5 Things I’ve Learned Behind The Bar

by Matt Robold on May 26, 2011

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I’ve now spent nearly a year on the working side of a bar every Sunday. I went into the adventure planning on maybe doing a few shifts as a barback for Jason at 320 Main and somehow managed to progress from Jason’s shadow to Sunday Lunch Bartender to Sunday Night Bartender in the process.

In that year I’ve learned a lot of things and had my notions about cocktails, bartending, and bar patrons adjusted – some views more violently than others. Here are five things that I’ve learned so far.

  1. Bartending is more physically exhausting than you think it is.

    Not that I didn’t think that bartenders worked hard. I knew that they were busting their asses behind the stick, but it’s actually rather surprising how much exertion it really takes to do all that work.

    If you think shaking a Ramos Gin Fizz is tiring, wait until you have to do two at a time for an order of four. Heck, the amount of bending that you have to do with getting bottles out of lowboy fridges, scooping ice, rinsing tins, and even just pacing back and forth to check on customers at one end of the bar while keeping a mental tab on the people at the other end (and in some cases, the tickets coming into the service bar area) will wear you down.

    I read in Anthony Bourdain’s book, Medium Raw, that an overweight chef is not necessarily ideal because it’s so physically taxing to maneuver and work in the kitchen. As a self-professed fat guy I can say the same goes for bartenders. The toll on your knees and back can be atrocious.

  2. There will be times when you love making a Vodka & Soda

    As a cocktail geek, I also wear the badge of cocktail snobbery. As a patron of a craft cocktail bar, when I hear another patron order a Vodka & Soda or something of that ilk, I generally assume I am vastly superior to them and mourn for the bartender whose tremendous talents are being wasted. I know, I’m a bad person – I’ve made peace with that.

    Well, when your bar is completely full and tickets are piling up in the service well and you’re basically just sprinting from one customer to the other hoping that you can get to the point that your queue of drinks somehow gets down to “only four more to go and maybe by then some clean glassware will appear from the back” – that person ordering the simple highball is your best friend ever. Heck, even a Vodka Martini – a drink concept that I despise – is a welcome order when I’m trying to hack my way out of the weeds. You want chilled vodka in a glass? You are my new favorite person ever!

  3. Three words: Mise En Place

    When you’re making drinks at home for friends, quality matters. When you’re making drinks for customers in a bar, quality and speed matter – a lot.

    Some components of speed just come from practice: the more you make the drinks the better you get at it. Having all of your ingredients in-place and within easy reach, however, is the only way you can really get any speed. When your bar is disorganized you lose precious time trying to find things. When it’s organized improperly you lose time trying to reach for things.

    When I started behind the bar, my mise en place was laughable. Jason would come in throughout my shift and force me to reorganize things so that I wasn’t reaching or searching or cutting or doing anything repeatedly that really slowed me down. I now spend a good portion of my pre-shift time making sure that everything is perfect – down to exactly how far I have to reach for the maple syrup or bitters. Because of this my efficiency has improved dramatically.

  4. Drink Prices Involve A Lot Of Math

    There have been numerous stories written about why that cocktail you’re ordering is $10, but it’s hard to really appreciate how much effort goes into figuring out that number until you make some customer a 1934 Zombie and then ask the bar owner or manager how much you should charge said customer for the off-menu drink with four ounces of liquor.

    The formula for doing so involves the cost of the liquor, the cost of the bartender, the cost of the garnish, the cost of the non-spiritus ingredients, and any other additional costs that might come up (like copper mugs for a Moscow Mule or Tiki mugs for proper Tiki drinks).

    There might not be $10 worth of liquor in that Mai Tai your ordered, but between the costs of the rums, lime juice, simple syrup, and curacao added to the cost of the orgeat (whether purchased or made in-house), mint, crushed ice, and a competent bartender who’s taking the time to make it, you might be lucky the drink is only $10.

  5. Style Matters

    There’s a small backlash that’s been growing in regard a lot of the style that craft bartenders have been putting into their jobs. From being called “dandified” to being accused of being hipsters who are more interested in image than they are in substance – a lot of these bartenders are being asked why they can’t just make a damn drink and not be so showy about it.

    Even among cocktail geeks the idea of “flair” for bartending is usually met with derision. They also feel like they just want the bartender to focus on making a drink correctly and not waste time looking good doing it.

    The thing is, a little bit of flair goes a long way. The little things like how a bartender grabs or puts away the bitters, pours a jigger into a shaker, or stirs or shakes a drink can pique the curiosity of that non-cocktail geek that was debating which glass of wine to have and get them asking questions or considering something different. As I’ve spent more time behind the bar, I’ve found that small flourishes that don’t add extra effort – something even as small as raising the teaspoon as I drop its contents into a tin – can turn that $4 glass of wine customer into a three $10 cocktails customer.

    As a customer you may not care about the style of the bartender, but despite any appearances to the contrary, the bartender is not solely focused on you. Also keep in mind that that bartender, unlike the chef in the back, is out front. They are part of the ambiance of the bar or restaurant – part of the show.

Photos courtesy Tobin Sharp and Chuck Taggart

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