Over the course of four seasons and one-hundred-plus episodes, Bar Rescue host Jon Taffer has screamed at more than his fair share of bartenders and operators. If you’re unfamiliar with the Spike TV series, think Kitchen Nightmares for bars, but replace Gordon Ramsay’s somewhat redeeming vestiges of Brit charm and actual talent with overstuffed Long Island boorishness. In fact, you might say yelling is the primary appeal of the show. But the perpetually red-jowled Taffer may have finally barked out one set of questionable marching orders too many. An interview with Taffer that ran on the Huffington Post earlier this week has a sizable chunk of the bar and spirits community calling him out. For those on the outside, it may seem like inside-baseball quibbling, but, for better or worse, Taffer is one of the most visible representatives of an industry most of us patronize, and yet few understand. Perpetuating myths and misinformation not only makes bartenders’ jobs harder, but encourages bad behavior among the rest of us.
Search through the reactions to the piece on Twitter, and a predictable pattern emerges. “Please check your facts before opening your mouth,” wrote one bartender. “No no no no no. How did he get to where he is without knowing much at all about the industry?” added another.
Complaints on Twitter certainly aren’t very newsworthy, but when they’re coming from many of the bar world’s actual experts, not just someone who plays one on TV, it’s worth taking note. “Umm, no. Fuck no…” tweeted David Wondrich, the unofficial poet laureate of the spirits world.
In the meantime, a Facebook group called Bartenders Against Jon Taffer has emerged. Since it was opened last night, it’s grown to 3,000-plus members, the vast majority of whom have piled on Taffer for his so-called “idiocy.” (And, as any internet-driven controversy goes, it’s now attracted a counter-protest of voices saying the page is mean-spirited, juvenile, and bullying, and contrary to the spirit of hospitality.)
So just what did Taffer screw up so badly? It’s hard to figure out where to start. (A representative for Taffer declined MUNCHIES’ request for comment.) The interview, an ostensibly lighthearted Q&A about drinking tips and bar etiquette, is so rife with inaccuracies, questionable advice, and shaky cocktail knowledge that you could quibble with almost every answer he gave—and true to form, critics online have done just that. The one that has rankled most readers, and for good reason, was an answer he gave about the provenance of mezcal. Asked if different kinds of alcohol actually affects people differently, he expanded upon the origins of the spirit:
“I’m not sure if there’s a definition of one gets you angry or not, but tequila is inherently made from mezcal, which mescaline, the hallucinogenic drug is made from. So tequila can have a hallucinogenic component, you might be talking to someone who’s not there. (Laughs)”
Laughs indeed. The question has since been removed from the post and a correction was added.
“This jerk represents, theoretically, bar professionals everywhere, and he makes such an insane error about a huge category?” says Ivy Mix of Leyenda in Brooklyn, winner of the 2015 American Bartender of the Year award at Tales of the Cocktail’s Spirited Awards.
“Tequila is, yes, a type of mezcal. Because spirits made out of agave are technically called mezcal. However, agave is actually a member of the lily family, whereas mescaline comes from a cactus. I have gotten drunk on many an agave spirit, and while it makes me the greatest type of drunk I can imagine, it does not and will not make you hallucinate.”
“It was just insulting on several levels,” adds Misty Kalkofen, a veteran bartender in Boston, who now works for Del Maguey mezcal. “The mezcal thing hit close to home immediately because all of us who work in the industry are constantly fighting an uphill battle against inaccuracies about what the category is.”
Mezcal and mescaline are in no way related, in case you’re missing the point here. They do have similar-sounding names though.
“For somebody to post in such a visible forum to people that aren’t knowledgeable about spirits something so widely inaccurate puts us so many steps back,” Kalkofen continues. “It’s insane. The average consumer doesn’t even believe that about mezcal. For somebody to post that that’s supposedly an authority is absolutely egregious. There are two people at fault: somebody claiming to be an authority saying something inaccurate, then it being published in a forum where no one is taking the time to fact-check. Google what mezcal is and Wikipedia is going to tell you it’s made from agave and has no connection to mescaline. It’s completely irresponsible if you’re trying to be any type of journalist.”
