5 Reasons Why Bartenders Matter

I love my country and plan to stay here for good.  That being said, Santorum doing well in the polls had me starting to worry.  Whenever I become afflicted by the “Republican itch,” I often scratch it by contemplating moves to other countries.  The thing is, I’m in the wrong field when it comes to immigrating to another place. Despite the fact that some countries occasionally decide that bartenders aren’t so bad, bartending is not generally considered to be skilled labor, and thus isn’t on the shortlist of occupations thought to be attractive in immigrants.  Long story short: if I was a nuclear physicist, I could go anywhere I wanted to.

Bartending is considered, by and large, to be unskilled labor.  I can certainly understand how that misconception could come about.  In fact, an ill-fated and rather hilariously disastrous attempt to acquire a drink at a wedding a couple of years ago (first a martini, then a simple scotch on the rocks) left me temporarily convinced that foreign immigration officials might be on to something. But one night spent on a bar stool at a decent dive bar will leave one with the understanding that a guy or gal doesn’t have to be a fedora-wearing, suspender-snapping mixologist in order to have valuable skills.

I contend that bartending, in its best sense, is skilled labor. It’s an important, valuable asset to the community, and goes beyond a simple “service job.” On some nights, I’m in manufacturing.  On others, I’m an artist.  Read on to understand my rationale. Here are my five reasons why bartenders matter:

1. Bartenders are historians.

No, I’m not talking about our annoying habit of recalling the disastrous effects of prohibition, or the esoteric minutiae of our favorite cocktails. A good bartender is an expert in the sort of history that matters to you.  We remember that drink you had last Saturday that you loved. And we remember the one you had on Friday that made you sick.  We remember where we had the best cup of coffee of our lives, and how to get there. We know what that cute girl at the end of the bar does for a living, and whether she has a boyfriend. If she has a boyfriend, we know what they were fighting about last week.  We remember your favorite drink, your birthday, and where you went on vacation last spring. We know the score of the Knicks game, and how much Mark Sanchez is getting paid next year to lose more games for the Jets. Okay, we might not have remembered your name the first few times you came in, but no one is perfect. The point is, we are the keepers of whatever information is relevant and important. I get asked a lot of questions about a great many things when I’m behind the bar. Why? Because I am expected to know. Why? Because I am a bartender.

2. Bartenders are artists.

I like to take pictures of the drinks I make. I do this because I don’t have any children or pets. And, like a child, or an adorable puppy, a cocktail can and should be a beautiful thing. True, things can go wrong.  It’s not uncommon to see a cocktail that looks like this, or the Seinfeld baby. But usually, if your cocktail has a solid pedigree, it can come out looking like something beautiful. Andy Goldsworthy is applauded for creating marvelous works of art designed to be washed away by the tides, melted, or otherwise destroyed by natural processes.  But no one would doubt he is an artist. So, too, are bartenders taking time to craft things that widen the eyes, only to have them destroyed within minutes. Cocktails are edible art. We learn about ice, about sugar, about the merits of various cocktail spoon designs, glassware, strainers, garnish, and just about every other factor that can determine how a cocktail looks and tastes.  We want every cocktail to be the best. We want each one to be perfect before it goes out. And we recognize that we taste with our eyes as much as we do with our mouths. We are artists. Our works sell for $12 a pop in darkened lounges rather than for $12,000 in brightly-lit galleries, yet we don’t complain. Every night, we ask how you liked it, then say “thank you” and “good night.”

3. Bartenders are craftsmen.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the word craftsman as:

  1. A worker who practices a trade or handicraft.
  2. One who performs with skill or dexterity especially in the manual arts.

