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Long before the trend of the mixologist, there were just bartenders. I was a bartender.
This Happened to Me
Long before the trend of the mixologist, there were just bartenders. I was a bartender.
With the foodie explosion over the past 20 years, the long-respected profession of the bartender is inching its way towards extinction. They’ve been usurped by the upstarts known as “mixologists.”
If you believe what you read on the internet:
Will study and attempt to contribute to the evolution of bartending, and many will attempt to make a name for themselves in cocktail literature. They can often be a cocktail historian and revolutionary rolled into one. Many mixologists take on consulting jobs, work with distilled spirit companies, and become product ambassadors.
A few may even work behind a bar regularly.
Many will have a handlebar mustache (not really).
Needs to have an internal database of common and popular cocktails, serve many people at once, handle the cash and bar stock, keep people under control. Still, mostly they must think and react quickly and be a “people person” …at least in public (privately, they can be a little introverted.)
“The title of ‘bartender’ conjures up images of men and women who can whip out 20 mixed drinks and 50 draws of beer before anyone knows what happened. They are a talented and personable multi-tasking group that can do all of that while keeping a crowded bar happy, lively, and tipping.”
Of the two, somehow a bartender is considered a lower-grade/lower-class trade, not quite as dignified, refined, or cultured as the “mixologist.”
That’s a load of shit, I say.
When I tended bar, I had one rule, to make people feel comfortable. The booze helps, but people can get that anywhere. What keeps them coming back is the personality and the comfort.
As long as a Mr. Bostons was around, I could make any drink. And if I couldn’t? I would suggest a good old-fashioned boilermaker — that’ll never steer you wrong.
How does the difference between mixologist and bartender play out in real life?
Allow me to illustrate.
A few years ago, I was living in Brooklyn and was invited to a BBQ at some guys’ place. I didn’t know the guy and I tangentially knew his girlfriend. What I did know was that his parents bought him a whole brownstone in a trendy part of Brooklyn (marinate on that for a moment.)
I also knew that he worked as some sort of food and beverage guy for a restaurant conglomerate in NYC.
As for me, I was living in a railroad apartment in the slowly gentrifying Greenpoint, Brooklyn. This being New York and all, I was living paycheck to paycheck as a white-collar cube dweller.
Still reeling from a recent break-up, I thought it would be an environment to dip my toe back into solo-socializing. And since I had worked in food service before, I figured, at the very least, I’d be among like-minded people.
We were all asked to bring something to the BBQ. I tapped into my modest mid-western, middle-class roots and made a simple pasta salad (in Tupperware, obviously.) En route to the BBQ, I stopped to pick up a six-pack of Rolling Rock.
From my vantage point, two integral parts of any BBQ.
Even after ten years in NYC, I was still naive about the caste system.
Once I got to this guy's brownstone, his girlfriend met me at the door. She gave me a puzzled look as she took the beer and pasta salad but thanked me and kissed me on the cheek anyway.
Then, like a millennial herald, she took me to the backyard and introduced me.
It being the middle of July and hot, I was in unwashed, weathered cut off brown corduroy shorts, a very weathered Jack Daniels t-shirt I got at a thrift store, and beyond reparable white hi-top Chuck Taylor’s. This was a BBQ, and in my head, that’s a chill event. I didn’t think to dress-up or wear my trendier linen clothes.
As I awkwardly stood there surveying the situation, I took note of the gender imbalance, eight women to three men. And everyone was dressed much hipper and way nicer than I was. Pulling from my Rolling Rock, I wish I had at least worn a collared shirt.
Shrugging my shoulders, I decided to make the best of it, which meant drinking two beers in rapid succession. As I circulated, I quickly realized these were not just restaurant workers but hardcore foodies. They also seemed to be subordinates of the host.
I began feeling a bit of embarassment about my paltry pasta salad. I also was cursing myself for not taking a Xanax ahead of time.
[Fun Fact: You’re not truly a New Yorker until you have a prescription for an anti-anxiety drug.]
After a round of “how do you do’s” with the women, I gravitated to the one other guy I saw sitting at a side table rolling his own cigarette.
Of course, he was rolling his own cigarette.
I sighed and meandered over, pulled out an American Spirit, and lit it upon arrival. This guy's ocular assessment did little to hide his disdain of my tobacco choice. Nonetheless, we nodded at each other.
Once he lit up his self-rolled ciggie, he was all too quick to tell me that he met the host at Cornell.
Of course, they both went to Cornell.
I nodded and was feigning interest but mostly hoping he wouldn’t ask me where I went to school. I was still a bit bashful about admitting that I had just finished my bachelor’s degree a month before from The New School (about 14 years off the scheduled societal norm.) Diverting any further scholarly discussion, I asked him what he did for a living. With no sense of irony, he said he was a “writer.”
