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Tips From Behind the Bar

By Fritz Hahn
Friday, December 28, 2007

New Year's Eve is a night for going out. If you go to a bar and you're lucky, you'll get a bartender like one of these veteran drink dispensers. Fritz Hahn talked to six of the best in the area and asked them to share their knowledge: Does waving money in the air get you served faster? What makes for a good New Year's Eve? So belly up to our story and enjoy.

Gina Chersevani

Where: Rasika (633 D St. NW; 202-637-1222)
When: Tuesday-Saturday

If you want the most creative cocktails in the District, visit Gina Chersevani at the mod little lounge Rasika. She could be experimenting with lavender-infused gin or chocolate-infused tequila, creating her own flavored bitters for a new martini, mixing Indian spices into a mojito or cooking persimmon and cinnamon to serve as the base for a new warming winter cocktail.

Chersevani, who says "a lady never gives her age," got her start as "the girl with the beer tubs" in College Park, where she worked at Terrapin Station bar, but became interested in cocktails while working at Penang and 15 Ria. She really came into her own as a bartender at Poste, raiding the restaurant's outdoor herb garden for fresh ingredients for martinis and infusions.

She can also do simple: The Geezy Teezy is a glass of gin with ice cubes made of tonic water. As they melt, the flavor of the drink changes.

How do you come up with ideas for new drinks?

"They come from everywhere. Once, I made a drink to taste like my favorite lip gloss. Here's a story: My mom grew up on Bergen Avenue in Brooklyn. She loves egg creams. She used to get them at this place called Norma's Chocolate Store, and she still talks about the place. So I wanted to make try to make something similar for my mom. She's like 70. So I tried everything. Then I infused tequila with chocolate and added Baileys and topped it with Frangelico whipped cream. Mom liked it, but she's like, 'It's still not as good as Norma's.' "

What's your favorite drink when you're off the clock?

"A shot of Jameson's."

How does someone become a regular?

"There's a difference between being a regular and being a 'liked' regular. . . . Sit at the bar, talk to me, talk to other people, try different drinks, whatever."

Is there a secret to getting a drink quickly when the bar is mobbed?

"Patience. The person that stands there waiting, not snapping or shouting at you -- they get their drinks first. And being a girl helps. I always serve girls first."

What's a tip for making New Year's Eve memorable?

"If you don't usually drink 47 shots in a night, don't drink them that night. Drink what you know and what you can handle."

Greg Jasgur

Where: Birreria Paradiso (inside Pizzeria Paradiso, 3282 M St. NW; 202-337-1245)
When: Thursday-Saturday

As the manager of Birreria Paradiso, Greg Jasgur is responsible for selecting the microbrews and little-known imports that flow from the 16 taps, managing the selection of bottled beers and organizing regular beer dinners. So when you find yourself in the Georgetown bar, staring at the daunting draft menu, it's nice to know that the man serving your drinks has tasted "maybe thousands" of beers, he says, and will offer recommendations.

Jasgur, 25, started waiting tables at Pizzeria Paradiso when he was a senior in college but showed such promise that "the day I turned 21, they made me a bartender," he says with a laugh.

A man walks into a bar but doesn't know what he wants. What do you choose?

"The IPA that's on draft. That's my favorite style of beer."

What's the drink you make most often?

"Unfortunately, the wheat ale that's on draft. It's a safe option. To me, it's a little unadventurous, but, hey, we put on good wheat beer."

How does someone become a regular?

"Seriously, the easiest way is to pony up to the bar. I'm pretty good with faces. If you start talking to me, even if it's not about beer, I'll remember you."

What piece of bar etiquette do you wish people would learn?

"I know you have money. . . . Waving money at me and shouting at me doesn't get you served any faster. Also, if it takes a while to get your beer, it doesn't mean I'm slacking off. It's a busy bar. I'm the only bartender."

What's the most important thing a customer can do to guarantee a good time?

"Try new things. Have an open mind. Converse with people at the bar. Don't be so uptight, which I think is a problem in this city. And don't get too drunk."

