As more people choose the spirits industry as a career, where do the lines get drawn between having a good time and spinning out of control? And more importantly, how do we look after our own? Haley Forest asks the hard questions.
In the booze industry, there’s no denying we know how to drink. Shots are like a handshake, cocktails flow like water, and beer is an easy chaser when alcoholic liquids are your every day. The average person not in the industry looks in and thinks we’re either living the best life possible, or one beyond excess and it’s a miracle we’re still standing. To be honest, both statements are true. What a random punter experiences on the weekend or a night out, for us is our jobs, our every day – at least to some extent. Yet, within this whirlwind of fun and booze, there are those that go too far; that can’t see the job for the party. It’s an impossibly difficult and complicated issue, one that is incredibly personal for everyone as each individual experiences alcohol – both with themselves and others – very differently. There is no one-size-fits-all answer here.
When we are constantly surrounded by alcohol and the environment of conviviality, where does the line get drawn? We all enjoy drinking. It’s part of what drew most of us in, at least initially, but as we get more serious about our careers and enter new phases of life, different levels of expectation become set, and finding that balance is crucial and delicate. At what point do we as an industry, as a group of friends, as a family start to actively worry, change, grow, and look after ourselves?
While every bar has its own unique culture, in regards to both the staff and guest experience with drinks, it is not uncommon to do shots together. It signifies a sense of camaraderie, of being in a special club and sharing something intimate. A few of these in an evening won’t raise too many questions, but at what point does it become excessive? Having a drink or several while working is often considered one of the perks of the business, but when a few become too many, the job itself can suffer.
“There was a time in my life when I would say Jägermeister was my blood type,” recalls Josh Lindley who now works at Shameful Tiki Room and The Harbord Room in Toronto. “7-10 shots throughout a shift never seemed like a big deal. Then after closing down you want to have a beer to relax, which sometimes leads to an after-hours party. While I like to party and get loaded as much as the next person, being drunk is supposed to be fun, and when you have to measure 10 ml pours and then fill, clean and label 36 bottles for your mis-en-place, being drunk is not fun. You can tell when someone else might have gotten a little juicy on the closing shift before you, and you curse them when you open the bar, and never want to be that person.”
While there are places in the world that drinking behind the bar is illegal, every market I’ve worked in has included nights of shots with colleagues (aka “Staff Meetings”) and customers alike. This is encouraged in some bars and banned in other, while some put in measures to keep this in check while working.
Sasha Petraske famously once said “Somebody who’s in his bar but doesn’t drink with his customers is an asshole. There needs to be a policy where people can drink, but not get drunk.” While I agree with this sentiment to a certain extent, the message often gets lost or misconstrued. The point isn’t to get drunk; the point is to be hospitable and have guests feel comfortable and not judged for consuming alcohol. Bartenders are the gatekeepers; there to help educate, guide, and make sure everyone is having a good time, ideally in a way that they won’t regret the next morning. When we are the ones who are beyond the line of rationale, when we are out of control, how can we be responsible for our guests and further our craft?
Tobin Ellis, who has spent the better part of 30 years behind the stick, never drinks while working. “It wasn’t a moral stance when I tended bar, it was – logical. Why would I put all this studying, training, effort, and passion into my trade and then dull my senses, slow my reaction times, and otherwise impair myself while I practiced my craft? You don’t see athletes hitting the sauce before hitting the field. The only reason I think I’m still alive is all those poor unsuspecting plants, the wonderful little wingmen they are, that I poured shots of Fernet into.”
For some bartenders, they view shots as a mark of hospitality and refusing them – regardless who it’s with – is a sign of disrespect and discourtesy. But at what point does it flip? Several years ago, I worked a guest shift where the bar manager wanted to show me a good time, offering shots regularly. After a few rounds, I declined, and after a several hours, he sat at the end of the bar and fell into a boozy nap. I was shocked, but the regulars told me this was normal, part of his charm and continued on. Where was the hospitality there both in regard to his guests and to me as a visiting bartender?
At the Dead Rabbit in New York, which won World’s Best Bar at the 2015 Spirited Awards at Tales of the Cocktail, the team are allowed to drink on shift – so long as its low proof and after midnight. “Your problem solving becoming skewed even after one drink,” says Dead Rabbit co-founder Jack McGarry. “We are very operationally driven and people get drawn to that. You can’t come into that type of arena and drink.”
