Bartending is a dark art. Not for us sunshine and genteel tea parties but dark shimmering dens, intoxication and the bad behaviour that follows it. Great bartenders are both masters of mixology but also managers of moods. A great bar is a temple to fine spirits and those that serve them are the high priests of inebriation. We are in a privileged position to be able to make or break someone’s evening and we often abuse this position, as we want.
Often seen as the refuge of the deranged, the succour of the desperate or the temporary home of the bored the profession of bartending attracts all sorts. But for many it is a mere pit stop on their way to a "proper job" (what bartenders call "civilians" or even "day walkers"). Those that become lifers are a strange and distinct breed. There is "something of the night" about bartenders as they dispense wisdom, whisky and it in equal measure to those who crave it.
In my own job I travel the world training bartenders how to do their job better and the "skills of the modern professional bartender". I drone on and on about knowledge, speed, style and etiquette being the key skills groups to all and anyone who will listen (or pay me the required fee). But deep down I know that the great bartenders are often strangely deficient in these groups. But it’s their personality that makes them memorable or famous. It is not the ability to make a good drink but rather make you feel good about your drink.
Ask a day walker about famous chefs and they will quickly reel off four or five names but ask them about famous bartenders and their eyes will take on the same glazed look that normally only a few shots of tequila helps bring about. Bartenders can be like doctors prescribing the drugs they use or like a mere dealer selling them to those who have the need and the cash. But there are greats and those that have had the pleasure to be served by them relish their perfect imperfections.
Audrey Saunders at the Pegu in New York is at the cutting edge of mixology and yet has a distinctly Victorian schoolma’am-ish appearance and demeanour. Just down the road Dale DeGroff looks like a cross between Tony Bennet and Martin Scorsese and after a few snifters starts looking for a piano to croon along to.
In London are best bartenders are similarly quirky and distinct. Tony Conigliaro at Sochu is talented beyond belief and as passionate as a cocktail casanova but as dry as a good martini. Dick Bradsell has the same haughtiness that Malcolm MacLaren displays and a penchant for a nice frock but mixes sublime drinks while Giles Looker’s boyish charm and looks are as hypnotic and inebriating as the drinks he serves.
A bad bartender relies on the amount of alcohol they serve and is as a result infinitely forgettable. A great bartender serves a cocktail of great booze, fine company and education of a sort – and is thus as memorable as a great teacher. They are as spirited as the products they sell.
by Angus Winchester
published in Mixology 6/2008
About the author:
Angus Winchester, bartender, spirits and bar expert with over 20 years working experience in the bar industry, is founder of the consultancy branches Alconomics and Alconomics Asia. He has been working internationally as trainer and consultant for the last ten years and serves as global brand ambassador for Tanqueray gin.