The Modern Bartender | Philip Duff
Reasonable people adapt themselves to how the world is, unreasonable people change the world to how they think it should be; therefore, all progress depends on unreasonable people. There are few professions in which this is more true than bartending. No reasonable person would demand his cocktail-contest entry be made using an egg laid by a hen on a specific day a la “The Only” William Schmidt; nor would a modest, easygoing man install a life-sized statue of himself in his own bar, as Jerry Thomas did. All this is no more than sound public-relations activity, though. Bartenders aspire to be paid more to work less, and what other blue-collar tradesperson could ever argue with that noble aspiration? Bartenders in fancy bars have always earned the largest incomes of all their peers, and such bartenders aspire to join the class of person they serve in those bars, moving upward from their own working-class origins with every twirl of a barspoon and every media article.
What has really changed in our profession is a simple mirror of what has changed in us all. Here are three positive developments, and two negative ones.
Lack of Human Connection
More than half the world’s population now lives in cities. Everyone is scrambling to get by, to not fall behind. So, families don’t sit down each morning or evening to eat at the same table, at the same time, with screens off and conversation convivial, as each family member in turn helps prepare, cook, serve and clean. We can now read headline news for free, but fewer and fewer of us read lengthier articles for background and opinion and history, so conversation is being stealthily reduced to repeating pithy one-liners and displaying the contents of glowing screens to one another, instead of thinking and talking and expounding. We don’t know how to talk. We don’t know how to listen. We can’t concentrate. Is it any wonder bars and restaurants find it more and more difficult to find staff who don’t think serving is beneath them, something that should be done by someone else? Hospitality has become something you buy, and then Instagram about, instead of a way to express your familial love, a way to relax, disconnect from work, reconnect with loved ones. The dinner table is where you’d damn well better have an amusing story, and if you don’t, you keep your mouth shut and you smile, and nod, instead of retreating to swiping a screen. As a result, Internet Bartending is a recognized phenomenon, and we are already ten years past the point that, for perhaps the first time in history, you could be a superstar mixologist while being thoroughly dull and disinterested in people.
The Internet made books cheaper than they have ever been, brought airline fares down as low as they can probably go, and connected us all to a Matrix-like hivemind, so we can learn at warp speed. Cocktail research & development that used to take years or months with handwritten letters and expensive, ill-distributed books suddenly took mere weeks with drinkboy.com and other message boards. Now it happens in hours in a Facebook comment thread or an Instagram feed. There are no secrets any more, and everyone can know the how and the what of every drink. You can even hop on a plane without having to save up for two years, and go meet the person who can teach you the why.
The hivemind that connects us affords enterprising bartenders the chance to travel and work all around the world, often on a brand’s dime. Brands, seeing the declining ROI of traditional advertising – who reads a newspaper anymore? watches live TV? – are investing massively in “influencer marketing”, and who is more influential than a bartender? The net result is a lot of people who don’t grow up and don’t commit. There’s always enough money for a flight and a hotel and a vintage whisky Sazerac. It’s like having a jet-set lifestyle, but – crucially – without the bank balance. In the old days, bartenders knew they were damn lucky to be out-earning any other blue-collar trade, and they knuckled down to ownership, authorship and brand entrepreneurship as time, and their career, progressed. What to do nowadays, though, when you wake up one day single, aged 40, with 5,000 Facebook friends but even fewer dollars in the bank?
Never before in the field of human mixology has so much been mixed for so many by so few. A cocktail bartender used to be one who made perhaps 4 cocktails out of every 10. Now it’s 9.7 out of 10, and the drinks are much more complicated than they have ever been. Partly, because the marketplace is thronged with immense amounts of brands in every variation possible. Partly because every bar, every bartender needs to stand out, to carve their own identity, and few feel secure enough to only make classic cocktails well. And partly, it is because every guest carries around a superfast link to the hivemind in their pocket, and can identify, Google and compare a cocktail and its ingredients before a bartender has so much as reached for the mixing glass. Consumers have restless palate and demand every-more esoteric ingredients on their plates and in their glasses. The net result of all this is an arms race of ever-more complex cocktails, built on a framework of mixology so fragile that they are difficult to replicate at quality even in the bar they were invented at, let alone in others that may use very slightly different brands of the same ingredients. The next time you see a list of Modern Classic Cocktails, ask yourself how many could be made in any bar, anywhere, and even withstand being made with inferior ingredients. Oh, and all this near-constant shaking and stirring has led to a rash of shoulder, arm and wrist injuries. A 25-year-old bartender shouldn’t have to wear a compression sleeve and have surgery because he or she makes drinks for a living.
Strange, at a time when book sales are being assaulted by the twin cannons of declining concentration spans and the electronic disruption of the publishing industry, but there has never been a better time to stroll into a bookstore, virtual or otherwise, and a pick a book at random off the “Cocktail” shelf. We are in the Golden Age of cocktail and spirits books, and long may it continue.
Yes, I made that word up. Bragging about experiences is the new bragging about possessions. A reservation at Cellar de Can Roca trumps a Rolex, because any fool can buy a Rolex. Sam Ross himself making your Penicillin will get you more Instagram likes than a picture of your new private jet, at least in the circles I move in. Anyone can insert themselves into a Porsche, but drinking at Bulletin Place or eating at Le Bernardin implies a personal connection, a unique experience, something that was made just for you and that you can’t buy off the shelf like a wristwatch or a handbag. And who makes experiences personal? The bartenders, and their cocktails. Smartphones with always-on high-speed Internet powering social-media apps like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and SnapChat mean bartenders can gain recognition in days and weeks instead of years and years.