Modern Bartender | Dave Broom
What does it mean, I asked myself, to ”tend” a bar. What, in fact, is tending? We tend our gardens, we tend sheep. It’s a word which suggests care, consideration, and a gentle touch. The word comes from the Latin tendere. [meaning] Bartenders attend, pay attention, are attendant, and are attentive. They are part of a line of people who have stood and served for time immemorial, pouring libations for masters, guests, customers.
How does all of this translate into being a modern bartender? Before we can even consider that, what exactly is this thing called a modern bartender? What is so different about the job now than in the 19th century when the underlying principles of Tending A Bar were first formalised
If in doubt, check what Harry Johnson thought on the topic in his 1882 ‘Bartender’s Manual’ which opens with a section on ‘How To Attend A Bar’. In summary, what he outlines on the first page is that the bar-tender be polite, attentive, neat clean and tidy, and “be pleasant and cheerful with everyone.”
Later Johnson encourages his reader to, “…show to your patron that you are a man of sense and humanity…[who should never] make distinctions between patrons on account of their appearance… all customers whether rich or poor should be served alike, not only in the same respectful manner, but in the same quality of goods…”
Has anything changed since then? No. These remain the abiding principles of tending a bar. The question is, are people still following them? Do you look at the customers and think, ‘who is going to tip me the best’, ‘who is the hottest client in the room’ ‘who makes me laugh the most’ and gravitate towards them? What instant judgements freight customers the moment they walk into the bar? Is the person sitting on their own at the end of the bar not wishing to engage, or are they too shy to?
Bartending is about reading a room and a customer’s needs. It is not about ego. The customer is what maters. Everything which surrounds you – the lighting, the decor, the menu, the drinks, your clothes, the music, should be focused on ensuring the customer feels relaxed and happy. You are the person in attendance, tending to them. They are your flock. They are there to have a good time with their friends, with their date. You, I’m sorry to say, don’t really feature in their evening at all. And you know what, that is good.
I was mulling over around this notion of tending and found that, although he died 400 years ago, Shakespeare wrote a sonnet (No.57 if you’re interested) about bartending. I exaggerate slightly. As usual it was about unrequited love, but it could well apply to a bartender’s lot.
Being your slave, what should I do but tend
Upon the hours and times of your desire?
I have no precious time at all to spend,
Nor services to do, till you require.
Nor dare I chide the world-without-end hour
Whilst I, my sovereign, watch the clock for you.
Nor think the bitterness of absence sour
When you have bid your servant once adieu;
That is bartending. OK, slave might be too strong a term but being at the disposal of the customer is what this gig is about. This means that there is more to being a bartender, modern or not, than learning recipes or winning competitions – those belong in the world of mixology. Bartending is about the customer. Always.
I go to Japan a lot. Many of you will have also made that journey. Some of you might have viewed it as a pilgrimage of sorts, but what did you bring back? Shaking techniques perhaps, bar tools, a love of ice balls. The theatre and accoutrements. You’ll have noticed the size of the bar, the precision, the technique. What is so often missed is what lies beneath, sits quietly in the shadows to use Junichirō Tanazaki’s phrase. Japanese bartending is linked to a concept called shibui which translates as quietness, calmness, and modesty. It is an aversion to over ornamentation.
You can apply that to the way Japanese bartenders approach drinks – the love of classicism, the simplicity of the drinks, allied to a love of nature and by extension awareness of freshness and seasonality. You can also however use shibui to understand how to tend a bar.
Stan Vadrna has spread the concept of ichi-go ichi-e, [one time, one meeting], which involves the bartender being in the moment, making each drink the best that she can at that moment, be it a glass of expensive whisky, a cocktail, a beer, or a glass of water.
It’s the last which interests me the most. That, rather than a Manhattan, is how I test a bar. When it is offered, in what glass, at what temperature, with what attitude. Has as much care gone into that glass of water as has gone into the cocktail you are anticipating, or is it an afterthought? Learn how to pour a glass of water and you are on the way to becoming a great bartender.
Ichi-go ichi-e is about more than serving drinks. To really grasp it you have to drop ego. This is not the best drink you can make at this point. It is the best drink. You are simply making it. There’s no praise demanded, no pyrotechnics. It is putting liquid into a glass in a manner which will give pleasure to the recipient. It is called service.
Today’s bartender has technology on their side, various cunning devices to create processes to add another element to a drink, to add theatre to a bar environment which is often wild and energetic spaces. Today’s bartender has an unrivalled wealth of ingredients to play with, and community with which to exchange ideas. The show is important, but none of it matters if the customer is forgotten, if service comes secondary to the theatre.
What the customer wants, ultimately, is a drink. They might want a chat, they might want to see your tattoos, tell you jokes or demand that you tell jokes to them. Dropping ego doesn’t mean being passive, it means being aware. The bartender is humble but in charge.
There is an element of intuition involved in knowing what a customer needs before they know they need it. You know when to talk and when to be silent, you know what drink to pour to suit that person’s mood.
I go back to that person sitting silently at the end of the bar. How do you ensure they have a good time?
Take them a glass of water and find out.
Tend to them.