I am not a good bartender. I’ve told people this before plenty of times. I am impatient. I am absentminded. I am opinionated, but only about things that nobody else cares about. When I don’t want to talk to a person, it’s written all over my face. I am not a good bartender. I am however, a good mixologist. And those people that I really do want to talk to might be led to believe that I am a good bartender because I will talk to them for hours on end. I’m an event planner, blogger, designer, mixologist, or teacher… but not really a bartender.
A good bartender must do two things: Get the drink right & be able to talk to the guest.
Getting the drink right
This is the part that terrifies many new bartenders, but I do believe that it is the easier of the two. Getting the drink right is something that you can learn with practice and with good communication with your customer. Martinis may be a scary mountain to climb, but at least you know how to climb. You also don’t have to be a mixologist to make great drinks. Simply knowing the very basics along with your bars signature drinks will make you more than adequate as a bartender. The endless stream of classic cocktails and modern classics and latest ‘hot on the scene’ drinks can easily be deciphered via google, customers, or fellow bartenders and that ever-steady mistress: time. No flash cards will ever teach you a drink the way experience will, and that’s a guarantee.
From my own experience, I can create a delicious, exciting drink in front of you for the first time ever, perfect for your personality and your taste… That is, if I’m feeling creative today and I like you enough to actually make a new drink instead of a flavored mojito. My co-worker Mariah can re-create that cocktail for you with ease, and she will do it with a smile on her face and a sassy retort on the tip of her tongue. This is where the second half of bartending comes in…
Talking to Guests
This is where a bartender truly succeeds (or fails) in my opinion. The greatest mixologist on earth will find no place behind the bar if you cannot talk to customers. Now this is a skill that I have somewhat taught myself, though it is by no means a natural quality of mine. If you are uncomfortable talking to strangers… well, don’t despair, but also consider whether it’s truly important to you to be in this particular profession. When guests come in to your building, they are looking for something. They are looking for an experience; they want to be the guest and they want you to be “THE BARTENDER”. You have to be drink maker, friend, adviser, therapist, and entertainer all in one. Some guests want to be left completely alone, some want to be drawn out of their shells, and some want to be your personal best friend for the next two hours. A truly good bartender will be able to balance all of these people, making them feel welcome and fulfilled by their experience. They can deliver on customer expectations. I have seen great bartenders in dive bars, slinging beers and vodka red bulls all night. I have seen great bartenders restaurant bars, not realizing their potential as a human ambassador*. I have seen great bartenders who have dedicated their lives to the craft, working in high end bars and restaurants. Great bartenders can be found in all walks of life, in all classes of bar. They stand behind the bar, but walk through peoples lives. They provide a home for those who seek it. They are the kind of person who can make a lasting friendship, just through their job. How many other professions can make people feel the way a truly good bartender does? We are the therapists for those that need a different kind of therapy. We are the friends to those who need a different kind of friend. A really, really good bartender changes lives every day.
I used to look down on those who decided to dedicate their lives to the service industry, thinking that they had settled. I used to believe that it was my career and my degree that made me more hopeful, more happy and more fruitful than those poor souls who got trapped in their restaurants and bars. I was wrong. Later, I believed that I was superior because someday I would be a mixologist and a bar owner and a creator who never stopped learning… someone who worked in higher end places, making more money and generally being more sophisticated. I was wrong then too. Now… sometimes I still feel pity or sorrow for those people that I fear are trapped in a job that they never wanted, for reasons they will not tell me, but I try not to feel those things. There are skills required to be a great dive bar bartender that I will never have, and those people that do have them deserve our respect and admiration. What bartenders do is not easy and it can truly be a source of happiness and satisfaction… a satisfaction that cannot be guaranteed by any degree or acclimation.
*human ambassador: someone who is able to reach out to people from all walks of life, who are vastly different than themselves and make a connection within a relatively quick time period. They are ambassadors on behalf of the human race.