It’s a testament to our age that a whole lot of people, our president among them, think both that it’s a sick burn to call someone a bartender, and that to point out that a person did such work is to prove that he or she is disqualified to hold political office.
Of course, by “he or she” I mean “she,” and by “she” I mean the Congressperson for the 14th District of New York, Ms. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
The fact that her political opponents are trying to use Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s former occupation against her speaks volumes about their attitudes to the people who perform the services from which we weave the fabric of our daily lives.
But it also demonstrates how deeply unobservant they are. If they knew to look clearly at what happens around them, they’d know that bartender, like short-order cook, plumber and electrician, is one of those jobs that may not require an advanced degree, but does require an uncommon intelligence.
If that seems crazy to you, the next time you’re in a bar—and I mean a cocktail bar, where you can see the profession exercised at its full extent—spend a few minutes watching the bartender work and try to imagine how things would go if you were suddenly thrust in his or her place.
So there you are, standing behind the bar, and some guy in a Brooks Brothers shirt steps up and orders a round of drinks. Nothing weird, but not just shots and beers, either. Let’s call it, for the sake of argument, a Margarita—make that Tommy’s style—a Rittenhouse Rye Manhattan, a glass of white wine—nothing too oaky, though—a Penicillin, a pint of the IPA and…oh yeah, a Mai Tai.
Not so simple, is it? If you were on the customer side of the bar, you’d put the order in and fully expect to have it all lined up on the bar in front of you in not much more than five minutes. Behind the bar, a lot has to happen in those five or six minutes, and it has to happen accurately and in the right order.
Those six drinks require, by my count, ingredients from 16 different bottles—everything from rye whiskey and tequila to ginger, agave, and orgeat syrups—plus a tap for the beer. All of those will have to be precisely measured. There are four different garnishes on top of that, and three different styles of glass to put everything in. Three of the drinks require shaking with ice and one stirring, also with ice. One drink needs rocks in its glass, another crushed ice and a third a small block of ice.
You can’t turn these out in any old order, either, not if you want your customers to be happy and leave generous tips. If you pour the beer and the wine first to get them out of your way, they’ll sit around getting warm (and in the beer’s case flat), while you make the other drinks. If you do the cocktails first, they’ll get warm while you’re seeing to the beer and the wine.
Here’s what you have to do, more or less (every experienced bartender will have his or her own solution for this problem).
- Ask if the guest wants the Margarita with salt and the Manhattan with a cherry or a twist and if he’d prefer the Riesling or the pinot grigio.
- Fill a cocktail glass with ice and set it to chill.
- Rub a cut lime around the outside rim of an Old-Fashioned glass and roll the wet part in coarse salt.
- Measure out the lime juice for the Margarita into one shaker and for the Mai Tai into another one.
- Measure out the agave syrup and tequila for the Margarita into the proper shaker.
- Measure out the orgeat syrup, orange curaçao and two rums for the Mai Tai into the proper shaker.
- Measure out the lemon juice, ginger syrup and blended Scotch for the Penicillin into its own shaker.
- Measure out the vermouth, bitters and Rittenhouse Rye for the Manhattan into a mixing glass.
- Add ice to the Manhattan and stir it. Let it “cook” in the mixing glass.
- Add ice to the other three drinks and shake them.
- Fill the salt-rimmed glass with ice cubes and strain the Margarita into it.
- Fill another Old-Fashioned glass with cracked ice and strain the Mai Tai into it.
- Put a large ice block or ball into a third Old-Fashioned glass and strain the Penicillin into it.
- Pour the Riesling.
- Pour the ale.
- Strain the Manhattan into the chilled cocktail glass.
- Add a float of Laphroaig Single Malt Scotch to the Penicillin.
- Garnish the cocktails: a lime wheel for the Margarita, a piece of candied ginger for the Penicillin, a mint sprig and lime shell for the Mai Tai and a twist of lemon peel for the Manhattan.
- Deal out six cocktail napkins and put a drink on each.
Piece of cake, right?
Making a round of drinks is, essentially, a word problem, just like the ones that used to drive you crazy in tenth-grade math. “If Train A leaves the station at 11:13, and Train B…”—those things. Bartenders are presented with dozens of them a night, and they have to work them out on the spot, without benefit of time to think or paper on which to make calculations. As if that’s not enough, often a skilled bartender will work two or more such problems simultaneously, just to be efficient—if you’ve got drinks from different orders using the same bottle, why not weave ‘em together?
A good bartender has to be an on-the-fly systems engineer, able to hear an order and instantly diagram out a process that will quickly and efficiently result in the requested drinks all lined up on the bar and in peak condition. That requires a particular kind of intelligence. In computer terms, it needs a lot of RAM; of quick processing capacity.
But besides inborn quickness of mind, bartending requires a lot of study and preparation. The only way you can be sure you can engineer your drinks properly is if you’ve visualized what you’ll need during your shift and made sure it’s all in place: that your liquors are in stock, your tools are all present and accounted for, your juices are fresh, your twists cut, your ice ample.
Beyond that, you have to know what everything in those bottles is, because your customers will ask you. That means knowing the difference between génépi and genever; sotol and solera; brouillis and Brugal; Tullahoma, Tullamore and Tullibardine. More than that, you’ll need some basic knowledge of base materials (e.g., the different flavors rye and wheat bring to a bourbon), processes (how does a column still work?), regional cultures and a dozen other things. Top bartenders are always attending lectures, whether they’re on the traditions of Haitian rum, the history of the pot still, or the drinks of nineteenth-century Paris. If they’re not doing that, they’re reading books on whiskey or mezcal or mixology or practicing their wine-tasting.
Then there are the recipes. The best way to memorize the couple hundred that a good bartender must know is to do it analytically, rather than by rote. Most bartenders will organize the world of mixed drinks into various families, either standard ones or ones of their own, and then fit each new drink into a family based on common elements, even if that drink might be quite dissimilar to the eye. Thus you might find the Bloody Mary in the same category as the Gin Rickey, based on their common use of spirits, citrus and a lengthening agent (tomato juice for the Bloody, soda water for the Rickey).
But even if you master all this stuff; if you know your recipes, understand what’s in the bottles and engineer your rounds properly to get them out correctly and in time, Mr. Brooks Brothers still might not be happy with his order when it’s in front of him. Bartenders, of course, are expected to talk to their customers if their customers want to talk.
So if, while you were making his drinks, Mr. B. B. had asked you about the building going up across the street, told you about the Mai Tai he had once in Stockholm, or otherwise uttered whatever it was that was on his mind, you would be obligated to listen to him and make appropriate answers, even though that’s the equivalent of holding a conversation while working out a word problem. If he had turned his attention to another patron who was under no such obligation and made it clear that the attention was unwelcome, you would be obligated to divert his attention, diplomatically if possible.
If you put all these skills together, you end up with someone who has to be exceptionally quick-thinking, obsessively well-prepared, organized, curious, and diplomatic, but also decisive. Lawyers, who make up the vast majority of the House and the Senate, are trained to address a problem by fixing the liability for it; bartenders have to just fix it.
Given a choice of the training I’d want for my Representative, I’d say college, sure—most of the top bartenders I know have college degrees, although I know plenty of impressively knowledgeable ones who don’t—but then, given the choice between the Bar and the bar, I’ll take the one where they learn to fix things, not to fog them. Abraham Lincoln was a lawyer, but before that he was a bartender. I like to think that in him the better angel of his training prevailed.