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What Makes a Great Bartender?

Head Bartender at The American Bar in the Savoy

Try turning on the TV without seeing a proclaimed celebrity. Along with the ubiquitous celebrity chefs, there are celebrity home repairmen, celebrity outdoor survivors, gardeners, nutritionists, hoteliers and aerobic instructors.

So far, the well of the celebrity bartender is relatively untapped. But it’s probably more due to the history of the profession than the lack of reality show pitches available.

The bartender has always had a modicum of fame, if only between the four walls of his or her bar. Bartenders enjoy a local-hero status, drawing loyal regulars and enthusiastic travelers alike. In cities as big as New York and London they can build their own small communities, villages where the saloon is the heart of all social life.

Knowing you’re in the presence of a great bartender is almost instinctive. But what makes them great?

For this article we’re concentrating on cocktail bartenders. There are many great bartenders that pour shots and beers at pubs, ale houses and taverns around the world. But to reach the highest level, some skill with the shaker is needed.

First, Service

The first moment you walk into a bar is the most important. Regular or not, you should be acknowledged. The best bartenders will welcome you and give you an initial glimpse of what kind of drinking experience you can expect.

They are great air-traffic controllers of their bar area, knowing when it’s getting too crowded before the bar is three-deep like the keg line at a college party and knowing when table service is going to make it faster for everyone.

The worst bartenders will make you feel like you are a chore, not a customer. There are places that should supply you with semaphore flags to get the attention of the staff. This shortcoming is exacerbated if the barkeep likes to talk shop. There’s little more frustrating than a group of bartenders, waiters and barbacks huddling at one end, oblivious to the drinkers because they just can’t wait to bitch about the management.

(Also, customers are rarely fooled by pretense that it takes five people to suddenly clean glasses for ten minutes.)

Customers are also not an opportunity for the bartender to vent. Lots of people work double shifts without resorting to telling the rest of their workplace.

The art of knowing how to talk to customers can make a good bartender great. A bartender shouldn’t be a substitute therapist, but customers are generally there to have a good time. A little empathy, a little light banter and a great knowledge of the bar and the drinks make a great combination.

We asked for a suggestion in a world-famous bar only to be told by the bartender that he doesn’t like cocktails.

And great bartenders like what they serve.

“Gin and Tonic? Do They Mix?”

You should always be able to go into a bar and ask what they recommend. And great bartenders answer without stereotyping their customers. They ask what your tastes are. “The ladies love mojitos” is not something you should hear.

The best bartenders should be creative with drinks and ideally their own cocktail lists, preferably short with a mixture of base spirits. Going off menu with new creations should be encouraged, but classics should be served with close adherence to the true recipe.

An excellent palette is essential. Tweaks here and there may not be immediately apparent to most drinkers, but being able to alter drinks to people’s tastes is a sublime skill. The best behind the bar also know what strength of drink to offer customers, depending often on experience, size or state of disrepair.

The Bon Vivant’s Companion

The best bartenders we’ve encountered embrace a role or a certain style. Many work well as gurus, holding court in their bar for the international cocktail set. There are master mixologists who take on apprentices. There’s the mad scientists who spend all their time in basement labs behind a cloud of dry ice, flavored foam and centrifuges. And there are the contest troubadours who spend more time on a boozy version of the Grand Tour than actually in their own bar.

There are great bartenders in each of those categories. They avoid industry trends and spirit snobbery (such as refusing to serve vodka). Rather they are inspired by your tastes to make the best cocktail for you.

A global perspective is another quality that separates the great from the good. Most top bartenders will have spent some time abroad finding new influences and flavors. Or better yet, they inspire others to bring them artisan liquors, unique bitters and small-batch spirits.

But probably the most essential quality besides knowing how to make good drinks is a good temperament. A great bartender is never shaken.

Rating the Famous Bartenders

Doug Coughlin – Cocktail

Gets Points For: Keeping the philosophy element of the bartender with Coughlin’s Laws.

Loses Points For: Not finishing that bottle of Louis XIII.

Verdict: Still the measuring stick for every bartender at TGI Friday’s.

Lloyd – The Shining

Gets Points For: Immediately extending credit to a potentially great customer.

Loses Points For: Slowing making you insane with politeness and clichés.

Verdict: Sell crazy someplace else, Lloyd.

Eddie – Barfly

Gets Points For: Coming to work day after day at that bar.

Loses Points For: Beating up his only literary customer.

Verdict: There are friendlier places to drink.

Woody – Cheers

Gets Points For: Being the only bartender who can make a Screaming Viking. (Now, the only place you can get on is from Brian Silva at Rules’ cocktail bar in London.)

Loses Points For: Being only the second-most popular TV character with the middle name “Tiberius.”

Verdict: Every bar needs a great set-up man.

Nat – The Lost Weekend

Gets Points For: Returning Don’s typewriter, helping him to turn his lost weekend into something worthwhile.

Loses Points For: Staying open on Yom Kippur.

Verdict: Not a barrel of laughs at the best of times.

Nick – It’s a Wonderful Life

Gets Points For: Being a good guy at Martini’s in one reality.

Loses Points For: Giving out wings.

Verdict: Nobody should stake this man for his own bar.

Don – “10”

Gets Points For: Being a genuinely caring bartender and making the “incommunicado” joke.

Loses Points For: Working at a resort.

Verdict: One of the bartenders you hope you run into during your midlife crisis.

Moe Szyslak - Simpsons

Gets Points For: Always falling for Bart’s prank calls.

Loses Points For: Stealing the Flaming Homer, trying to steal Marge, changing his name to Moe St. Cool, pushing Barney off the wagon, spitting in every drink he’s served Homer, transporting endangered species and buying a Love Tester machine.

Verdict: Somehow has become an aspirational character for many an East Village bartender.


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