What's a tip for making New Year's Eve memorable?

"Don't make a big deal about it. Treat it like any other night with your friends. . . . And learn the words to 'Auld Lang Syne.' "

Jimmy Cirrito

Where: Jimmy's Old Town Tavern (697 Spring St., Herndon; 703-435-5467)
When: Most nights: He hosts the bar's "JOTTeopardy" trivia game on Tuesdays and is always in the house when the Buffalo Bills or Sabres are playing.

To hear Jimmy Cirrito tell it, he was born into the bar business. "My father was a bartender, and mother was a bartender," he explains. His first job was in his cousin's bar in Upstate New York at age 15, washing dishes and cleaning tables.

Now 41, he says he has been bartending for 23 years, and for the past 10 it has been at his own cozy neighborhood tavern in Old Town Herndon. He once made it into the Guinness Book of World Records by bartending 24 hours a day for 12 days to raise money to fight muscular dystrophy. (The record has since been broken twice.) In 1994, Cirrito won the annual D.C.'s Fastest Bartender Contest.

The amount of Cirrito's charity work is impressive. He persuades bartenders to collect pledges from patrons and jump out of airplanes, hosts foosball tournaments for the Red Cross, organizes golf tournaments for local arts groups, runs mock-casino nights for the Fisher House nonprofit group, and even buys hundreds of boxes of Girl Scout cookies and sends them to American troops in Iraq. His peers have taken notice. In October, Cirrito was inducted into Bartender Magazine's Hall of Fame. Ask him to show you the ring.

A man walks into a bar but doesn't know what he wants. What do you choose?

"Beer, wine or liquor? Okay, if it's a man, I'd say a Captain Morgan and Coke. And if it's a woman, I'd say a Captain Morgan and Coke. You can't go wrong."

What's your favorite drink when you're off the clock?

"Captain Morgan and Coke."

Is there a secret to getting a drink quickly when the bar is mobbed?

"There are two ways to do it: being a regular and always drinking the same drink, so I don't have to think about what to get you, and holding up a $20 bill. The bartenders will get to you right away."

What piece of bar etiquette do you wish people would learn?

"Give up your barstool for the ladies."

What's the best pickup line you've ever overheard?

"Well, the best one I've ever used was 'Would you like free wings and beer for life?' It worked on my wife, Maureen, 15 years ago."

What's a tip for making New Year's Eve memorable?

"Plan ahead -- where you're going, how you're getting there, how you're getting home."

Jin Chong

Where: Love (1350 Okie St. NE; 202-636-9030) and Russia House (1800 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202-234-9433)
When: Fridays and Saturdays at Love; Tuesdays at Russia House

Some bartenders love working in swanky, high-pressure nightclubs, slinging drinks until 4 a.m. and shouting to be heard over pounding music. Others prefer a laid-back lounge where they can chat with customers and take time to craft exquisite cocktails. Jin Chong does both, working at clubby Love and opulent Russia House.

Chong, 30, got his start in the kitchen, attending culinary school in Chicago and working everywhere from the Midwestern chain restaurant Stir Crazy Cafe to Wolfgang Puck's Spago in the Windy City. Then he realized bartenders make more money than cooks and took his talents to the front of the house.

A man walks into a bar but doesn't know what he wants. What do you choose?

"Zubrowka and apple juice. It's unique: Zubrowka is a potato and bison grass vodka from Poland. Together it's almost coconutty."

Is there a secret to getting a drink quickly when the bar is mobbed?

"Have your money ready. Not waving it. Like this [he rests his hands on the counter, money out and clearly visible but not ostentatious]. As a bartender, I know that it's going to be quick. That guy is ready to order."

What piece of bar etiquette do you wish people would learn?

"Order all your drinks at the same time. Not 'Can I have a Heineken?' 'Sure.' I bring it over to you. 'That'll be $6.' 'Oh, and can I get a rum and Coke?' "

What's the most important thing a customer can do to guarantee a good time?

"Be positive. . . . And moderate your drinking. Don't get too banged up. Drinking is the cause of most negative things."

