Saturday, September 15, 2018

:: drinking behind the bar ::

First published on the USBG National blog in September 2016 and included in the essays section of Boston Cocktails: Drunk & Told in April 2017. Purchase that book here to read the other essays as well as a bounty of Boston recipes, bartender tributes, and bar lore!

The topic of drinking behind the bar has frequently come up and has been debated from a variety of angles. Indeed, I have worked or staged at places where drinking with each other is fine but not with the guests, where drinking with the guests and the other bartenders is fine, and where no drinking at all is preferred. These policies certainly shape how well drinks are made, the general atmosphere of the bar, how much and what type of hospitality can be given, and what sort of guests show up (or leave) at certain hours. I had not given the concept much thought recently until a clip of Sasha Petraske appeared on Facebook on the anniversary of his passing where he expressed his thoughts, but more on that in a bit.
I would break drinking at the bar down into three classes with their own benefits and consequences: drinking with the other bartenders, drinking with the guests, and drinking solo. With drinking with other bartenders, it can raise team cohesiveness, celebrate a good night, or thank a co-worker who is taking the cut for his night’s efforts. With the guest, it can thank them for showing up and being good, loyal patrons; and with industry guests, it can build camaraderie across town. With the solo drinker, it is surely time to recommend help or another profession. I am not talking about doing in that mis-order on occasion instead of sinking it, but intentionally pouring themselves a drink or four. I have seen some great bartenders go down that road and the only way we knew the details was that the barback would be told not to dump that pint glass mixed in with the others – the one that we would later learn contained vodka tonic or another path to destruction. Well, we knew that they were drinking just not how.

Instead of me just speaking from my experiences, I will bring up two modern and one-century-old voices that spread a decent range of what is acceptable or desired at drinking establishments. Without further ado, here is that video of Sasha Petraske of Milk & Honey that I transcribed from a Hey Bartender clip:
“…almost all of my bartenders drink behind the bar; I encourage them to drink behind the bar. There is something really creepy and weird about people who remain totally sober while you get inebriated and they socialize with you. This is where all of the social mores of toasting and make sure everyone is having something…because that thing in Casablanca where “I don’t drink with my customers,” well, that dude would have gone out of business in real life. Like someone who is in his bar but doesn’t drink with his customers is an asshole. You need to have some good policy where people can drink behind the bar but don’t get drunk.”
Taking a step back a century or so, Harry Johnson in his 1882 Bartender’s Manual discussed drinking at work, but this passage would make more sense these days with the proprietor and the party/friends being switched for the bartender and his industry pals, respectively.
“It also creates a bad impression, if the landlord or proprietor sits in his place, and accepts drinks from his friends or customers. Sometimes the party, with whom he is sitting, drinks too much and becomes noisy. Therefore, as a rule, he should never engage in a social act of this kind. The guests will naturally judge the proprietor’s character by the company he keeps. There is a proper time and place for drinking, and the place is always in the café or bar room. But it makes a bad impression upon the patrons of a café, where there are tables and chairs, to find the “boss” often sitting down with a party to drink champagne or any other wine. This action should be avoided entirely, if possible, for one reason: that when the proprietor is thus engaged, he must be neglecting, to some extent, his business. Furthermore, the other customers, who take only 10-cent or 15-cent drinks – men of moderate means – will feel slighted, and their feelings may possibly be hurt by seeing the proprietor too often engaged with these swell wine-drinking parties, and thus may come to the conclusion that he does not regard them or their patronage of any value.”
The third voice that I want to call out is that of Pamela Wiznitzer, [then] creative director at Seamstress and president of the New York USBG chapter. In 2015, she spoke at Tales of the Cocktail during one of the S.E.D. Talks about why she does not drink while she works. She understood why people feel that they need to drink to get through the night because the job is, indeed, hard work. However, she finds alcohol to not be a stress reducer but a stress inducer. As a sober person, you’re a contact and a resource, and this is your job and career. Moreover, there is a liability in incidents if you have been drinking, and fines can be a lot higher. Finally, she reminded us how horrible it is to visit a bar and have a wasted bartender.

In my experiences, I have enjoyed the places where I have been allowed to drink with my co-workers for it brought me closer to them and established a brother- and sisterhood. I never liked getting drunk behind the stick or having to cover for my co-worker who did so; splitting a build so that everyone got half a drink seemed like the perfect amount to take the edge off but not lose control. When a co-worker partook too much, being the one to make all the cocktails because the other could not hit a jigger with a speed pourer stream made the job extra tough. In addition, I never enjoyed letting people buy me a shot. I felt I had no control over my sobriety since someone else was dictating things. Moreover, I dislike people buying the bar a round or the bartenders a shot since that guest begins to feel like they own the place, and thus they become harder to manage.

At my current [now past] job, it is a bar in a restaurant where I will be running drinks and food if there is a slow moment. My teammates are not just the other bartenders but the whole staff. Therefore, I refuse to drink on the job for I feel that I need to have all my faculties to do the job the best I can. In addition, I need to be a role model for the other bartenders and staff. There may be an awkward moment or two when someone wants me to drink with them, but I explain that I am at work and this is my job. Unlike Sasha’s idea of drinking together to bring the bartender and guest closer, I have the idea that I am the babysitter and the guide of the night to make their night the best that it can be. My good time will wait until later – whether at close or on my night off.

Given moderation, there is no right answer. Figuring out how to stay within those bounds is the difficult part.

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