Spirits: Here's hoping this 'War' will end all 'Wars'

Vinnie, Cage and Deb are the lamentable contestants in Episode 1.
Vinnie, Cage and Deb are the lamentable contestants in Episode 1. (Fine Living Network)
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By Jason Wilson
Wednesday, October 21, 2009

When I learned that Fine Living Network was starting a TV series called "Bartender Wars," I admit that I was intrigued. The premise seemed promising, if a little hyperbolic: "Each week," according to the press materials, "three of New York City's best bartenders are out to kick some ice as they take shots at each other in a showdown of skills, smarts and spirits."

Fine Living, after all, has a decent track record of booze-related programming with its amusing "Three Sheets" and "The Thirsty Traveler." I recently received a preview of "Bartender's" premiere episode, so I happily mixed a few drinks and settled in to watch with friends.

Well, after viewing it three times, all I can say is: If this is how low TV sinks these days, I'm very happy not to be a television critic. It wasn't even a kind of hokey-but-charmingly-bad game show, such as the reruns of "Family Feud" or "Match Game" that I'll watch on a lazy afternoon. It was just bad.

Perhaps I should discuss things merely from a cocktail point of view. Here's how one friend put it: "I think this show may set bartending back by at least two decades."

Let's begin with its cheesy "Cocktail"-starring-Tom-Cruise set, complete with a neon sign and live audience sitting at bar tables. We are introduced to three contestants behind the bar: Vinnie, Deb and Gage.

No last names. No information on which New York bars they tend. I later discovered on my own that they work, respectively, at the Duplex, Harbour and Socialista (which, by the way, was closed by the city's Department of Health last year). However, my first Web search turned up the blog of Vinnie (Costa), who chronicles "my life as a character actor trying to make it in NYC."

It's strange that when bartending is emerging as a legitimate artisan craft akin to pastrymaking and cheesemaking, the show would reinforce the old idea of bartending as hack work, something people do while pursuing other, more honorable professions (such as modeling or becoming a rock star). Just to be clear: I have no problem with club bartenders pouring pre-mixed margaritas and vodka-Red Bulls, if that's what their patrons enjoy. But putting them on a show like this is sort of like putting the guy who works the microwave at Burger King into an episode of "Iron Chef."

"Bartender Wars' " challenges loosely revolve, a la "Iron Chef," around a specific spirit. In the first episode, that spirit is Scotch. That's right, Scotch: quite possibly the least-accessible, least-flexible base spirit for mixing cocktails. At first I thought, okay, maybe the difficulty was the point.

But no. In the first challenge, called "My Drink, My Rules," show host Egypt Sherrod ("best known as the former co-host of the 'Power 105.1 Morning Show' " in New York) demands that the bartenders make her a drink in three minutes. Her directions: "I'm a woman, and I like girly things, frilly things, and I want it to look good." As the bartenders start mixing, Egypt shouts: "Don't make them too strong, please! I don't want hair on my chest!"

Vinnie tells her not to worry. "This is a gay drink," he says. "They don't have hair on their chests."

As if that exchange isn't lame enough, later in the show we get more of the same when one of the audience members says a drink "has the aftertaste of lipstick. I'm a guy. I don't like lipstick."

Egypt eventually chooses Vinnie's Chocolate Cherry Cheesecake as the winner, trouncing Deb's Appleberry and Gage's Bloody Rob. The ingredients in Vinnie's drink: equal parts Scotch, Kahlua, Bailey's Irish Cream and something called "cheesecake syrup." "This is me," Egypt says. Translation: I want to taste as little of the challenge ingredient as possible.

"Bartender Wars" pretty much devolves from there. In a Scotch quiz, the contestants are asked to name the types of Scotch (single malt; single grain; vatted malt; blended). No one can name all four. Gage can't come up with a single one.

In a skills challenge, none of three bartenders can successfully layer Grand Marnier, Kahlua and Bailey's in a B-52 shot. The show ends with the bartenders playing a sloppy game of beer pong.

"You do not learn a single thing from this show," said one of my friends. "Not one thing."

"It isn't even, like, funny," said another.

Perhaps, someone suggested, this sort of letdown is inevitable whenever a reality show steps in to depict one's particular affinity group, subculture or profession. Maybe so. But if I thought "Bartender Wars" truly represented the current state of bartending, I might start carrying a hip flask.


Wembley Cocktail: A Scotch cocktail that actually tastes like Scotch

"Bartender Wars" airs Fridays on Fine Living Network at 10:30 p.m. Jason Wilson can be reached at food@washpost.com.

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