Eric Hay a Chicago's Cocktail Impresario

In the Windy City, Eric Hay is the man to see about getting a really great drink. The fact is he likely trained the bartender who’d make the drink for you or had a hand in creating the cocktail menu from which you’d make your selection. As a veritable fixture in the city’s nightlife for the better part of two decades, Hay knows a lot of folks. He may not be the guy you see about rigging an election, but when it comes to getting well-made cocktails in Chicago, Hay is the man.

He’s also the guy you should see if you’re a beverage operator in need of adding some panache to your beverage menu or increasing the professionalism of your staff. You’ll need to call in advance though. Eric Hay is the Beverage Development Director for Wirtz Beverage Illinois, one of the premiere liquor, beer and wine distributorships in the Chicago market. In short, his job is to work with Wirtz’s clients, which essentially includes every on-premise operation in the greater Chicago area, and when asked, to help improve every aspect of their beverage operations, from enhancing their cocktail offerings to upgrading their staff training.

Apparently the response has been excellent. “Eric’s passion for the cocktail and spirits industry is unmatched,” says Drew Levinson, the man who pioneered the position of Beverage Development Director at Wirtz Beverage Nevada. “He’s the ‘go-to’ resource for the Chicago market and is transforming how beverage and cocktail programs in the city are developed. No one is more tapped into beverage trends and market opportunities than Eric. I guarantee that. That’s why accounts are lining up to work with him on their beverage programs.”

There’s a great deal one can learn about effective beverage management by following the steps Hay uses to help his clients roll-out their drink menus. Creating the cocktails is only the first step, and not necessarily the most important one either.

“The lynchpin of the strategy involves training the bar staff,” says Hay. “Typically time is devoted to shaking out the rust and helping them break bad habits in order to improve their speed and efficiency. I then move onto the proper techniques for making frequently ordered drinks to ensure consistency in the program. You don't want drinks to be inconsistent from hour to hour or day to day. I then proceed to work with them on the specialty drinks created just for their account. Upon request I also offer category training on spirits to really round out the experience.”

Training a bartending staff is anything but a straightforward proposition. People respond differently to continuing education. Some bartenders are open-minded and eager to learn new skills, while others resist change and react defensively when told their approach to drink making may not be the most effective. Beverage programs like the ones that Hay implements require the staff attain a high degree of proficiency.

According to Hay, the majority of people he works with are receptive to what he has to say and appreciative of the opportunity to advance their skill set. Then again, he occasionally has to deal with a bartender who makes it clear that in his estimation he requires no further training. While professionalism dictates that Hay maintains the high ground—which for the record he does—his internal dialogue belies his calm demeanor.

“I sometimes want look the guy in the eye and say, ‘Hey pal, you want to cool it with the attitude? You think this is a total waste of time because you’ve been a bartender for 10 years? Well, I’ve got news for you, if you did know all that I’m about to show you, I wouldn't be standing here right now because this drink program would be yours, you'd be running it successfully and I'd be reading about it in a some magazine. So buckle up pay attention, free education doesn’t come around often!’”

Hay believes that along with staff buy-in and proficiency, another significant success factor is having the operator actively participate in the roll out of the revamped beverage program.

“The reality is the industry is constantly changing, and in order to succeed and remain relevant, you need to be willing to change with the times,” contends Hay. “If you’re about to take your beverage program in a new direction, then you’ll also need to reevaluate your existing staff and identify those you think will embrace the transition with passion and enthusiasm. The hard reality is those bartenders who aren’t willing to adapt to the new program will need to be let go.”

Hay has learned over the years that not everyone is well suited to be a bartender. For some, bartending is a job, not a career. Even so, there’s no reason that you can’t be passionate about what you’re doing at that moment to make ends meet. And Hay insists that to be a truly good bartender you need passion.

“Both management and staff need to take complete ownership of the new program and fully participate in the transition,” says Hay. “There must be 100% buy-in on everyone’s part or the wheels will fall off. Management needs to clearly convey this to the staff and anyone who doesn’t make that commitment should be encouraged to move on.”

Hay knows firsthand the role passion plays in a bartender’s underlying professionalism because his first decade as a bartender was one best described as unremarkable. “Then I had the opportunity to get retrained. I then found out much I didn’t know and all of the things I was doing wrong. It was like a professional epiphany. That’s why I encourage every bartender to continue learning, whether it means reading books or attending Bar Smarts or the BAR program in NYC hosted by Steve Olsen.”

Hay’s last piece of advice for bartenders has nothing to do with drink making or technical proficiency, but rather the importance of being a gracious host. “I think bartenders should be more of a host than a professor, a person who concentrates more on exceeding guests’ expectations than meticulously crafting cocktails. The vast majority of your guests don’t give a crap about rare ingredients, handcrafted bitters or special hard ice you had to source from Japan. While some people may appreciate the effort you’ve expended, all they really care about is the good time you’re providing them. Yes, that cocktail is playing a role, but it’s just a subtitle to the experience you are hopefully providing.”

Hay derives tremendous pleasure returning to a client’s bar after having revamped the beverage program and watching the staff flawlessly execute on the vision. Invariably the staff’s smiles are a big as the guests’. That’s when he knows he’s in the right job.

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