According to a whole heap of stories, videos and memes on the Internet, bartenders hate me.
Don’t get smug. They hate you, too.
They hate making our stupid mojitos and our stupid Long Island Iced Teas. They hate when we order a dry martini, or a dirty martini, or a vodka martini (which they think isn’t a real martini). They hate us for ordering any drink with a “tini” on the end that isn’t an actual gin martini.
You want a Lemon Drop? Your bartender thinks you should know that Idi Amin also liked Lemon Drops. Your bartender has served bedbugs with more sophisticated tastes. Really, your bartender wishes you would just go away and get bitten by a rabid dog, already.
Conflict equals clicks, and sites have clearly discovered that people will read stories that confirm their secret self-loathing. And on some days, I see an upside: If these stories provide a smidge of consumer education, or shame the parsimonious guest into tipping better, then perhaps they are not entirely wasted. But they also shame customers before they misbehave and create the impression that there is a narrow path to true enjoyment, one mapped out by Pleasure Kommandants who bark at us to “Enjoy yourself THIS way” while beating us about the neck and shoulders with their elegant mixing spoons.
Let me be clear: I don’t know a single bartender who is actually like that. I suppose there are some out there, muddling the hell out of the mint, snarling at the fancy ice machine. But I don’t think they’re likely to last long.
With the approach of Thanksgiving, I’ve been thinking about hospitality. I love the holiday for many reasons — the pies; the cold snap in the air; the expression of gratitude that may be religious or secular or both; the pies — but mainly because it’s a holiday in which hospitality is central. It’s central to our story of the first Thanksgiving, and critical to the way we celebrate it now: We get together with family members, some of whom may be difficult or demanding, and say, “Hey, I may think you’re a conservative throwback and you may think I’m a pinko liberal moron, but we’re going to treat each other well today, and if we stuff our opinion-holes with food for a couple of hours, maybe we’ll discover we agree about a fundamental American truth: Creamed corn is kind of disgusting.”
The same generosity of spirit that can save the Thanksgiving table is fundamental to the life of a great bar.
There’s a bar in my neighborhood that makes top-notch cocktails, yet the staff always seem uninterested and cold. There’s another where the proprietor openly mocks the hoity-toityness of craft cocktails and insists on shaking my Negroni, but who kisses me on the cheek when I show up and tells great off-color stories. Ask me which place I visit weekly, happy as a clam. A clam with a weirdly frothy Negroni.
Over the years I’ve talked to hundreds of bartenders and watched them create drinks that ranged from magical to meh. But I’ve never seen someone as at home in the space as Dale DeGroff, author of two cocktail books and a legend among bartenders, who became famous for the cocktail program he developed at the Rainbow Room in Manhattan.
Every time I see DeGroff at work, I think, “This guy was born for this.” It’s the way he interacts with people, immediately warming. He’s like a walking, talking hot toddy.
Fellow author David Wondrich, who has known DeGroff for years and works with him regularly in their bartender training program, notes that DeGroff didn’t get famous because he was a mixologist. He got famous because he was a bartender.
While the terms “bartender” and “mixologist” are often used interchangeably, Wondrich points out that mixology — “the fine art of mixing drinks” — is actually just one part of bartending. “And some bartenders are almost entirely mixologists,” he says, and not much else.
Wondrich says he sometimes feels bad for young bartenders they train. “For years, we’ve been telling them, ‘Make better drinks.’ Now they’re making better drinks, and we’re still not happy. Now we’re telling them, ‘Be more hospitable.’ ”
DeGroff is a terrific mixologist, but Wondrich says it’s friendliness that makes him shine. “That hospitality is natural with him. That curiosity, that love of talking to people. He’s curious about people, and he likes to hear their stories. When you hear him talk about his career, most of his best stories aren’t about what he did. They’re about his customers.”
When I asked DeGroff about the “Your Bartender Thinks You Suck” stories, he was pretty clear: A bartender who makes the guest uncomfortable is just not a very good bartender. “If you don’t feel comfortable with people crowding around all the time — in other words, just enjoying the company of your fellow human beings — you really better go work in the kitchen.”
Ever since I first read DeGroff’s “The Craft of the Cocktail,” an anecdote in the book has stuck with me. When DeGroff was at the Rainbow Room, the Associated Press building was nearby, and some of the reporters who worked the second shift used to have their “liquid lunch” at the bar. DeGroff got to know some of them, and on a cold Thanksgiving Day — he thinks it was maybe ’94 — he made a warm batch of Pilgrim cocktails and descended the elevator in Rockefeller Center in his red uniform jacket and crossed the street through the crowds to deliver warm drinks to the reporters stuck working on the holiday.
Maybe it was a different era. But it’s hard for me to imagine any of those guys writing a story about how much your bartender hates you.
DeGroff says his old boss at the Rainbow Room, the famed restaurateur Joe Baum, used to rely on him to make friends out of difficult customers. “He’d drop some guy at the bar and say, ‘Hey, Dale, tell this guy a story and see if you can make a friend out of him.’ That’s what bartenders do: We make friends out of difficult people. You don’t make enemies out of nice people.”
That’s a mantra all of us can sit with this holiday, as we lift a warm Pilgrim cocktail to those we adore, and those we manage to tolerate.
Allan is a Takoma Park writer and editor; her Spirits column appears regularly. Follow her on Twitter: @Carrie_the_Red.
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This rummy drink — which, thanks to spicy bitters, is surprisingly autumnal despite the orange and lime — can be served cold or hot. We found the pimento bitters at Ace Beverage.
Ice (if serving cold)
1 ounce dark rum
1/2 ounce white rum
1/2 ounce dry curaçao, such as Pierre Ferrand
1 1/2 ounces fresh orange juice
1/4 ounce fresh lime juice
1/4 ounce Demerara or turbinado simple syrup (see NOTE)
2 dashes Dale DeGroff’s Pimento Bitters
If serving the drink cold, fill a cocktail shaker with ice. Add the dark and white rums, the curaçao, fresh orange and lime juices, simple syrup and bitters. Seal and shake vigorously for 15 seconds. Strain into a chilled cocktail (martini) glass.
If serving the drink hot, warm the mixture on the stove, but do not allow it to come to a boil. Once it is warmed through, pour it into a cocktail glass or a glass mug.
NOTE: Combine 1 cup of Demerara or turbinado sugar and 1 cup of water in a small saucepan over high heat; let it come to a boil. Once the sugar has dissolved, reduce the heat to medium-low; cook for 5 minutes, then turn off the heat and let the mixture cool to room temperature before serving or storing. (The simple syrup can be refrigerated for several weeks.)
From Dale DeGroff at KingCocktail.com; originally in DeGroff’s “The Craft of the Cocktail” (Clarkson Potter, 2002).
Tested by M. Carrie Allan.