by Simon Ogden, CSS
It’s a tough proposition, being asked to dispense advice on making better bartenders in an age when everyone and their cat has an opinion on what elevates a cocktail to a great cocktail. The world surely needs excellent bartenders, perhaps now more than ever as those in charge of weaponized countries whisk us all towards hell in a handcart, but the essential problem is this: hyperbole aside, bartending actually is an art when practiced at a level worthy of charging upwards of 14 bucks a pop for a few ounces of boozes mixed in a glass. And like all artists the bartender will chisel out their unique style and form over time and with practice, through love and repetition, and they will adopt and discard many influences as they make their way through their career. We’re supposed to be unique, it’s how we build a wonderful and loyal clientele, the last thing we need is a nation of clone bartenders. Bringing the wonder of you, your precious singularity, into the world over your bar top is a generosity worth paying for. But like the other artists—our musicians, actors, painters, hockey players—there are certain fundamentals we must all master if we aspire to greatness. When it comes to our careers we have but two choices, to be either great or not great. That’s it. So if you’re the type that would like to be great at that thing you do, we must discuss fundamentals. And my number one, all-time, best-of-the-best, fundamental advice to the trade is this:
Tend your bar from the outside looking in.
A simple enough aphorism, but adopting this philosophy will immediately make you a greater bartender. The default setting for we humans is to see and organize the world around us in a straightforward way, that is, taking it all head-on and reacting outward, from some combination of the head and the heart. A guest walks in and takes a seat facing us and we begin our interaction for the evening, that strange and wonderful and oddly brief relationship, intimate in its own way, that ends with an exchange of money and hopefully kind words and a promise of a return engagement. If you start looking at your bar through the eyes of that guest, I promise that you will start noticing all kinds of things that you’ve never considered before. It’s a small shift, a 180° change in perspective that will radically change your work life along with the experiences of your guests.
The first and probably most important example of this is the initial greeting. Of course it might have been only a couple of minutes of actual time until you finished those other drinks and got down the bar to say hi, but in customer time about fifteen minutes have crawled on by. And we’re off to a bad start already. Anticipating needs is a fine example of bartending from the outside in, e.g.: greeting them with a glass of water. Immediately, before they ask. And then keep it full, without having to be asked. This has the lovely added bonus of enabling them to drink more of your booze while they’re at your bar as well. What are your expectations when you sit down at a new bar for the first time? What experience are you hoping beyond hope to find at this shiny new blank slate of a watering hole?
The number of times I have sat at a bar interminably waiting to be served while the bartenders were having a little funny conversation over by the till would shock you. I’ve see so many bartenders bend over their shaker to stick a tasting straw in their mouth; watched as a little slow-motion drip of cocktail descended from their lips back into the tin. Glasses being filled with ice patted down with a hand that just bussed some other dude’s dirty plate. Metal shakers being sealed by slamming them sharply on the bar, inches away from a pair of guest’s date-night conversation, causing them to wince in concert from the quick little stab into their eardrums. These are fairly extreme examples, yet oh so very common.
Outside-in bartending at its most basic means caring for the appearance and cleanliness of your bar. If you sit in one of your own bar stools, does all that stuff that mostly exists behind your back look absolutely beautiful and sanitary and perfect? Or is there a fine patina of dust and/or sugar crust gracing some of those lovely bottles? Is the ephemera of crap that builds up around the till a blight on an otherwise perfectly clean and organized back bar? What do your guests see that you’ve stopped seeing because you’re in that space fifty hours a week?
I get inspired to look at my own bar with fresh eyes every time I’m in someone else’s, be it because they were doing it right or because they were seeing only the bar that exists out there, in front of their personal space, while what lies behind them has gone to seed. And there are always ways to tighten things up back at home, to organize the show better, to impress the living daylights out of the next customer. This is the choice we always have, every day that we punch in and step into the pit: to be the best bartender in the best bar that ever existed in the history of all the world, or not. Always err on the side of greatness, if you have to err at all. It is only from here that legends are made.