Nights of Hospitality
The world of Brand Ambassadors looks to many like the ultimate dream job, but with it is a whole other set of expectations for consumption. At the end of the day, it is a marketing position, achieved through representation and influence which frequently translates as “hospitality.” Trainings, meetings and deals are a huge part of the role, but going out with a group of influential bartenders to a series of important accounts is equally crucial.
“On the ambassador side its almost implied that you will be drinking your product all the time,” says Rusty*, a former bartender turned regional brand ambassador. “Especially on market visits when you’ve got trainings and meetings. Then all the bartenders want you to visit them or if they’re off, they want to take you to all the bars. If you’ve got a conference call at 9am, it’s one of those reality checks where you realize you can’t keep doing it. But ultimately you just end up sleeping less and suffering more.”
I’ve been taken out by BA’s, had some truly sublime experiences through activations, and as a result I think fondly on the people – and the products – that provided them. That is the whole point of the BA program, though some feel that ambassadors only perpetuate a cycle that encourages casual excessiveness by giving them access to essentially free booze and a quest to make an impression. It’s a very hard line to walk creating business connections between trade and brand when entertainment is so highly valued.
“Some people look at what we do and how much we drink,” shares Rusty, “and some people aren’t just drinking because it’s their job, but because it’s become a habit, where they think ‘this is my life and this is how we do it,‘ which is scary.”
A while back, Rusty had to take a couple weeks off drinking due to a seizure, which doctors theorized might have been caused from excessive intake. He still went out to bars, but kept everything at zero ABV. While he was still able to do the job, when it was over his boss told him: “I just think you’re better when you’re drinking.” While these words were said as a friend, he had to think that’s kind of the problem with the brand ambassador role.
“I walked in Employees Only stone cold sober,” he recalls, “and the bartender started pulling out shots. When I told them I wasn’t drinking they actually asked why I was there. I said ‘I still love you guys, I’m not going to not visit just because I’m not drinking.’ He gave me a shot of water while everyone did a round.”
“I’m told I had a great time”
When we drink alcohol as regularly as we do, it is not uncommon to build up a tolerance, when the amount we consume on an average night would be staggering to a non-industry drinker and especially, our doctors. The mindset of Oh-I-can-handle-it becomes a badge of honor, showing our peers, friends, and even ourselves, that we are impressive. Everyone drinks for different reasons. Some to loosen up and come out of their shell, some really like the taste, some consider it part of the job. For some, it’s a case where drinking excessively has become part of what they consider their personality. That’s where things start to get a bit tricky.
Josh Harris of Trick Dog in San Francisco and the Bon Vivants, has been sober since well before he realized this was his career. “Drinking involves a lot of really bizarre logic,” he speculates. “There’s often a tactical marketing decision involved; a ‘I have to be drinking for my job’ mentality where you feel that your paycheck is tied into your drinking persona. You have your adult persona wrapped up in this and its hard for people to see who you are without it.“
“I prided myself on being able to ‘keep up with the boys’ and being this feisty, petite woman who could handle her booze,” recalls Jenny*, a former drinks writer in the UK. “I guess that was ‘my thing’ and being the girl who drinks, who goes hard or goes home, was definitely a big part of ‘my deal’. It pretty much defined me.”
When the booze industry goes out to play, it notoriously can be massive by anyones standards. Alex Straus, managing director of consulting group Cornerstone, knows how to party like the best of them. However after nearly 20 years in the industry, he’s started to pull back slightly. “My name is synonymous with ‘rageing’,” he says. “It’s hard to explain to my mother that there’s an Urban Dictionary entry about getting ‘Straused’. We’re responsibly guiding people drinking at our jobs and then we turn around and not take our own advice. We make sure people get home safe and then we go to our friends bars and they serve us after we’ve blacked out. It’s a matter of caring for our buddies and our selves. Don’t get me wrong, there are nights you will find me closing out a bar and it won’t be the brightest conversation; its about finding the rhythm and balance.”
