It’s not often that I get to be a stranger in a cocktail bar. Victoria has a tightly knit cocktail community and over the past few years through competitions, trips and cocktail events I’ve had the opportunity to connect with many bartender sisters and brothers from almost every province in Canada. You always have a great time when you’re friends with the bartender. Often becoming part of the action and energy through the bar banter, sometimes even being challenged to hop behind the bar to make what you “claim” to be the best version of a Vieux Carre. For me, it’s often only a rare occasion I get to be a stranger at a bar. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got great dive bar go-tos where I’m sure to run into someone I know, but it’s nice to sit at a cocktail bar and figure out what makes the experience great for me. This past fall I had the chance to venture south of the border on a little bartender road trip, spending time in a handful of cities as I sought out some of America’s Southern and West Coast cocktail bars. With a little research and heaps of suggestions from cocktail colleagues I found myself seated at many of America’s most noteworthy cocktail bars.
A good friend and bartender once said this to me: “How can you tell when a bartender is sitting at your bar? Don’t worry, they’ll tell you.” I try to take this to heart and NOT DO THAT.
Saddling up to a cocktail bar for the first time is a special moment. Sometimes you’ve done a little homework and have an idea what to expect, other times the bartender at the last stop suggested you stop here. As professional bartenders we should know what exquisite service is supposed to look and feel like. Simon Ogden eloquently touched on how to use sitting at a bar as a tool toward becoming a better bartender in his article “Bartending from the outside in.” The combination of polished technique, product knowledge, attention to detail, engaging conversation, etc – it’s what we do, or what we should strive to do. I was given an appropriate experience from almost every bartender in every city I visited. But the bars I enjoyed the most were the bars whose bartenders new their stuff, did all the things… and were having fun! Fun with the guests and fun each other, the kind of fun that unintentionally displayed how fired up and passionate they were about bartending. It was contagious and made me feel like I was a part of the show. We know how busy nights go: crushing through white-outs of chits, double shaking, double stirring, taking orders, discussing mezcal, topping up waters, noticing that little bitters splash and wiping it before anyone else sees, etc. The practiced skills, organization, communication and coordination required to bartend well is a very respectable art. In addition, the constant endeavor to master the craft of bartending, the ability to continuously generate great energy and have fun with your guests and bar team shows passion. Passion is hard for anyone who sits a bar to forget. It’s being serious without taking yourself too seriously.
Before each shift I remind myself how fantastic it feels to sit at a bar where the bartenders are professional and having fun at all times. That’s the experience I make every effort to give to each guest who sits in front of me.