Steve Schneider: Reborn in a Bar

To say Steve Schneider is a positive and humble man who loves his life is painfully inadequate. He has won bartending competitions all over the globe, traveled to 40 countries in just 4 years to talk about his experiences behind the stick, judged bartending competitions and even helped to design Bacardi’s new bottles. He’s also the winner of the 2015 Nightclub & Bar Bartender of the Year Award. Steve is the very definition of grateful. At one point while speaking with him he told us that his first instinct was to return the award, as he felt it belonged to his staff just as much as it did to him.

He also lives in the moment:

“You know, I’m outside in Austin and it’s raining. I’m standing under a tree and I don’t even care. It’s amazing!” he exclaimed during the phone interview for this article.

Steve is a man who is excited about life, and with good reason. His journey to bar manager at Employees Only in New York City, the 2011 winner of the World’s Best Cocktail Bar award at the Tales of the Cocktail festival, was not an easy one.

Steve joined the US Marine Corps after the horrific attacks on American soil on September 11. He scored very well on the ASVAB and had his pick of careers in the Marines. He could have entered the nuclear program but, after taking note of the temperature of the time (well over 100 degrees) and the gear he’d have to wear, he opted for intel. Steve made the rank of Lance Corporal in just 6 months. For the uninitiated, that accomplishment normally takes 2 years. A promising military career liberally peppered with awards and high ranks seemed all but guaranteed.

Obviously, his story took an unexpected twist: Steve died in a bar.

While visiting his hometown in New Jersey, an economically depressed area, things turned ugly inside a local bar. They turned even uglier just down the street from the bar in a dark alley. The details of what happened are unknown to even Steve – likely a good thing at this point – but he does know one thing. Hospital staff told his parents to make funeral arrangements.

There are three metal plates in Steve’s head. A distinct series of scars trace his hairline and frame the upper portion of his face. His blessed military career was cut short and Steve, a man on his way to the upper echelons of the USMC, was given a menial job while going through physical and mental rehabilitation. He could have let this demeaning situation define him, and who among us would have blamed him?

Instead, Steve landed a job as a bartender in Washington, DC.

“I can’t prove it but I think [being behind the bar] fixed my cognitive problems,” Steve says.

Steve tended bar at the dive and gave himself a new mission. The first part of his mission was to memorize the 13 beers available on tap. Second, Steve got his hands on cocktail and shot recipes and memorized those as well. As the above quote states, he credits memorizing the taps and recipes with helping him to repair and regain his cognitive abilities. With the recipes locked and loaded, Steve proceeded with the third part of his mission: speed.

Steve is fast. Superhero fast.

Aside from winning several speed bartending competitions, Steve had a legendary moment at Tales of the Cocktail in 2012 when he entered the first ever Rematch Beeyatch speed competition. Rematch Beeyatch is Fight Club for bartenders, except they talk about it. Competitors put up $100. They attempt to make the same 10 (ten!) tiki drinks as fast as possible. Penalties are incurred for bad tasting drinks, ice chips in a balanced daiquiri, use of incorrect ingredients, etc. Winner take all. Steve finished in 81 seconds and the crowd lost their damn minds. Watch the documentary Hey Bartender on Netflix and you’ll get to watch his record-shattering feat and hear the thunderous reaction that erupted from the crowd.

It was Steve’s speed that put him on the path to that incredible moment at Tales. He had been winning speed competitions earlier in his bartending career, which captured the attention of John Hogan, formerly of Bar Magic, Las Vegas. John recruited Steve and mentored him on technique: the basics of proper cocktails, infusions, proper free pouring… the list goes on. From there, Steve met the masterminds behind Employees Only (EO): Igor Hadzismajlovic, Jason Kosmas and Dushan Zaric. Steve scored an Apprenticeship at EO, a program that can span more than 2 years and may or may not, depending on an apprentice’s ability to learn and perform, lead to a principal bartender position. In case you haven’t figured it out, Steve performed very well and continues to do so: he’s now EO’s bar manager.

When I used the word “mixologist” while speaking with Steve I felt like I could actually hear him cringe. While he doesn’t hate the word, he prefers to think of himself as a freeform, “no bs” bartender. He’s going to make you something amazing, he’s going to make it for you in an impressive show of speed, technique and attention to detail and he’s going to do it with a minimal use of tools.

“A pour spot, a mixing glass, a shaker tin and a strainer. You give me that and I can make anything,” Steve told me. “The desire to make a good drink for somebody, that’s my best tool.”

When I asked him for advice for bartenders, I expected the standard. To be honest, I should have known better. This is a man who is so in love with what he does, who is so humbled that “people want to hear me talk about what I consider routine,” and so grateful to be alive that he seems to be living every moment with a grin on his face, so I should have expected next level advice. Yes, of course he recommends finding mentors and putting in the time to be your best. But there’s also all of this:

“Never waiver. Refuse to be bad at what you do. Carry yourself like a champ without being cocky. You can learn drinks in a day – mastering the intangibles takes years. Look someone in their eyes and put yourself in their shoes. Learn about other people and relate to them. I consider myself somebody that acts based on what their guests want; I try to over-deliver on their expectations. Know what you want from this career.”

Steve Schneider is truly a superhero bartender. He’s part of a team of highly talented, amazing individuals who, when working together, cannot be defeated. He wields a ridiculously huge hammer. Oh…and he died and was reborn stronger, faster and better.

You can listen to Steve on his podcast, the suitably named Steve Schneider Show.

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