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

{ 17 comments }

Doug Winship May 26, 2011 at 11:31 am

This is all good stuff. Thanks.
It’s the sort of thought process that hopefully will apply to what I’m up to.

Dave Stolte May 26, 2011 at 11:36 am

Great post, Matt. I’ve often wondered what it would be like to work behind the stick.

Zidders Roofurry May 26, 2011 at 1:00 pm

Just wanted to say thank you for this. My cousin worked his butt off as a bartender in the 80′s and 90′s, and I saw up close just how involved a job it is. Hopefully more folks will see this and appreciate their bartender a bit better. Also, thanks for the review of Ron Jeremy’s new rum hehe. I think I might buy some.

Caroline on Crack May 27, 2011 at 7:19 am

Love this post. You’ve done what I was always curious about and now I don’t have to do it myself. Shake two Ramos Gin Fizzes at the same time? I don’t have the muscles! But seriously thanks for shedding light on something I’ve fantasized about. And I also have even MORE respect for bartenders, if that was even possible.

Savory Hunter May 27, 2011 at 9:30 am

Great post Matt. You speak to the joys and pains of bartending and you come at it from a place of love and respect.

Ricky Yarnall May 27, 2011 at 12:12 pm

This is one of the most honest and true accounts of bartending I’ve read online in a long time. I’m impressed that you’ve learned these 5 things in just one year too. Salut!

Tony Harion May 29, 2011 at 6:09 pm

Great post Matt!
Nice to see you mention that last point. I truly believe that a bit of flourish ads a lot to the whole experience. A good atmosphere is one of the most important things in the bar business and it´s part of a bartenders job to help in this area.

CrisDehlavi May 30, 2011 at 5:47 am

Being someone who does intricate craft cocktails in a high volume setting I can relate to all of this===especially the Vodka Soda comment…sometimes when I am deep in the weeds the best best order ever is when someone just wants a Miller Lite.

Timmy Smith May 30, 2011 at 8:08 am

enjoyed the post

I remember well my first Sunday Brunch behind the stick.. alone. Sheer terror. I had been bar backing nights in the same club whose Friday/Saturday crowd of “blowjobs” , and “Copper Camels” switched to “Bloody Mary’s” , Collins mixes and my first “Old Fashioned” while taking and delivering food orders. I was not organized.

Great article.

Cheers

Timmy

Oron Lerner May 30, 2011 at 8:57 am

I did enjoy reading this, though I may disagree with some points there. As much as being in the weeds means more sales in the bar, it also means you’re too busy to talk to your guests, too busy to sell them anything, too busy to interact. In those places where Vodka&Soda is what you’d get or where the guests should bring their own interactions from home being in the weeds has no down side but in a more intimate cocktail bar?

Stella May 30, 2011 at 9:42 am

I’ve always appreciated bartenders, but never as much as I do now that I work in a restaurant that has three seriously gifted barmen. I work in pastries and I’ve found kindred spirits in our bartenders- they always help me understand the obscure new liquors and ingredients they order and bring me samples to play with in the pastry dept. I often come to work with a bottle of something oddball on my station with a note, “Have fun!” from a bartender. My use of spirits in dessert has increased dramatically, and I think I’m a more well rounded pastry girl because of it. Thanks for this post, gonna email it to my guys. :)

Matt Robold June 1, 2011 at 10:12 am

Oron:

I don’t mean for it to sound as though being in the weeds is a good thing. Whether your the customer or the bartender, a super-busy bar is no fun. One of my favorite things working at the bar is interacting with customers. I love being able to explain what I’m doing to a someone who’s new to craft cocktails or discuss whether an El Presidente is better with dry or blanc vermouth with a more seasoned cocktail veteran.

Obviously when we’re slammed, I can’t do that. I end up doing little more than pour, shake/stir, strain, garnish, push, repeat. I can’t speak for other bartenders, but that’s not why I do this.

Unfortunately (though more fortunately for my wallet I guess), the rushes happen and every shift has at least some time span in which the job precludes the niceties that really maximize the bar experience. On the plus side, you should still get a great drink out of it.

Just because I’m busy doesn’t mean that I can’t make you a Negroni, it just means I might not be super-excited about it on the inside. You will still get a smile and a great drink though, regardless.

Kellie B June 1, 2011 at 5:04 pm

Thank you for the post.

And, thank you for being such an integral part of Tiki Night at 320. I was there and it was so much fun. You guys organized a great event. Thanks!

JFL July 6, 2011 at 6:16 pm

Love your blog and this article very informative, but while I certainly see your point on flair and front of the house service. Flair should never become the star or even impede drink making in the slightest. Not that I think thats what your doing please don’t misunderstand.

Flair at a bar just seems cheap like a teppanyaki show. Neat to see but not if the food is lousy. A Good tender can do bothy though.

Still it’s a hard job, one I respect each and every time I sit.

Matt Robold July 7, 2011 at 11:03 am

I agree that flair should never interfere with putting out good drinks.

My point on flair is more that incorporating some degree of it is not a bad thing. I’m not suggesting juggling bottles between to bartenders or pouring to a beat being played on the stereo, but more about just adding some style to the substance.

I think we can all agree that that makes the entire experience of being in the bar more interesting and enjoyable.

JFL July 18, 2011 at 6:45 am

Sure Matt I can agree with you there 100%. Love this article by the way very informative.

Cheffrin November 5, 2012 at 12:57 pm

I work at a bar, and I can attest to all these things… As far as the flair goes I have two thumb rings on my two very strong thumbs which I use to open bottles of beer, its nothing big but the ladies and gents love seeing it!

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