Of course, he was a writer.
But alas, I thought I had found some common ground. As a playwright myself and having a couple of one-act plays published, and many more produced, under my belt, I asked where he had published. He said he hadn’t yet and that he was working on a novel.
I was beginning to think that I had stepped into Dante’s lost circle of hell.
The Rolling Rock was buttressing my ability to stomach the degree of pretension I was encountering. Under normal circumstances, this degree of pretension would’ve had me breaking out in hives and in need of an Epi-pen to quell anaphylactic shock.
As I was sitting there, listening to this dude prattle on about his novel, I knew this BBQ was going to take three things.
I would have to shift from “Playwright Keith” to the old “Bartender Keith.” The former was a bit reserved and introverted, and my natural state. The latter was a bit more affable and chatty and required effort.
“Bartender Keith” had been dormant for years and would need much more lubrication to awaken.
I would need a considerable amount of restraint.
As anyone who has had a drink or two too many, you’ll know that #2 and #3 are not known to work well together.
After the awkward small talk with my new writer friend, and another beer, the host emerged with a silver tray (sterling, I presumed) of some type of bronchial phlegm-colored aperitif with the consistency of Jell-O. In fact, I wasn’t entirely convinced it wasn’t phlegm.
I was silently hoping this guy wasn’t some sort of hipster Jim Jones and that this aperitif didn’t have cyanide.
As he walked around, he promised that this phlegm-like substance would “cleanse the palate” before dinner. His foodie sycophants and minions snatched it off the tray as if this guy was delivering the blood of Christ.
When he made it my way, my new writer friend snatched one while I pointed to my Rolling Rock and said: “I’m good, thanks.”
He gave me a fake smile and wandered back into the kitchen.
It was right around this time that my new friend puffed his chest a little and informed me that our host was a bona fide “mixologist.” My new friend was obviously proxy flexing and appeared put out that I was nonplussed.
At that moment, I was thinking about how when it came to Brooklyn douchebaggery, the host had scored the hattrick:
His parents bought him an entire brownstone.
He went to Cornell. In and of itself, not douchey, but coupled with everything I was encountering …I couldn’t ignore it.
He was a “bona fide mixologist.”
Eventually, the host emerged from his kitchen, and we all made our way to the picnic table, which was surprisingly bougie given the pretense and environment.
On one end was the “mixologist” and our writer friend and on the other was me. And between us, the eight women. By NYC standards, this would qualify as social gender parity.
Being about four beers in at this point, I decided to try and make the best of an increasingly awkward situation. Digging deep, “Bartender Keith” emerged and began chatting with the woman in front of me. A really nice woman …who had been recruited by the FBI at law school (Harvard, naturally). And she was tight with the woman to my left, who was getting her MA at the Sorbonne in France.
Even “Bartender Keith” couldn’t relate to these women.
And then things turned a corner. Not for the better.
Somewhere in the middle of the duck salad, I heard the name Courtney Love come from the other end of the table. She was in the news for some horrid behavior or legal issue and my ears perked up.
My new writer “friend” was extolling the virtues of her “talent.”
“This aggression will not stand Dude!”
— Walter Sobcheck
Considering myself a pseudo scholar of 1990’s music, and marginally lubricated at this point, I chimed in: “Oh, I think you may be wrongly interpreting the definition of the word talent.”
It wouldn’t have seemed inappropriate to include “old chap” and it took great restraint not to.
My Ivy League-educated writer friend stood his ground and said that it was I who was mistaken: “That’s unfair. She wrote some of the best songs of that decade.”
I looked around as the “mixologist” host, and his orgy of foodie sycophants all nodded in agreement.
Fueled by Rolling Rock, hubris, and genetics, my Irish shot up and I went in for the kill: “Interesting. Exactly which songs of hers are great? The ones Trent Reznor wrote when she was screwing him? Or the ones that Billy Corgan wrote when she was fucking him? Or was it the ones that Kurt Cobain wrote when she was married to him? Her success is directly tied to any one of those artists …and savvy marketing. Period.”
I pulled from my Rolling Rock for emphasis, and my author friend stated: “Well, she must have contributed something to those songs and her albums for them to be so successful.”
My Irish was now in full bloom: “This is the music industry. Talent is often secondary to marketability. She is,” and here I pointed the neck of my beer bottle in his direction, “a music marketing department's wet dream. Courtney Love is a hack. A toxic, opportunistic, no-talent c*nt.”
Ooops. I looked around the table to find some solidarity. All I saw were blank stares. The girl getting her MA from The Sorbonne at least had a smirk. You could have heard a pin drop on the grass.
