By Julia Ritz Toffoli
March 26, New York—An old man walks into a bar. “What are we having today, Lesley?” asks the bartender. “A Stella? A Dewar’s? A Stella and Dewar’s?” “Yeah, I’ll have the Stella and Scotch. Thanks, Jack.”
By the time Lesley has taken his coat off and sits down at the bar, two glasses—a pint of Stella and a Scotch and Soda—are in front of him, and the bartender is already back to wiping down the counter.
Jack, 45, hasn’t always been the bartender at the Old Carriage Inn in Park Slope, Brooklyn. He has only been working there for three of the twenty-eight years the bar has been open, after leaving his previous job in finance. But he’s happy there, and says the other employees are “like family” to him. “I love bartending,” Jack says, enough that one day he wants to open a bar of his own.
“No. Not everyone can be a bartender,” he explains. “You need patience, you need to be outgoing, get to know [your customers]. Regulars love knowing you know what they want.” And the rapport with the customers is one of the most important parts of the job.
This is a consensus in the neighborhood, an area of Park Slope with several of Brooklyn’s oldest bars. Pete, 54, a bartender at Ferrell’s, which has been open since 1933, says that cultivating your clientele is essential. You want lots of regulars, “or irregulars, as we call them.” Ferrell’s has been home to the neighborhood’s police officers for generations. “Cops used to work 4 to 4,” explains Pete. “4 to 12 at work, and 12 to 4 at the bar. They don’t do that anymore. But they still come by for a few drinks on their days off.”
And how do bartenders make sure the customers keep coming back?
“Treat the customers the way they’re supposed to be treated,” says Theresa Proto, 65, bartender at Jackie’s 5th Amendment, also in Park Slope.
This golden rule of bartending—which seems to have always been the standard among traditional pubs and dive bars catering to a regular, often older, crowd—now appears to be growing in importance to younger patrons.
In the 1990s, “the sign of a good bartender was if he could quickly produce and pour into a line of shot glasses a batch of Kamikazes or Sex on the Beaches,” writes Derek Duncan, a blogger and former bartender. Whereas bars for an older crowd still focused on serving their clientele, bars catering to twenty-somethings were concerned with efficiency and profit; customer cultivation was not a priority. And it still isn’t everywhere.
Copia, a bar in Midtown East, offers a top shelf open bar deal so rife with rules that “open” is an almost comical way to describe it. By “top shelf” they don’t mean the best, they just mean not the worst. You can have Jack Daniels, but not Maker’s Mark; Absolut, but not Belvedere. Liquors have to be served with mixer—a whiskey on the rocks is out of the question, let alone neat—to make sure you aren’t taking advantage of your “open” bar deal.
But bars like Copia—where once they’ve pocketed the cover charge they have no incentive to keep you happy—are becoming less of a staple among young New Yorkers, who are discovering quality over quantity. The last decade has witnessed an almost exponential increase in the number of small, intimate, speakeasy-style specialty cocktail bars embracing the idea that the customer’s satisfaction is paramount.
Employees Only, a deco-style cocktail bar in the West Village, was one of the first bars to embody this vintage cocktail renaissance and prioritize the craft of the cocktail and the experience of the customer rather than the profit-driven approach.
Robert Krueger, 30, head bartender at Employees Only, describes the appeal of the speakeasy revival. “You enter through this curtain and it’s as if you were doing something illegal, though there’s nothing illegal going on in here ever. Your brain gets a little cognitive dissonance and it gives you freedom. It’s the illusion of doing something illicit. You feel like you’re doing something wrong, or you’re crossing some lines, even though the lines are an illusion. You walk through those curtains and all of a sudden you feel like someone had to smuggle everything in that drink to get it in your glass.”
The ambiance draws in the customers, and the cocktails keep them there. And with cocktails this good, there’s no need to worry about the bottom line; the profits make themselves. Costing around $15 each and taking at least a few minutes to mix, the drinks come at a premium; a premium of time and money that New Yorkers are more and more willing to pay because it makes them feel like they’re worth it.
Having a bartender—or mixologist, as some call themselves—dedicate so much time and effort to one’s drink is a bit of a luxury.
But mixologist is a term that not every bartender wants to get behind, even if he’s mixing the same kinds of expensive cocktails. Paul, 24—a bartender at Hotel Delmano, a similar speakeasy-style bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn—disdains the term. “Calling yourself a mixologist is like calling yourself a hipster; it means you probably aren’t one.” Putting the finishing garnish on a Scotch and elderflower cocktail, he adds, “to me there are two kinds of bartenders: bartenders and proper bartenders.”
Mixology isn’t just about who the bartender is; it can be about what he does. “The distinction between bartending and mixology is one of art versus craft,” explains Krueger. “Bartending is a craft. It’s consistently reproducing the drinks that you’re making. Mixology is the artistic side of that, that’s actually creating drinks. That’s maybe not everybody’s definition of it, but to me it makes sense.”
However you define mixology, being a proper bartender doesn’t necessarily mean just knowing exactly how much rosemary-infused gin to mix with St. Germain and freshly grated ginger. The drinks are secondary to ensuring a genuine rapport with the patron.
“It’s attention to your customer, your patron. That’s it,” says Krueger. “You’re here to interpret the possibilities of all this,” he says as he gestures around himself, “for the person sitting on the other side of the bar. We offer certain things, other bars offer certain things, but you come in and sit down and I can tell you what I have and what I can do for you; that’s going to idealize your experience.”
After all, Proto says, “you need them more than they need you.”
Julia Ritz Toffoli is a second-year Master of International Affairs student. This article first appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of CQ Magazine.