A bartender works with specific tools and skills in order to produce a cocktail. First, we must learn how to use those tools. Julep strainers, swizzle sticks, even a simple bar spoon, all require endless practice until muscle memory kicks in and drinks become second nature. Secondly, we must develop the knowledge to use those tools effectively. The ingredients and other components and factors of a drink (ice, glassware, ambient temperature, etc.) all must be taken into account if those tools are to be used to their greatest potential. Some bartenders retain their own set of bar tools that they carry with them from job to job, confident that their unique relationship with the form and function of their personal implements will enhance the work they do. These are not the habits of an unskilled laborer.

4. A bartender is a therapist and confidant.

I was hesitant to include this one because it is such a cliché. In the end, I found that I had to, because it is undeniably true. The simple fact is that, at his or her best, a bartender will know what a guest wants or needs before they even know themselves. Our job is to anticipate needs and clarify desires, and then fulfill both to complete satisfaction. We have to be good listeners, or else we won’t be good at our job. These skills help us choose the perfect drink, but they also help us advise you on whether to put in an offer on that condo, or how to deal with your mother in law. The relationship between a frequent guest and a bartender can be a deep one, and it frequently results in friendship outside of the workplace. This is not an accident, and you’d be hard pressed to find any other job in the so-called “service sector” that engenders such trust and mutual respect.

5. Bartenders can handle it.

Experienced bartenders are a special class of people.  Please indulge me while I tell a story:

Early on in my bartending career, I was working in a reputable place that was a favorite spot for nearby restaurant professionals. On a semi-regular basis I poured drinks (always Dewar’s on the rocks) for a quiet, well-groomed man in his 60’s. One night things were slow and I got a chance to chat with him.  I found out that he was the food and beverage director for a very well-known hotel nearby. Before he’d gotten into that side of the business, he’d been a bartender for over 20 years.

“Let me let you in on a little secret,” he said. “You like your job?”

“Sure. I like it.”

“No, I don’t mean this job in this place.  I mean as a bartender. Do you like it?”

“Yes. Yes, I do.”

“Good, because it’s the greatest job in the world. You’ll come to understand why in a few years, when you come to appreciate what it’s done for you. Stick it out, and eventually you’ll realize that this job has left you prepared for pretty much anything, ready to deal with any kind of person.  You are going to see things in this job you never thought you would see, and deal with situations you never imagined could happen, and eventually you are going to learn to handle these things as if they happen all the time.  It won’t just be behind the bar. People fuck with you all the time, everywhere. People you know, people you don’t know, and people you wish you didn’t know. What this job teaches you is how to adapt and how to react. It teaches you about people, and once you understand people, you know the world, and then there’s nothing that can touch you.”

That man was right.


Posted on March 28, 2012, in Essay and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. It always amazes me how much bartenders can remember – everything from basic drinks to a patron’s personal history. 🙂

  2. Yea, Yea. You nailed it on the head my friend. I was a bartender for 4 years and loved every moment, I stepped away for the last 6 years and am now back this time with a different outlook on things. Before it was a job now its a learning experience every day. I would love to re-blog this if possible.

    Michael Betz

  3. Reblogged this on Michael Betz's World and commented:
    Well. Well. Sometimes you come across someone in your profession that just nails the description of your job. As a Bartender myself this hits home. We are not just Service workers. We are TRUE NETWORKERS. Care to comment??

  4. Great post! i often sit looking out a nice office window nowadays and think,”loved that profession. would have done it forever, if…..”. and the “if” you hit bang on. it is rarely treated like a skilled profession it is (re: respect from employers, job benefits, etc). takes years to learn the trade and hone the craft. Any good bartender knows there are few that can do the job and handle it like a pro.

    and your customer was right! often tell people, the skills from bartending have served me best in the professional world – negotiating, mediating, creative/quick thinking, standing strong through crisis, good scotch. yep, sure loved bartending

    • Thank you for your thoughtful reply.

      I do think that the tide is shifting, and we will soon see a day where it is considered to be a skilled trade, at least by enough people to make it seem more respectable. Television programs of recent years seem to have made it “okay” to be a chef. For the craft bartender, it may only be a matter of time.

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