Granted, most people don’t know the admittedly complex ins and outs of what goes into producing spirits, never mind the still relatively unfamiliar mezcal. But then again, most people don’t present themselves as the arbiter of all things bar-related.
“Running a bar is not just a business—it’s a science,” the voiceover intro to every episode of Bar Rescue explains. “And no one know more about bar science than Jon Taffer.”
Kalkofen has pivoted away from the piling-on of Taffer today, saying she wishes people in the bar world would expend as much energy talking about two pieces of legislation that threaten the mezcal industry in Mexico (which you can read more about here).
But that hasn’t stopped others from griping—and for good reason. There’s plenty more wrong with the article to complain about, including Taffer’s advice to tip at the end of the night, not on every drink you order.
“The tipping thing seems a bit odd. If you’re paying cash for drinks every round, then you should tip every time you get cashed out,” says Joaquin Meza of El Rancho Grande in Providence.
As for Taffer’s choice of the cocktail that everyone should know, he’s just as shocked: “The Screwdriver? Really?”
Taffer’s origin story of the Screwdriver seems a bit shaky as well. While certain stories do place its start with American oil workers, they probably weren’t drinking them here in America with any degree of regularity, and definitely not during the 1920s, which, you know, happened to be Prohibition. Renowned spirits writer Dale DeGroff instead traces the popularization of the Screwdriver to the post-World War II years, with a huge marketing push from Smirnoff. Prior to that, vodka wasn’t very well-known or widely available in the States.
Elsewhere, the Old Fashioned was Taffer’s choice for the most underrated cocktail. A fine, renowned cocktail, to be sure, but underrated? That’s like calling The Beatles underrated.
“The Old Fashioned is anything but underrated,” says Heather Dickey-Wells of Bar Truman in New York. “It is the single most revered cocktail of professionals by far. Where the hell is he drinking?”
As for his recipe for the cocktail, while muddling the fruit in an Old Fashioned is something of a disputed technique, it’s certainly fallen out of favor today. “The fruity version of the Old Fashioned [he mentions] seems to [have come] from a TGI Friday’s with a cosmic red cherry,” Meza says. “All these bad examples undermine the work that has been done by amazing people in the cocktail industry in the last 15 years.”
Perhaps the questionable taste shouldn’t be a surprise coming from someone like Taffer, whose preferred cocktail is a Godfather, made with amaretto and Scotch. And yet the weirdness and questionable advice goes on and on. Bartenders should never drink on the job, he says forcefully—a practice that, while differing state by state and bar by bar, is widely regarded as a welcoming bit of hospitality in most contemporary cocktail bars. Further on, he says it’s OK to wave down your bartender, because anyone who doesn’t see you must obviously not be paying attention, a fact that almost every bartender commenting on the story seems to have taken umbrage with.
“The way he openly talked about how you can wave down a bartender gave the impression that anybody who doesn’t see you isn’t paying attention. Give us a little more credit,” Kalkofen says.
“Is it rude to signal a bartender? Absolutely,” Dickey-Wells says. “I dare anyone reading this article to go to a busy Irish pub in Midtown, snap at a bartender, and see how that goes for them. Sure, there are occasions where you’re dealing with novices behind the bar, you’ve been waiting for a long while, and are dying for a second round. But far and wide, you’ve got one man or woman taking care of 20 people trying to get their attention at the same time. They’ve got a system. Wait your turn.”
For all the criticism, there are some, like those cautioning on the Facebook page against overreacting to one guy’s bad opinions, that think it’s all a bit overblown.
“Taffer is alright,” says Al Sotack, a bartender and partner of Jupiter Disco, opening soon in Bushwick. “He’s a product of his era, and the youngest bartenders are disconnected to the bar world of the 80s and 90s. A lot of them never had to learn gross red shots or deal with a big, blustery manager frothing misinformation.”
Is there a teachable moment we can all take from this?
“I don’t know,” says Sotack. “Is this the moment you learned not to be a blowhard? Jon Taffer saying some dumb shit about agave spirits? Maybe. There’s plenty of charlatanism in the bar world—charming sometimes, stupid at others. Taffer isn’t the first by far. If anything, as a human being, you should know talking shit can get you into trouble. That’s a teachable moment, I guess. It applies just as much to a lot of young bartenders who actually know more about mezcal than me.”