What's a tip for making New Year's Eve memorable?

"Stick to one liquor and hydrate yourself."

Lili Montoya

Where: The Black Cat (1811 14th St. NW; 202-667-7960)
When: Sunday-Tuesday, Thursdays and Fridays

Lili Montoya knows that she reminds some Black Cat patrons of their stern grade school teacher. It's the way she stares over her cat's-eye glasses at those who are being rude or obnoxious, or how she has famously asked people to use their "inside voice" in the bar at one of the city's top rock clubs. Her schoolmarm demeanor, though, generally keeps young punks in line and sometimes even has people tacking a "please" onto the end of their drink orders. It just happens. By the same token, if Montoya thinks someone is disrespecting her or disrespecting other customers, she's not shy about speaking up or having them eighty-sixed.

There's a reason customers sometimes think that Montoya, who is in her early 30s, has that teacher look: She is a former teacher and nonprofit worker. She also was one of the organizers of the first D.C. Riot Grrrl convention in 1992 and is a member of the Peruvian naval reserves. She has been at the club for almost a decade and has developed a large fan base that appreciates that she's a really nice, personable bartender who just wants everyone to have a good time. And you will, as long as you don't misbehave.

A man walks into a bar but doesn't know what he wants. What do you choose?

"The weather really determines my drinks. When it's really cold, I suggest smoky stuff -- Woodford Reserve [bourbon], some single-malt Scotches."

What's the drink you make most often?

"It depends on the show and the crowd. Usually Guinness and Jameson shots. When the crowd is barely 21, it's 'Hey! Long Island [Iced Tea] for everyone!' "

How does someone become a regular?

"Tip and behave well. I think a lot of it is developing a rapport with the bartender. A little chitchat. It's built slowly over time -- it's a relationship you cultivate. I don't think it can be forced. It has to unfold organically."

Is there a secret to getting a drink quickly when the bar is mobbed?

"You have to look ready and be making eye contact with me. I ignore anyone who's waving or yelling."

What piece of bar etiquette do you wish people would learn?

"Act respectful and not entitled, and not just to me, but to your fellow bar customers. It's something you learn in kindergarten."

What's a tip for making New Year's Eve memorable?

"Try to avoid the point when you puke into your drink -- or your date's drink, which I've seen happen."

Nicole Jones

Where: Tradewinds (5859 Allentown Way, Temple Hills; 301-449-1234)
When: Tuesday-Saturday at the main bar

We have a lot of great bartenders in Washington, but very few have been immortalized in song. Step forward Nicole Jones, a longtime employee at Tradewinds in Temple Hills, where the go-go/R&B group Familiar Faces performs every Saturday. Frontman Donnell Floyd composed a song about "Nicole the bartender/She makes the drinks that you won't remember/She'll have you slipping all over the floor/Still have you asking for more."

"Donnell would joke that I'd get people drunk because my drinks are strong, and people say I'm their favorite bartender," Jones says. The first time she heard the song, she says, "it was so nice. I felt really appreciated."

A petite, soft-spoken woman, Jones is popular with the older crowd at the bar, joking and laughing and turning out drink after drink. Jones, 28, has been at Tradewinds for six years and has built a following. "My favorite part [of bartending] is interacting with customers, listening to their problems, talking to them and making them feel good," she says.

A man walks into a bar but doesn't know what he wants. What do you choose?

"Well, I'd ask about flavors, sweet or strong, light or dark. But if I have to just pick one, most women like a Woo Woo [peach schnapps, vodka and cranberry juice]. Men like a Thug Passion [equal parts Hennessy and Alize liqueur]."

What's your favorite drink when you're off the clock?

"A Grey Goose martini, extra dry, shaken, not stirred."

Is there a secret to getting a drink quickly when the bar is mobbed?

"Knowing the bartender!"

What piece of bar etiquette do you wish people would learn?

"To be very polite and always tip. I want to be treated like you want to be treated."

What's a tip for making New Year's Eve memorable?

"Have good people around you. . . . And always remember that the way you start your new year is the way it's going to end."

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