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Bartenders Should Focus on Service, Not Buzzwords

If you’re a bartender who has spent time convincing yourself and others what you do matters enough not to completely fuck it up, don’t reduce what you do to a slogan like "science" or "hospitality."

Al Sotack

The bartender knows the guy is going to be a problem as soon as he sits down. This a vet of the service industry, and one of the good ones. Spotting a tough customer is easy. Gauging how tough is harder.

The guy pushes the menu aside. "I don't want to read this. I don't know what this means. Just make me something."

The bartender asks all the usual questions: "Boozy or refreshing? Sweet or dry? Bitter? Anything you don't like?" The guy isn't having it. In fact, he's getting worse every second, from eye rolling to openly belligerent. Other guests are getting uncomfortable.

The bartender makes him a drink. The guy tastes it, pushes it back. The bartender apologizes, takes the $12 drink away. Other people are waiting. The bartender tries again. "What didn't you like? What's going to make you happy?"

"I thought you guys were supposed to know how to make a drink."

The bartender digs deep inside, pulls up the most sincere smile he can muster and opts for reason. "I'm sorry, sir. All I want is for you to get the best drink you can. We just met and people have different tastes. Me, for instance. I'd never wear that shirt with that tie."

We were all trying so hard to get people to take us seriously, with our vests and our house rules and our sincerity. Some of us remembered what it was like before the fresh juice and jiggers. A lot of us were failed artists who stumbled into it. However you landed the gig, the secret to doing it was giving a shit, on the daily, often in the faces of assholes openly mocking you.

If you think the idea of somebody trying really hard to become a good bartender is hilarious, this is probably the end of the line. The rest of the time you spend reading this will only reinforce a growing notion that a group of adults who waste their lives getting good at making a product so definitively ephemeral are insane. You would have a point, but we're still winning.

There are cocktail bars in every city. The hotels ship guys around to set up beverage programs in towns world-wide. Brands drop buckets of money trying to stay relevant to a small minority of bartenders, but whose numbers are growing every day. When we were desperately trying to get you to drink a Boulevardier we never thought the day would come you'd be cold-calling them every night.

Along the way in our quest for respectability, there were some guiding lights. If you remember the early days of the cocktail resurgence you remember how many questions there were. The industry had always been a bit blurry. Everyone was always talking shit and shooting from the hip. Those bartenders trying hard to be serious about their work were looking around for answers. While there was no shortage of irrational blathering in the business, all of a sudden there was a bunch of folks actually thinking, writing, pointing the way.

The revelation of science on cocktails was profound. This wasn't the smoke and mirrors of what we hilariously called molecular mixology, slathering saffron foam on everything and trying to find new ways to light stuff on fire. No, this was the realization that we could figure out what was actually happening when we did one thing to two ounces of booze versus some other thing. For a failed artist like me, it wasn't easy, all that math and measurement. But it was worth it, if in the end I knew I could find answers in an ocean of nonsense.

Some priests of the cocktail churches had epic reputations for being surly-ass motherfuckers and soon enough the everyday joint was the haunt of the industry's newest slogan.

At first it was a relief to hear my peers shouting about science. It meant those bartenders paving the way had been effective, had shown people how to take the next steps. It meant that people were interested in empirical truth and using logic to get better. Then I began to hear the word more often, bandied about, coming out of some pretty unscientific mouths. Soon, it started to sound cheap.

Meanwhile, the pendulum swung. The stodginess of our speakeasies lost some sheen and their seating-only bars some novelty. Every new bar opening was "just a neighborhood bar that happened to have great cocktails." Some priests of the cocktail churches had epic reputations for being surly-ass motherfuckers and soon enough the everyday joint was the haunt of the industry's newest slogan.

I remember shooting the shit with this kid in a different town a couple years ago when I told him my "not with that tie" story. We both knew the bartender in the joke and I remember cracking up about this respected, talented bartender giving some schmuck a mild dressing down. The kid was horrified.

"This is hospitality!"

It wasn't the first time I'd heard that word, in that tone. It had been propped up on Facebook posts and slurred in barrooms that whole year. And just as sometimes science was misappropriated by people you'd think least likely to use it, hospitality started getting shrieked by some often inhospitable folks. They weren't saying much else, but they sure were saying that word.

Science isn't just hard: it is material. An example. You're a young bartender trying to figure out the best way to make simple syrup. Do you cook it? Do you blend it at room temperature? Something tells you to call your buddy the pastry chef. Everyone has one, and in my experience they tend to think bartenders talking about science are adorable. He calls you some unprintable name and tells you there are not only books out there but an entire easily searchable internet with all the answers to questions you haven't thought of yet. Then he remembers bartenders hate reading and tells you thread stage starts at around 230 degrees Fahrenheit.

Hospitality? That's magic.

There's a lot to be said about hospitality. There are questions to be asked, arguments to be made about specific scenarios, endless geekery only the initiated could give a shit about. But for every Danny Meyer there's a whole lot of people not furthering the inquiry, just like for every Dave Arnold there are dozens of dudes into "science" talking about how their shake gets better chill with less dilution.

Nobody wants a neckbearded bartender who can only opine about hydrocolloids in monotone, and nobody wants a bartender with dead shark eyes, smiling Stepford serene while some guy's throwing up on the floor.

A bartender can never make everyone happy. As we move away the spectrum of bar experiences from restaurants to dive, the range of acceptable behavior broadens, but it ain't infinite. Booze does funny things to people.

I have a scientific experiment for you to try. Walk out the door and go to your corner bar, the aforementioned dive. See the woman bartending there? Observe her. Watch what she has to cope with at 3:30 AM. Then lecture her about hospitality. The results will amaze you!

Our industry had always been one of fevered egos, long before we rediscovered arm garters. The art of service requires self-management and kindness, over and over. The greatest challenge a bartender will always have is how to put the guest first, but sometimes guests should just be tossed out on their ass. A good bartender knows how to proceed, not for their own sake, but for the sake of the room.

Nobody wants a neckbearded bartender who can only opine about hydrocolloids in monotone, and nobody wants a bartender with dead shark eyes, smiling Stepford serene while some guy's throwing up on the floor.

Soon there will be a new buzzword. It'll be efficiency or something else the old heads didn't see coming. No matter what it is: if you're a bartender who has spent time convincing yourself and others what you do matters enough not to completely fuck it up, don't reduce what you do to a slogan. Don't use forces for good to bolster your sense of worth. Don't take yourself that seriously. Take your ideas more seriously. You're a human being wrestling with a complex world and you happen to be a guardian at the gate of public drunkeness.

Stay funny, for all our sakes.