How many times can a person black out before it becomes considered excessive? How excessive before it’s considered an addiction? We all know someone that crosses some of those lines, but it’s hard to have that conversation when you might be just a half step behind them. Everyone handles alcohol differently, so no one wants to judge, yet by not looking deeper at the issue, we’re doing everyone a disservice. We all obviously want each other to succeed, but the question is, how do you approach someone without alienating them? It may be that they are simply in a period of mindless self-indulgence but how long should that go on for, before it’s no longer a phase and becomes a problem?
Light Mirror Vs. Dark Mirror
The human brain loves to play tricks on itself, and when drinking alcohol becomes intrinsically linked to who you see yourself as a person – either professionally or personally, lines can get blurred. How does one pull back, for whatever reason, if you associate your core self with being drunk? This line of questioning can lead down an even scarier track which can create a self perpetuating cycle of uncomfortable questions and drinking to avoid them.
Jenny knows that spiral all too well: “I realised I’d spend the best part of my life self-medicating with alcohol. It’s probably fair to say that’s why I’d got involved with the industry in the first place. It was a natural progression, really. When I’m drunk, I don’t feel the pain of all the issues I’ve repressed for years and years. I’d created this persona, when deep down, I was quite unhappy and actually very lonely
In recent years, the industry has started to look at how the associated lifestyle affects us on a physical level. Yoga, nutrition, and bartender bootcamps are all topics of conversation, but this industry effects more then just our bodies. Brands, and bartenders to a certain extent, don’t want to talk about the issue of using alcohol as a method of avoiding mental heath. It’s a huge, scary, uncomfortable can of worms that could undermine everything we’ve strived so hard to build. I’m not saying that it’s universal – far from it – but it is an issue, especially in an age where we are constantly connected to social media and representing ourselves as always having a great time. This creates a sometimes false mirror, where no one is comfortable talking about underlying issues when they exist.
“There has to be a conversation about the mental health issues. Everyone is talking about the physical, but the mental is important,” implores Jack McGarry, who recently shared that he has been suffering from depression. “The industry attracts obsessive people and then with the alcoholic mind, it’s a dangerous combination. I was getting blackout drunk and loosing control. I’ve realized I’m an alcoholic and have recently started going to meetings. I still drink one or two a week, but I now have structure.”
A number of bartenders have spent time going to support meetings for alcoholics, sometime only as a way of checking in and seeing what resonates with them. Some choose to quit drinking altogether while others learn methods to keep a more balanced life. In recent years, we’ve seen the deaths of industry legends like Henry Besant, Gregor de Gruyther, and most recently Sasha Petraske, and while heart attacks, car accidents, and “sudden death” are listed on their death certificates, anyone who knew them also knew they lived life to its fullest and sometimes a little beyond. If these dead luminaries cannot serve as cautionary tales, then we aren’t paying attention.
Can I order a…
While alcohol plays a huge part in all our lives, it is something that we’re slowly looking at. Are there more alcoholics in this industry than others? That’s a hard one to say, as our standards are different than the non booze industry set. Is there a golden rule of how to not go too far? Probably not. Something that does raise a red flag is how much people don’t talk about it. While speaking to dozens of individuals from all aspects of this industry, I experienced many people who could only talk “off the record,” and several others who outright said that by asking these questions I put everyone’s livelihood in jeopardy. Brands and bars want us to only speak the gospel of responsible drinking, yet shy away at even mentioning that there are some people with problems.
So what happens now? The point of this is not to suggest we should stop drinking, but more to remember why we got into this business to start with, to reconnect with the level of professionalism it deserves, and gather the courage to realize when we take things too far. We are lucky: this industry is incredibly supportive and understanding, almost to it’s own detriment. So, if we can take the time to talk through what we’re doing, drinking, and feeling, I hope we’ll see bartenders live longer, more productive lives, taking the whole industry to the next level.
“The concern is always there,” says Rusty. “Thats why I always take some time off to prove that I can do it. I still go to bars. A lot of people don’t. But I like bars. I know I have a drinking problem, but it’s one of those things that’s part of what I do. If I stopped doing this job, I think I would drink less, but it would still be a big part of my life. My love for the bar is higher then my love for alcohol.”
*Editor’s note: names changed.
Bildquelle: Man on a Cliff via Shutterstock.