Back to Basics at Tales of the Cocktail

In our July issue, contributing editor Jack Robertiello talked to bar pros to discuss the professionality of bartenders here in the U.S., and one major theme throughout the article focused on the fact that while the craft of the cocktail has elevated to never-before-seen levels, the craft of bartending has decreased exponentially, with bartenders more focused on being mixologists and developing their own bitters, tonics and tinctures rather than catering to the guest. This theme prevailed during Tales of the Cocktail. But how should bartenders get back to the basics of bartending? Having fun, of course. And what better place to learn that lesson than in New Orleans?

As could be expected, the overriding theme of everything at Tales seems to be having fun — from amazing parties in the evening like the Beefeater Gin Welcome Party at the Contemporary Arts Center and the William Grant & Sons party at the Elms Mansion to the inspired drinks developed by bartenders for a quick competition in Kathy Casey's "Creative Cocktails and the Power of Brainstorming" session. (A personal favorite: the Crushed Lohan, inspired by the life of recently jailed Lindsay Lohan: She started out fresh like blackberries, sweet like simple syrup, but then she had too much gin and got wild like hibiscus. After that, she got a breathalyzer and tried to cover up with mint, claiming she'd had only tonic. Then she got beaten by the law, and now she's "shaken" in jail.)

But the sessions really focused on how bartenders themselves need to have fun in order to create a successful business behind the bar. In the "Liquid Disc Jockey - Controlling the Flow of Any Room" session, part of the Pro Series on Wednesday, moderator Tobin Ellis and panelists John Hogan (both of BarMagic LV), Aisha Sharpe of Contemporary Cocktails and Angela Laino of The Florida Room discussed how to create a truly great vibe within your bar, starting with the Five Promises of All Great Parties (the sell, the scene, the vibe, the nod and the morning after effect) and extending to the Four Realities of All Great Parties (the fill, the build, the opa and the buzz). Basically, you've got to develop expectations (the sell), set the scene (the way the place and people look), create the vibe (music, lighting, etc.), give the nod to the bartender (they've got to be the ones to create the bar experience) and be talked about the morning after ("Nobody the next day says, 'Yeah, I went to this pretty good bar last night and had a decent time,'" Ellis said. Creating the ability to be talked about the next morning begins and ends with the bartender, he said, which is critical to a bar's overall success.). But in order to fulfill those promises, you've got to understand the realities. And this all depends on the bartender having fun!

To fill the bar, Sharpe said, it's up to the bartenders. Nowadays, often bartenders are "complaining to management that it's slow. Well, do something about it," she said, suggesting using Facebook and texts to bring in your friends and their friends too. Also, to fill the bar, you've really got to create a space that people want to be in. Laino said she works with a lot of people who don't really get into their shift until around midnight, once the party's going — but that party could start earlier, if the bartenders just allowed themselves to have some fun.

A few tips for creating the build — make the interaction with guests natural, look into your guests' eyes and see where you're needed, protect your guests and, as Laino says, "Be who you are, unless you suck, then be somebody else." Straightforward, but true!

And to get people to drink (the opa, Ellis called it), know how to have fun with and work the guests, from engaging a solo guest partway through their first drink to having a DJ who understands when to play an "off" song to get guests off the dance floor and up to the bar. But be careful to maintain that energy — the buzz — throughout the night, especially knowing when to cut people off in a way that doesn't embarrass them. "Great bartenders cut people off in a way that people thank you for it at that time," Ellis says, which includes telling them in a quiet enough voice that no one else can hear.

In the "Bartending Fun-damentals" seminar Thursday, Tanqueray Gin ambassador Angus Winchester and 42BELOW Vodka ambassador Jacob Briars covered everything from developing fun drink names (such as Honey I'm Gay, which is honey liqueur and Mount Gay Rum, or the Sage Against the Machine) to creating cocktails best suited for groups, to instill a fun atmosphere at the bar. But foremost, they said, bartenders need to stop taking themselves so seriously, starting with the removal of the armbands, curly mustaches and the name "mixologist."

And the key to a bartender's success behind the bar, Winchester said: Remember that guests don't come to your bar to get drunk — they can do that at home. They're there for the experience, which the bartender is in charge of creating. While hand-crafted cocktails and the latest in spirits help create the experience, it's the bartender's personality that can brighten any person's day, connect two separate groups in a rousing toast and, most importantly, keep them coming back for more.

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