I prefer ‘Bartender’
I feel lucky I started bartending when a short skirt, easy smile and attitude got you farther than knowing the Savoy Cocktail Book cover to cover, or when suspenders and a flat cap were the uniform. My first regulars loved knowing a fresh pint would be ready before they finished the one in hand, that I knew the name of their husbands, wives and kids, and if the conversation got stagnant I had a repertoire of really bad jokes to break the tension.
Don’t get me wrong, I had to know how to pour drinks too. I worked day bar for a year and a half, laboriously setting up the bar, taking pour accuracy tests and learning recipes before I caught a break and worked a Saturday night. But I was trained to tend bar, to be the one you see in the movies: the host of a party, enigmatic and funny. It was a given that I was also fast, knew my recipes and was in control of my bar top at all times.
Today’s bartender looks a little different. For every new craft cocktail bar we are graced with, we get five new “mixologists”, trying to make a name for themselves. 8-step cocktails, infusions Jerry Thomas couldn’t have conceived of, and obscurely named concoctions. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful: this cocktail revolution has brought back forgotten recipes, put emphasis on quality over quantity, and given an air of sophistication to a profession that didn’t even take itself very seriously. But as with any profession that earns itself more clout, there are always those who take it too far.
12 years ago I sat at Murray Stenson’s bar and ordered a Chocolate Martini. He made one for me with nary as much as a raised eyebrow, knowing that I was a newbie, with no earthly idea of what a good cocktail was. He was gracious, fun to watch, and treated everyone who was in his care respectfully no matter what they drank. This is the guy who knows more cocktails, has waited on more people, and is more beloved than any other bartender out there. I’ve watched people with a fourth of his talent have ten times the attitude, and for what? We are in the service industry. Without those patrons at the bar, you have no job. Why look down your nose when they don’t know what demerara syrup is? Nine times out of ten they don’t give a shit that it took you 6 months and dozens of batches to get your bitters recipe perfected, or if you shook that cocktail when Harry Craddock would have stirred it. They just want a good cocktail, and they want someone who isn’t going to be surly and contemptuous when they order a vodka martini. And if they want to talk to you, it shouldn’t be a burden: a bar, by nature, is a place for people to interact. Quit acting like you have other things to do.
We are all guilty of not understanding when someone doesn’t take as much of an interest in what they drink as we do, myself included. I think I used it as a shield when I felt defensive. You make six figures a year? Well, cosmopolitans are for pussies. His lack of taste and my lack of typical career path do not make either of us good or bad. Drinking is a very personal thing, indicative of our taste and what we like as an individual. Who am I to judge you for what you like to drink? Bottom line is, my job is to make you a cocktail, to serve you an experience. There is a nobility in being a gracious host, one I fear is rapidly being lost.
I recently hung up my apron after 10 years behind the stick. I get to play at home now, for friends and family, and can take 15 minutes to make a drink if I please. I don’t have to be nice, I can make that 8 step cocktail with the obscure name because I want to experiment with all the cool ingredients I have accumulated over the years. Perhaps now I would be classified as a mixologist. But there is nothing like the feeling of walking behind a bar with people as far as the eye can see, slinging drinks as fast as you can, with a smile on your face, jigger be damned.
I prefer ‘bartender.”