Fall 18|volume 12|Issue 1

    Raise Your Spirits

    Spirited Folks: The Bartender

    Spirits – noun. An alcoholic beverage that is distilled rather than fermented; the liquid containing ethanol and water that is distilled from an alcoholic liquid or mash—often used in plural.

    Max Miller

    Max Miller

    This is the first of a four-part series on the personalities and skills that are a part of the Spirits Industry Ecosystem.

    Consider these life scenarios. You are visiting a city by yourself… It has been a long flight and you are just looking to unwind… You are out on a first date… The company you founded has sold for an undisclosed eight-figure amount… Your husband of 50 years has passed away… It is happy hour…

    Now imagine that in each of these scenarios, you enter a local tavern and sit at the bar. There on the other side of the bar is a person who must be prepared to serve you at the intersection of your life scenario and the bar you have managed to be sitting at—the bartender. Each of the scenarios above informs and shapes your mood and in turn shapes your expectations of the bartender you are interacting with. Therefore, in this issue we’ll explore just a few of the dimensions of our expectations of bartenders and their role in our lives.

    The term bartender is an Americanism, with the first recorded use being in 1836; it is defined as “a person who prepares or serves drinks.” The preparation and serving of the drink itself is only one distinct element.  Let’s explore some of the other elements across three dimensions.

    Orientation and Connectivity: “So where are you from?” “Are you here by yourself?” “How long are you here for?” These are all questions we are used to hearing when traveling and sitting at a local bar. On the surface they seem like benign small talk, but in actuality these are questions that orient the bartender and allows her to put your presence in context and to create an experience that you will enjoy. If you are from close by or have visited before, you may have already experienced some of the local spirits or drinks. If you are by yourself, the bartender may strike up a conversation to keep you engaged. If you are on a first date, the bartender may provide you with some eccentric cocktails to spark conversation and sharing. Whatever the scenario, good bartenders can make a connection. I spoke with several folks about this article recently and asked them to do a word association with the word bartender. The following descriptors came to light: engaging, familiarity, prompt/attentive, knowledgeable. All of these characteristics represent the emotional connection that, when paired with the right beverage, can create a foundation for a positive experience.

    Celebration and Production: More often than not celebrations begin (and maybe also end) at a bar somewhere. Maybe it’s an upscale bar or maybe it’s the neighborhood spot on the corner. Whatever the atmosphere, one critical element must exist in order for the celebration (or even just a happy hour) to be a success. The drink flow should be uninterrupted and at a responsible pace (responsibility factor of course subject to the personalities of the group). What often goes unnoticed to the customer is that most bars/restaurants are in fact production processes. Raw materials must be transformed into finished goods in the form desired by the customer and when the customer expects it. In this regard, the role of the bartender in keeping multiple experiences properly serviced is critical. Consider the 10 Manhattans that are being used for the celebratory toast with your colleagues on the sale of your business, and the other 20-30 cocktails being ordered simultaneously and being placed into the point-of-sale technology at the same bar. Here is where the skill and preparation of bartenders is highlighted by the timely delivery of a consistently quality cocktail, or a freshly poured beer or wine. The unseen systems of training, technology, and communication amongst servers and bartenders can be the key to a positive celebratory experience.

    Mourning: At the risk of being cliché, the bartender as the confessor and confidant is real. As humans we sometimes look to a drink as a respite from the pain of a death, or a break-up, or a firing, among other things. Whatever the reason, we may find ourselves at a bar with a bartender who, if he is an empathetic listener, can be as present or absent from your drinking experience as is needed for the situation. The subtle skill of knowing the right balance of attentiveness and conversation is what good bartenders are able to do. An effective balancing of these needs are the building blocks for a much-needed respite to many.

    And so it is that the bartender can be a social butterfly, a chameleon, a therapist, a friend, and a confidant. Whatever the role, the bartender is an essential part of the experiential ecosystem of bars and restaurants. There is much else that we could explore, but suffice it to say that tending bar can be so much more than just making and serving. Maybe what bartenders are really tending to is our emotional and social wellbeing. Maybe there’s so much more to the experience than what’s in the glass. Let’s meet at the bar to discuss it.