After what felt like an eternity, the FBI recruit said: “Well, that’s a little harsh.” Another said: “You could’ve maybe used a different word.”
I dug my heels in and replied, “Maybe, but some people are c*nts, and she’s one of ‘em.” So much for “Bartender Keith.”
Fortunately, this was the end of the meal, and like a scene out of The Handmaids Tale, the women began clearing the table.
Before the food? I was just the outsider.
Now? I was the pariah.
As the women continued clearing, I got up and walked off to the side of the yard to smoke. What else could I do?
My new writer friend and “mixologist” host made their way over. If I knew one thing about snooty elitists, I was sure their mission wasn’t about building any male solidarity.
The snark was too obvious as my writer friend asked what my plays were about. Pulling out an old “Bartender Keith” skill, I deflected over to them.
Since I knew they both went to Cornell, I asked the “mixologist” if he had studied hotel and restaurant management there. Cornell has one of the most prestigious hotel and restaurant programs in the world.
They both chortled. The “mixologist” replied, “Uhh, noooo. They weren’t very highly regarded on campus.”
“Interesting,” I said. “And yet here you are doing that type of work. Funny the way life works, huh?”
“It’s a little different. I’m a mixologist,” he emphasized that word for some reason.
My sarcasm was hard to hide: “Ah, yes. I see. For a big restaurant conglomerate. Yea, that’s different for sure.”
The three of us stood watching the women clear the table. It was one of the strangest two minutes I’d encountered up to that point; which was saying something.
I was beginning to think that they had never been this close to a middle-class person. That I was like some sort of societal petting zoo for them. Then the host shifted gears and began extolling the work of Italian film director Michelangelo Antonioni.
The degree of pretension had been ratcheted up. I tasted a little bile creep up in my throat as my bladder began to scream. I asked where the bathroom was and excused myself.
By the time I returned, the “mixologist” host was drawing names to see who would be chosen to go down to his wine cellar and help choose the after-dinner wine. This was somehow a privilege.
One of his cute young foodie acolytes was the “winner.”
I smirked as I saw this evening as some kind of mash-up between The Stepford Wives and The Wicker Man. I had to get out of there before this turned into some kind of Eyes Wide Shut scenario.
Considering it would be rude to run away screaming swear words, I lit another cigarette and decided to stay for one glass of the after-dinner wine. I had a sneaking suspicion the wine would be good …and expensive. But my taste buds weren’t trained so it could’ve been two-buck-Chuck for all I knew.
The host and his minion emerged surprisingly quickly. I tuned out as the host began his preamble about the wines origins as his minion opened the two bottles of wine.
By the time I had gotten a glass of wine, I had sufficiently surveyed the perimeter and found the closest point of egress. I threw back the glass of wine. I’m certain that if anyone saw me, they would’ve been horrified that I would throw back a wine of this stature like a shot of rail whiskey.
I set the wine glass down and made a beeline for the exit, stopping only briefly to thank the “mixologist” host and his girlfriend—a flaccid handshake from him and a fake kiss on the cheek from her.
He said: “We should get together sometime.”
I felt like I held my reply a beat too long: “Yea. Sure. I’d like that.”
“Great. We’ll be in touch.”
We all knew that was a lie.
I walked to the subway, realizing that the restaurant business had changed. If it were now populated with people like that when I was working in it, I never would’ve made it. Back when I was a bartender, a BBQ would’ve been Brat’s, beer, and bongs with zero pretenses. Oh, how times had changed.
[Fun Fact: One month later, I would encounter a Brat’s, beer, and bongs with zero pretense at rooftop BBQ in Manhattan. My hope in humanity returned.]
Just across the street from the Franklin Ave. subway entrance, there was a nondescript bar. I decided to duck in for a boilermaker. The place was pretty empty. A tattooed, tank-top-wearing female bartender in torn jeans walked towards me smiling: “Hey. What’s up?”
“Get you something?”
I looked at the taps: “Yea, a pint of Harp and a shot of Bushmill, please.”
I smiled: “Nah. Just awkward.”
“Got ya,” she replied as she placed two shot glasses in front of me and then sauntered off to draw my pint.
We smiled at each other as she brought me my pint and the bottle of Bushmill.
She set the pint down in front of me and pointed to the shot glasses: “I get off in a few minutes, you mind if I join you for the shot?”
“Nope, not at all.”
We held up shot glasses to each other just as “Dog Parts” by Hole played on the jukebox.
The bartender held up her index finger to stop me: “Hold on. I fucking hate Courtney Love. I gotta change this song.”
I smiled wide, feeling comfortable, at home.