What Does a Bartender Really Need to Know?

Can you make simple syrup without consulting a bar book? Do you know the difference between Kentucky whiskey and bourbon? Can you tell at least two stories about the origin of the Margarita? Do you know why some vodkas cost more than many whiskies? Actually, there’s no good reason for the last one, so forget I asked.

If you aspire to be a great bartender, those questions and many, many others are a snap to answer. Today, though, the amount of practical and historical information a great bartender is expected to be able to command is as broad and deep as it’s ever been. That’s why it’s even more important to know what you really need to know to do a great job.

This business changes rapidly, and some once important skills are basically unknown today – for instance, until the 1990s, knowing the specific gravity of cordials in case you were asked to pour a pousse café was an absolute requirement for bartenders working in fine dining establishments. Angostura Bitters is today known mainly as the backbone of the Manhattan and one of many de rigeur bar bitters, but for generations it was the essential component in the bartender’s cure for the hiccups. So… In case you’re wondering, place a wedge of lemon on a small plate, douse with Angostura and cover with sugar. Hand the plate to your customer and have him or her place the entire wedge of lemon in the mouth, and bite down on it for ten seconds. Never known to fail.

A lot of what seems essential in today’s overheated cocktail scene will similarly fall away; not because it’s unnecessary – if you can cure the hiccups in a bar, you’re a hero whether it’s 1912 or 2012. But because it’s not popular. Pounding Fernet is more popular than recommending it as a stomach settler before or after dinner. Declaring certain drinks dead and buried or scorning someone’s drinking style is more popular than understanding the dynamic of, say, the Long Island Iced Tea and turning it to your advantage.

Knowing the hiccup trick and dozens of others – how to separate gracefully an obnoxious customer from his undesired object of attention, how to engage the customer at the edge of your three-deep bar so you don’t lose him before you get to his order – are rarely part of the conversation today. Too bad, because even though the drinks served today, at least in most craft cocktail bars, aspire to be the best ever made, service skills aren’t keeping up at the same level. I frequently wonder why, aloud, but except at the bars, where hospitality is more important than what’s popular, I see little change.

I recently attended an ambitious event – ambitious because of what drinks were served and how service was orchestrated. I would have liked to sample all the drinks, but you know how this story goes – three and four deep at the bar, clamoring customers, and me sipping forlornly at the icy dregs of my drink. At least this occurred in the midst of an attempt to be the very best, and I’d like to say this sort of scene was a rarity – but it’s not. Nor is the five-minute wait for attention while a bartender chats away with a server at an otherwise empty bar. Nor is the indifferently shaken drink, nor the poorly poured beer, nor the silent, folded-arm bartender. I bet HE knows who invented the Sazerac. I bet he knows a lot, about ice, and tinctures, and gomme syrup. A lot, probably, except how to tend a bar.

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