Tuesday, February 26, 2013

What I've Learned (Bartending Edition)

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This is normally the time of year when I rip off pay tribute to my favorite Esquire feature and check in with my list of things I learned while blogging about booze the previous year. Unfortunately, these past 12 months I've done very little blogging, but I have spent a bit of time behind the bar (a story for another time), and I picked up a few things.

One of the first things I realized is that it's virtually impossible to bartend several nights a week and not learn something. Matt Robold pointed this out a while ago, and it still holds true. Spend a few nights swapping money for booze and your eyes will be opened in ways they never would have if you frequent bars only as a customer.

And so we have...

What I've Learned in One Year of Bartending

~ If the bar is completely prepped by opening time, no one will come in the place for 20 minutes. But if you're scrambling like mad to get set up, there will be 14 people outside the door waiting for you to open.

~ As tempting (and entertaining) as it may be, don't get carried away profiling your customers. You'd be surprised how often the lady orders whiskey on the rocks and the guy gets a chardonnay.

~ That being said, it's a safe bet the guy with the full beard, plaid shirt and Buddy Holly glasses will order the most obscure craft beer you have.

~ Telling me to "make it strong" when you order a drink guarantees I won't put a single drop more alcohol in it than the recipe requires.

~ Likewise, if you ask me to "go light on the ice", that doesn't mean I'm going to fill the extra space with more booze. If you want a double, order a double.

~ Shockingly smart people with a diverse array of talents and skills work in bars and restaurants. Don't assume that your server, bartender, etc., is working there because they're too dumb or incompetent to find employment elsewhere. (I knew this a long time ago, but it needs to be restated. Often.)

~If you're lucky enough to have a barback, don't mistreat him/her. That person is doing a thankless, unglamorous job in order to help you do yours better. Also, it makes you look like a tyrannical jackass.

~ People who have never bartended have no idea how much of the job is moving stuff from point "A" to point "B". And then moving it back again.

~ Some people go to bars purely because they want attention. The fact that they can buy food and drink there is incidental. What they really need is someone to fuss over them. This doesn't make them bad people. It's just possible that interacting with their bartender may be the only pleasant, gratifying human contact they can count on.

~ However, some of these same customers will be self-important, unreasonably demanding high-maintenance pains in the neck. Summon as much politeness and professionalism as possible and weather them the best you can.

~ On the other end of the spectrum are people who want virtually no interaction at all. They're pretty easy to spot, so give 'em their drinks, stay out of their face, and don't take it personally.

~ If you work at a bar that boasts a list of almost 200 tequilas, you will be asked at least once a night which one is your favorite. It's a good idea to have several favorites.

~ The strangest drink anyone asked me to make was a mojito with scotch instead of rum. It wasn't great. But it didn't taste as bad as you'd think.

~ When it's time to settle up, the people who initially wanted separate checks will now tell you to put it all together, and the people who said they were fine with everything on one check will now want you to split it.

~ I never realized how many people are afraid of rum.

~ If you want a drink to sell, incorporate "berry" into its name somehow.

~ People will ask you to make up drinks on the spot. Try to accommodate them if possible, within reason (Rest assured someone will ask you to improvise a drink when you are completely slammed, so your ability to do so may depend on circumstances).

~ Speaking of which, there are nights when you will be swamped. A raw, undiluted panic may wash over you, but remember: It's just drinks. You are not trying to re-attach someone's leg or land a crippled 747.

~ That being said, take care of your guests to the best of your abilities. I've found that most people are patient and forgiving, provided you acknowledge them. They may not get their drinks for a bit, but at least they know they're not being ignored. Also, a simple apology for the wait goes a long, long way.

~ If you dispense a drink ingredient (no matter how ordinary) from an eyedropper, at least one customer will exclaim, "Whoa! Mad scientist stuff!"

~ The best beer is often the worst seller.

~ Milk crates are the bartender's best friend.

~ Plastic quart containers are the bartender's other best friend.

~ Finding out several of my fellow bartenders also disliked Fernet Branca was a true bonding experience.

~ It's heartening to see so many people buying locally-made beer and spirits.

~ If you make 50 great-looking drinks and one not-so-great-looking one, that's the one someone will take a picture of.

~ Always have a roll of duct tape within easy reach. It's the only thing that will hold band-aids, gauze, finger cots, etc. on your hands while working. It's pretty good for fixing other stuff too.

~ While we're on the topic, you will bloody your hands and fingers on a regular basis. The upside to this is that combining wounds with citrus juice is better than a cup of coffee for keeping you awake and alert during your shift.

~ If you serve wine, carry a wine key with you. If you serve bottled beer, carry a bottle opener with you. If there's anything you use on a semi-regular basis, keep it in your pocket if possible. Don't assume whatever you need will be conveniently lying nearby when you need it. People and things move around rapidly behind a bar, and stuff disappears in a heartbeat.

~ People leave their credit cards behind with startling frequency.

~ Get to know other bartenders, especially ones who have been at it longer than you have. Talk to them whenever possible. You'll learn things.

~ Use your head when it comes to your feet. When bartending, you will be standing/walking almost the entire duration of your shift. Also, bar floors are covered with liquid, food, bits of broken glass, etc. Ideally, you want footwear that has a good combination of comfort, durability, and traction.

~ Sometimes doing or not doing a very small thing can make someone's else job a whole lot easier. (this applies to many jobs, but reaps immediate, tangible rewards in a bar or restaurant).

~ Be able (and willing) to make mocktails. When you spend a lot of time in a bar it's easy to forget that not everybody drinks.

~ When in doubt, Jameson's.