Sunday, February 3, 2019

:: how to stay creative ::

First published on the USBG National blog in March 2018, and slightly modified for publication here.

On a Facebook group that I am on, a bartender mentioned how they were considering a hotel bar job that offered good benefits but would severely limit their creativity, and they wondered how to deal with that aspect disappearing. While I will not cover the cost-benefit side of what a job like that can offer towards stability, insurance, and the like, I will focus more on how to stay creative when your job will not foster it or perhaps not even allow it. While I have been involved in bartender roles where I had partial control of menus ranging from a single menu item to the majority of the menu when I was the lead bartender, I have also been in positions where I had zero say in menu development. However, this did not stop me from crafting new libations at home and at work as well as providing guests with drink experiences not found on the menu.

Creativity in bartending can be broken down into a few avenues. One is at work where the owners and managers can notice and appreciate your professional input whether through menu items, guest feedback, or social media. Second is for the guests who adore your work and seek out the nights that you work to experience your craft; this sort of one-on-one aspect can offer the bartender the greatest immediate gratification. And third is through fellow bartenders (as well as non-local drink enthusiasts) from exposure in competitions or trade blogs, magazines, and books. Overall, creativity within a drink itself can come from the ingredients, the vessel, the garnish, the name, as well as the story behind it, and all of this can help to break a bartender out of the factory production feel that the job can take on especially when it gets busy or the establishment is rather corporate.
When someone questioned the importance of creativity, I commented on that thread that it can validate that you know your stuff, can think on the fly, and can do more than the menu and 50 classics. It is possible to get regulars who not only begin to trust you but seek you out for your creativity. Creativity does not have to be just menu items, but it certainly does help as a start especially if there is an expectation that you will contribute to the list for each revision. One of the thread posters suggested, “Cultivate your regulars and get them to trust you” in how to make your “bar into a playground.” I have found success in asking if there is anything on the menu that catches their fancy or whether they would like to go off menu for their next round (I rarely offer this for the first round unless it is a regular who has worked their way through the menu already). I follow up either with questions of what they are looking for or with drink idea suggestions based off their previous drink choice.

It was pointed out that jobs can expand through promotion to allow for more creativity, and I have definitely experienced this when a bar manager left and I had to fill their shoes. But creativity is not limited to your main job and your guests there. I have had good luck with guest bartending shifts at other bars across town -- both solo ones with my own menu or duo ones where two of us combine our talents to make a menu fitting a theme. Another thread contributor pushed the concept of competitions as an outlet to invent new drink ideas and perhaps get some notoriety and exposure. Many of these competitions weigh heavily on the creative side of things including the name and story in connection with their product in addition to the recipe and presentation.

Creativity can be fostered outside of working in bars. Consider building up a home bar and utilize that as your tinkering lab. Even without guests in front of you, your recipes can find an audience through Instagram, blogging, or other avenues of social media. Instagram, apps like OnTheBar [edit: RIP] and BarNotes, and the like can also be utilized to amplify one-offs at work such that they reach drink makers across the globe as well as regulars who may come in and try your drinks in person. At some bars, we have been allowed a shift drink under a certain value, and it is possible to utilize this to let the creative juices flow for your own shift drink or one of your co-worker’s.
Besides tinkering at home or at work, consider other outlets to get the mind going. I find that reading, traveling, going to conferences (including watching video replays of talks), listening to podcasts, browsing produce markets, and visiting other cocktail bars are great ways to get thinking about new avenues to explore. Writing down ideas whether on your phone or in a physical notebook will get the moment and thought captured; this will allow for a greater efficiency such as by reducing waste in exploring recipe ideas and will eliminate the need to create concepts de novo.

Others on that thread suggested focusing on the numerous ways that you can make the guest happy, but this can happen along with creativity as well. Creativity can boost a bartender’s self esteem by expanding the role into artist and thinker and by receiving praise and respect; moreover, the importance of this aspect of bartending can range from minor to crucial depending on the person. However, frequently, working at a creative cocktail bar comes at a cost of reduced earnings and benefits that can generally be accrued at volume or hotel establishments. Indeed, there are middle grounds and ways of letting your creative juices flow while not taking a hit financially.

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