Who’s Behind the Bar?

If Jesus Christ was alive today, he would be a bartender. And he’d probably be a pretty good one; just think how quick he could fill those wine glasses.

Bartending is the most selfless profession there is. The waiter is a close second. But the waiter has the convenience of showing up later and leaving earlier than the bartender. Nuns might give up their lives, bodies, and souls for the love of Christ, but in return they’re asking to join him in the Kingdom of Heaven. If any of it is real, it’s a pretty fair exchange. You sacrifice X amount of years on earth for an infinite amount in a supposed paradise. I’d say that’s a pretty amazing return on investment.

But I’m not here to make a point about the clergy. I’d rather spend the time acknowledging what it’s like to really be a bartender. The psychology of those who chose to live their entire professional lives behind a wooden plateau, sandwiched in between bottles and drunkards is both unique and unexamined.

The bartender does a job that theoretically anybody with 2 hands could do. Theoretically, the job is in danger as automation and machinery continue to eat away at the humanity that keeps us away from the chimps.

But it won’t, because the bartender is more than just the mixing of different liquids into a cold glass. It’s more than just pouring a beer at the right angle so it doesn’t foam over.

Bartenders are as much a part of the restaurant business as the stools are. They’re more essential than the lighting. They are the intangible element over that tricky subject called ‘atmosphere’ that interior designers, psychologists, and restaurateurs are always trying to master. You can hang all the pretty plants and dim the lights just right, but if the schmuck behind the bar sucks, so does the whole operation.

I always wonder how other people end up in the role. I don’t remember anybody’s mom or dad coming into career day telling us about mixing martinis. I remember someone’s dad was in the music business on the copyright and licensing side. He was rich and he was unhappy. I remember someone’s dad was an insurance agent. I remember he was bored to tears. I remember someone else’s dad sold cologne. I remember he was gay.

For reasons I can’t understand, bartending is not a coveted position. It is without any cachet. It is something I felt awkward saying when asked, “what do you do?” My friends were all in sales, or insurance, or law, or medicine. I was in Hospitality.

I was quarterbacking at José Andrés’s place in New York City when Coronavirus gave us all a quick kick in the ass. It wasn’t until after I couldn’t go back behind the bar that I realized how important it was.

The people I’ve met behind the bar have all been vastly intelligent. They’re excellent speakers, confident, coordinated, knowledgeable in a myriad of fields from art to finance, and damn are they good sales people. If you can find a bartender that can actually convince people to drink Cynar, you’ve got a good one.

Sidenote: I really, really hate Cynar.

And then there’s that question: what’s a mixologist? When most people in this business hear that term they start to gag and roll their eyes so fucking hard they get a headache. But, in my opinion, there is a difference. 

My dad, for instance, was a bartender. He worked at dive bars for decades. I remember he once showed me how to make ‘ginger ale’ if you were ever out of it: “90% Sprite and a splash of Coke mixed together. Tastes just like it- they won’t know the difference.”

And he’s right. A 22-year old getting shitfaced in a half-rusted out saloon a few blocks off campus can’t tell the difference of ginger ale from a ginger cookie. And that’s bartending. Bartending is Coors light, Sterling’s Vodka, and Peach Schnapps. Bartending is anywhere between a vodka soda and a Mind Eraser.

So, Mixology is when fire and eggs start making their way behind the bar. It’s when suddenly emulsifiers, centrifuges, and acids start being included in the recipe. It’s when the garnishes go from thick wads of lemon to edible flowers and perfectly positioned juniper berries that better not fall off the lime wheel or there’ll be Hell to pay.

But does it matter?

Depends. Where the hell are we? Is it Saturday night out with the boys and we’re gearing up for the UFC fight? I don’t want a mezcal negroni with a half ounce of Montenegro and Cayenne infused Campari. I want a Miller lite.

But, then there’s those moments for feeling contemplative- those brilliant times at 4pm just before the rush gets in and we’re having the Raymond Chandler drink: nice and quiet; nice and quiet. And sure, I’ll take one of those infused spinoff-y drinks.

Then there’s the nice dinner with the in-laws, the sleek, shiny, new place that’s trying to do something different, and the dumb hipster that saw a cool instagram account about cocktails and wants to give it a shot.

So yeah, there’s the mixologist. They’re the people who invest in the craft and try to make it into an art. Few ever really do.

But who the Hell ends up behind the bar?

It’s strange, really. I’ve met people who forewent their engineering degrees to shake cocktails. I’ve met former and current teachers spending the summer vacation picking up tips. I’ve met the usual ‘actors,’ ‘writers,’ and creatives who fail to truthfully respond when prompted with ‘what do you do?’

But then who are the lifers? Who are the people that aren’t afraid to look the Accountant in the eye and confidently say, “I am a bartender?”

I guess there’s no one answer and to get an idea I’d have to embark on a totally different venture then the one I’m on.

But as I get started writing about what I do, what I enjoy doing, and what I enjoy learning, I’m stuck with 2 questions. The first is the name of this post. The second is, what brings us together more: food or alcohol?

Anthony Bourdain started Parts Unknown with a poignant, albeit simple introduction: “I write, I eat, and I am hungry for more.”

I’ll never be as cool as Tony; I’d never compare myself to the man for fear of knowing exactly how short I would fall. Even if we are both Italian Jews from New Jersey, nobody will ever have that great voice and that near-endless swagger. 

But I guess for as hungry as he was, I am as thirsty. Since 19, I’ve been behind bars professionally. Starting out in New Jersey and moving out to New York, I’ve learned more about humanity, psychology, finances, sports, media, entertainment, math, science, philosophy, and hygiene than all 4 years at Rutgers University. And that’s not a stab at the State University of New Jersey- it’s a testament to the profession.

I’ve been asking this question a lot lately: what brings people together more: food or alcohol? The people who answer food have the undeniable argument that everybody does eat. There’s no avoiding it. But, food can be exclusionary. How often are vegans at odds with their carnivorous counterparts? How often does my grandma break my balls about not keeping kosher? Why did gluten somehow become the grounds for civil unrest? 

Sure, there are quite literally billions of people who forego alcohol for religious testament and are still able to find community. But in the westernized world, when we show up to the wedding, the office party, the sweet 16, is it the trays of croquettes that lubricate the otherwise standoffish cohorts from one another? I don’t think so. For your high school friends to share a few laughs with your cousins and your colleagues, you’re gonna need the byproduct of yeast and sugar: sweet, wonderful, amazing alcohol. 

But I suppose like my other prompt, there’s no one evening of rambling and a few drinks to suffice an answer. For that, I’d have to begin a long journey. But perhaps this is the first step.

Published by J. Cassidy Hawthorne

Writer. Former stand-up. Sommelier.

2 thoughts on “Who’s Behind the Bar?

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