The Bartender’s Handshake in the USA
The bartender’s handshake may be more exciting to barflies than to bartenders themselves, but it offers a glimpse of the soon-to-be hot spirits in bars everywhere. Jack Lauterback explores this year’s popular bartender serves.
Long nights melting into early mornings. Dealing with less than polite customers. The ice machine breaking, again. These are but a few of the situations that are universal to bartenders everywhere. Call it the shared language of a profession. So when one of your brethren walks into your establishment, you relate to them and you want to make them feel special because – let’s be honest – they’re not a regular customer. They’re one of you.
This is where the much-vaunted “bartender’s handshake” comes in. A shot slipped knowingly to a fellow bartender. Again, a common language, a ritual between people of the same tribe. But what do you give one another to drink? What’s in right now? I canvassed bartenders and bar owners in my hometown of Richmond, Virginia to find out their go-to bartender’s handshake.
Bartender’s Handshake: Bitter is (Still) Better
“Fernet, Cynar, or Braulio” says The Rogue Gentlemen owner John Maher. “Always an amaro.” Fernet Branca is no doubt the godfather of the bartender’s handshake. Perhaps because of its intensity, it’s something that a less discerning palate, or a non-bartender, would be less likely to enjoy.
Other craft bartenders I asked – and I use the term “craft” advisedly – agreed. Venna Hem, bar manager at Weezie’s Kitchen, says he goes with a “50/50 cynar/mezcal or rye/cynar,” the latter is commonly referred to as a Rynar.
“Fernet is the way to go,” says Kristel Poole, General Manager at Graffiato. “Or any good 50/50’s like Rynars or Ferraris.” A Ferrari, which is half Fernet and half Campari, was another popular answer. And speaking of bitter, I also had one person mention Chicago mainstay, Malört, which is unfortunately – or perhaps I should say fortunately – not available in Virginia.
High Volume vs. High Class
On the flipside of the bartender coin, those who worked more in high volume establishments had very different answers to my question. Now, it’s not easy to explain the difference between a craft cocktail bar and a high volume bar, because it’s quite possible to be both. When it comes down to it, it’s often the little differences: a high volume place generally doesn’t have fancy ice cubes. It has more people in t-shirts. It probably serves Bud Light. Those are vast generalizations, but for the most part in Virginia, it’s true. And if my unscientific research proves anything, it’s that high volume bartenders are not taking shots of bitters.
“It has to be Jameson,” says bartender Hunter Catlett. “Even if not the first choice, it is in almost every bartenders go-to top three.”
“Jameson or Espolon [tequila]” says spirits rep Elizabeth Bullock.
“Seems like the go-to is a shot of rail bourbon or Espolon with no training wheels,” says bartender Jennie Garriques.
Rumple Minze, the 100-proof (50% ABV) peppermint schnapps, was also a very popular answer, because apparently a lot of my bartender friends have a death wish. Also, surprisingly, Tuaca made the list. Personally, I haven’t had a shot of the sweet brandy liqueur since 2005.
There were also a lot of smart-ass answers to my poll, because – let’s face it – what bartender has ever been known to give a straight answer?
“No handshakes. People are too nasty,” says bartender David Bolton. “Also I hate waiting on bartenders,” he says. “For the exact same reason people say doctors make the worst patients.” McCormack’s owner William McCormack agrees. “No handshake necessary,” he says. “Touchy mofos.”
And my favorite answer came from legendary Richmond bartender Beau Butler. “I give you nothing,” he says. “You order it, you pay for it.” Can you even be a bartender if you’re not a bit of an asshole? In Richmond, the answer is definitely no.
When in Rome…
So clearly there is no universal bartender’s handshake, and really there never was. I think most barkeeps, myself included, are just happy to be acknowledged by another bartender. To have that connection with an equal. If they want to give me a shot of bitters or tequila or whatever, I will gladly – OK, maybe not that gladly – gulp it right down.
Longtime Richmond bartender Dane Acton summed up the question of the bartender’s handshake well when he told me, “Every person has their own poison.”
“A good barkeep will know what you drink when you walk in,” he says. “If they like you, they’ll have it in hand as they greet you.”
Sounds good to me, but can we maybe hold the tequila until later? Thanks.