Now reading Rethinking the Modern Bartender

Rethinking the Modern Bartender

The profession has changed. It's time bartenders did too.

P(our) is a new project—a collective, they call it—launched by Alex Kratena and Simone Caporale, late of the Artesian bar in London, that aims to connect the wider world of drink professionals. “If we’re going to improve as an industry,” Kratena said of his group’s mission, “we need to break down the barriers between bartenders, baristas, beer makers, and other hospitality professionals.” P(our) is run by volunteers and funded entirely by donations—not sponsorship from liquor companies.

In June, P(our) put together a two-day symposium at the progressive and respected Cocktails and Spirits in Paris conference. We’ll be sharing select interviews with and essays from the presenters in the coming weeks, starting with Jim Meehan on the theme of the symposium: rethinking the modern bartender. —Ryan Healey

It’s time to rethink what a modern bartender is. Bartending is no longer just a side job or something to do during a summer in college. You don’t fall into bartending anymore; you choose to be a bartender. The industry has evolved—there’s an unprecedented interest in cocktails—and we have evolved along with it, whether we want to admit it or not. A bartender no longer has to work behind a bar—he or she can focus on sales or operations, advocacy or consulting. Bartenders are journalists and educators. The opportunities are endless. Bartending is a career—and we need to start treating it as such.

How did this happen? A number of things have changed the industry from when I started twenty years ago. Education is a major factor. In the United States, the job market is failing college graduates. Kids get out of school with hundreds of thousands of dollars of student loans and face a choice: work in the service industry, something they might enjoy doing, and make $50,000 or $60,000 or take a job in their field and make $40,000. (That’s if they can find a job at all.) Service jobs have replaced manufacturing jobs in the Western world—and our industry has changed as a result.

At the same time, consumers are becoming more educated. They’re demanding natural, premium products. We’re told that consumers are drinking less and drinking better, but I just think they’re drinking the same and drinking better. Cocktails are now being received as culinary art; people are willing to spend money on quality. And we bartenders are becoming better educated, too. In the past, liquor companies spent their money on consumer-facing marketing. Now, they spend money on helping us share our knowledge through demonstrations and seminars.

What does it mean that all these great things are happening? What does it mean for us bartenders? It means that we’re doing a job for forty years that we thought we’d be doing for four. And that’s not always good. Physically, we’re like the Karate Kid: every day, wax on, wax off. It’s repetitive work, and it takes its toll. We’re on our feet for our entire shifts, breathing in secondhand smoke (though that’s better now), shouting over loud music, eating at odd hours. I’ll be honest: I’m twenty years into this, and some days, it’s harder to put the wax on and take the wax off.

Bartending is emotionally draining, too. As a young bartender, the craziness of this job was a thrill: the fights, the flirtatiousness, the long nights drinking. Twenty years later, after the one thousandth time someone snaps at me, or three millionth time someone slams the door shut at PDT, I want to leap over the bar, grab them by their ear, and walk them outside and beat them in the street. It’s not just the time we spend in the bars. As a bartender, you’re working weekends without days off, or you’re missing family holidays or your boyfriend or girlfriend’s birthday—this affects your relationships and those you love.

Working like this for your entire career is not sustainable. We have no idea what a normal life is. We spend so much time around other bartenders that we don’t know how other people live. It takes its toll: weight gain, rosy cheeks, hearing loss, throat and lung damage, chronic joint injuries from repetitive movements, lack of intimate relationships, and lifestyle-related injuries called gout and fatty liver disease, one of which I am suffering from right now.

I’m uncomfortable watching this lifestyle sicken and kill my colleagues. We have to admit we have a problem in our industry. We let sexual harassment slide, the cocaine and pharmaceutical abuse, too. We have gender-inequality problems. In the cocktail community there are far more men working in cocktail bars than women, and there are women who are interested and can’t get involved.

How can we change this? We need to rethink how we’re using our education. There’s a nerdiness to to our industry that is changing it for the worse. Our guests don’t need to know every technical detail of every spirit; most are coming to us to have a good time. We need to go from technical intelligence to emotional intelligence. We are in the people business; we are in the relationship business. We all have our phones and social media, but we’ve lost the ability to connect with one another. As bartenders, though, we do this every day. We need to hold this skill in higher regard. We need to teach other people how to do it.

We also need to use those skills on one another. There’s a culture in our industry of celebrating people who drink the most, eat the most, work the latest, and party the hardest. Many of us as bartenders think of ourselves kind of like “The Dude” from The Big Lebowski: a sloppy, drunk, fun, artsy, intelligent guy. That has to stop. We’re smarter than that now. We need to use our emotional intelligence to celebrate healthy lifestyles. As a bartender, my fate and my future are inextricably linked to other bartenders’; we are all in this together. We have to start looking at our individual problems as our collective problems and take better care of one another. Our customers take us seriously now, and it’s time we did the same.

Here’s my message: as bartenders, we are lights. We’ve been given an incredible platform—both behind the bar and beyond it. Now the question is: What kind of light will you shine? Will you speak up against the problems in our industry? Will you use your education to educate your peers and your customers? The answer to these questions will determine the future of our industry. Being a modern bartender isn’t about being the light that burns the brightest—it’s about being the light that burns the longest. How long will you burn?