive membership-only clubs in Hollywood- and EVERYTHING in between. I would say I’m a few notches below expert level, if only for the sake that I loved the relationships I cultivated in my jobs more than the knowledge I sought. I accepted early on that I cared too much about the people around me, a wonderful downfall in an employee, which meant that I would never be right for management- God knows I tried. No.. I am a bartender- true and true.
It should be known that I have failed as much as I have succeeded. I am not a master mixologist, a competition winner or a P&L wizard- nor do I intend to be one. I respect the ones that have taught me the art of the business as much as I do the ones that taught me the art of the conversation. I have been able to “fake it” through a world of eye droppers and douche bags, both behind the bar and not. I have found love, respect, pride and success with most that I have worked with, and I thank the ones that showed me otherwise for those lessons weren't taught without value. All in all, I thank them all, for really, having made me MADE.
In my tenure as a bartender, I’ve learned to take the good with the bad; that tips do average out- and that not all idiots are drunk, and not all drunks are idiots. Amongst all the chaos and cacophony, can come a greater sense of self, a strength that cannot be taught. I’ve learned lessons that must be lived through fully in order to come out stronger. i’ve made terrible decisions, knowingly, and better ones on blind faith. I suppose, in it’s entirety- I’ve been made by life behind the stick.
I worked in restaurants from the time I was 13 years old. I started in a bakery, I hosted, I expedited, (insert chiropractors bill) and served. I always respected my job, myself and my co workers as best I could, but it wasn’t until I was behind a bar that I really felt in my element. It wasn’t that I loved the restaurant industry so much, the hours or the nail bitting paycheck to paycheck existence, but the conversations and trust that guests would give while I made them the drink that they were probably dreaming about since their first 10am meeting. Which is to say that while they crunched numbers and stared out of windows, I was free to do as I choose- the primary reason that I loved the industry so much. Here was a life less ordinary, and for me, it was the only way.
When I picked up my first bottle of Crystal Palace at a hole in the wall bar in Murray Hill circa 2006, I never thought the road would lead me here. I suppose I imagined a more of a Coyote Ugly/Devil wears Prada introduction to my life back east. As I learned the hard way, the road to the best jobs was not a clearly paved one. But of course, as all journeys go, I wouldn’t have changed a thing.
Tater-Tots, Soiled Shirts and Whiskey Shots
When I started bartending, we were still making gimlets with roses, sour mix came out of a gun, and frozen drinks were common (before they were kitsch). No one, I worked with knew what bitters were- we barely understood what Vermouth was, though we still always nodded when someone said, “dry”. We shook cocktails with Boston pints and did a crack pour to finish. Rarely was a muddler used, and what the hell was a julep??
You see, starting out in the industry at such a time meant that changing, accepting that there was a better way to do things- to drink alcohol, at the very least- was hard to do. I mean, I had just learned what the hell was in a Manhattan, now you're telling me I have to stir it? How do you stir?
So that’s about how it went. The old school bartenders started rebelling, they were going to keep their upside down shot glasses in front of their regulars and continue to pour their black and tans. The idea of using fresh juices, everyday, was beyond foreign to them, and rarely kept up the right way. There was still a lacsize approach to the bar. Show up, and you make money- good money. On the flip side, there didn’t seem to be much of an interest in the way the whiskey showed up for you. There was a major disconnect, but the gap was starting to close...
THE WONDER YEARS
Understand that the 80’s was a cocaine party of neon and ridiculousness, making syrupy liquors like Midori and Grenadine, and Malibu popular. The emphasis was less on the process of distillation, and far more on the process of intoxication. There was a general understanding of what was needed to open a bar, and few really searched beyond that so as a result we had the things that every other bar had. In order to compete and succeed, we purchased the brands that people called for, the garnishes that were required, the generic trays they sat in, the rubber mats we mixed on, and the boston shakers that we once in a while might use. Basically in those days, when I learned, we were trained on how to make shitty drinks, how to hustle, and how to make money. We seldom were told anything other than, know how to make these drinks:
Whiskey Sour (no egg whites)
Other than that, we didn’t know shit about shit. No one walked into a bar and said, give me “bartenders choice”. It was either what was on the plastic triangular menu (created by someone silly at best) or you had a flavored vodka with what you and your bartender struggled to think might-possibly- be the best juice or soda would work with it. Straws were red, often in twos and napkins were thin and stuck to the glass. Glassware was heavy and came in three kinds. Shot, Rocks, and XXL Martini. Martini glasses looked like a real like Dita Von Tesse was going to pop out of them. Should you for some reason have a 4oz coupe in those days, they would have shunned you off the block and shuttered your doors within weeks. (we will discuss those “education” years later)
This was pre-9/11, so the nightlife in NY was far more about bottle service and less about a bar. Bars were more of a pre-game meet up spot or somewhere to watch a game. They were neighborhood spots that real people visited and hid away in. They were were legends came and intermingled with normal folk. They were CBGB’s and The Village Vanguard. Live music, entertainment etc stole the show for bars in the city. All other forms of entertainment was reserved for large scale clubs above Chelsea and soon enough, the Meat Packing district. Martinis were a generic term for your cocktail list. And man, was the lychee making it’s slutty way to everyone.
Chain restaurants and restauranteur groups were something other than how we function now. Breaks weren’t honored, employees worked overtime all the time, often leaving their bartending jobs at 6,7, and 8 am. Depending on how much money you made in those days, it was totally worth it. Rent was cheap-or affordable if you wanted to make it work, and we lived all over town. It wasn’t lame to live in the UES, and it wasn’t pretentious to live in the LES. (In fact, it was dangerous.) The fact was, the city was a bit more welcoming that the one that I left.
Anyone that has stepped behind the stick in either coast knows who the founding contributors were. With any great doctrine comes a new society which follows new rules and values a completely different way of life. I "grew up" at in a unique time that is not amiss to me.
I think about my days as a young bartender, coming up in NYC at a time when suspenders were just becoming fashionable. I was serving a myriad of micro-brews, a hodgepodge of hops to the lowest bidder on the lower east side. I had no idea what was going on in the “main stage” because I chose to hang in the wings with the more approachable audience.
I knew who the heavy hitters were, I was a proprietor of their bars..well..I showed up at least, I can’t remember actually paying for a drink..but that was the thing.. The Sam Ross’ of the world came rushing through and nodded as though they should probably know me, but with little concern to solidify that doubt. They shook with open palms, poured bitters on the backs. They nodded and laughed as they sipped their spirits- neat- fondling bottles, turning them over in their scarred hands; educating each other on the distillation and the flavor profiles of them all.
I watched these giants and never asked for their guidance. I never asked them to teach me what they knew, and as a result, I never learned. I came upon the industry at a time that ego was already in place.. so I quietly watched from off stage trying to learn their lines for the day that they were ready for an under study.