Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Reflections on Bartending

As mentioned in my earlier post, I recently spent three nights behind the bar covering for a friend. I've never been behind the bar professionally before - only at events & parties that I planned. I have been known to make several hundred drinks in a day, but they're all the same drink and I make it in batches. Plus I don't have to ring it up in the computer, etc. and take care of everything else.

To prepare, I went in a couple of nights beforehand to try and learn the computer system, menu, kitchen setup, etc. I was nervous, because
I wasn't working just any weekend, it was Valentine's Day weekend. As Erik put it in the comments to my last note, I "jumped in with both feet."

Here are some highlights of what I learned, now that I've had a chance to look back at the experience a bit.

Bartending is Physically Hard Work

I found I was running (well, OK, I'm exaggerating - I was walking very fast and hustling) pretty much from 6.30 pm until the end of the night on Friday and Saturday. Whether pouring drinks, entering food & drink orders into the computer or taking payment, carting dishes to/from the kitchen, drying glassware, or whatever, I was extremely busy, even with a coworker (who was just as busy, if not more so). I came home exhausted each night.

On Saturday night (V-day), we had a third bartender, who pretty much ran circles around me in term of speed on the service bar and dishes (he has worked in several high-volume bars). And to be honest, he wasn't very nice about it either. I've come to understand that's pretty common in the bar business too.

Bartending is About Service & Hospitality

Even though one's interests might lie in coming up with a new cocktail, or in certain types of drinks, bartending is primarily about service. And this is especially the case on a holiday like Valentine's, where people are out to have a nice, romantic evening, and your job is to facilitate that experience. I remembered a
post I'd seen on Neyah White's blog awhile back about lessons for a new bartender, and he was spot on.

On Valentine's day, I was assigned to take care of all patrons at the bar on Saturday night, and I knew I was in for a challenge. I would be not only the bartender making drinks & pouring wine for them, but also a server, because many people came in to eat dinner at the bar (couldn't get a reservation, so that was the option). And I would deal with all the people who were waiting for a table and wanted a drink. This was all a bit more than I could actually handle, but I did my best. Thankfully, the restaurant has wonderful customers who were patient, especially when it was clear that the bartender is in over her head.

Using Proper Technique is Challenging
I measured virtually all of my cocktails (not the vodka & sodas, or vodka rocks-type drinks, but the others). This really slowed me down compared to the free-pouring done by the other bartenders, especially when I was also juggling food orders, wine pours, dishes, etc. I am not experienced in free-pouring, and generally do not trust it to be accurate, so I did not do it. But it was challenging to take this stance - there was peer pressure and some funny looks. I've had other bartenders tell me I must not know what I'm doing if I measure, and I still haven't fully figured out the best response to that.

Making a cocktail with proper measurements takes a lot more time than pouring a glass of wine. However, that isn't necessarily reflected in the pricing - you get $10 either way for the restaurant, at least in the north suburbs of Chicago. Perhaps this is why the cocktails aren't overly emphasized in the menu.

Many Bartenders Work Really Hard for the Money They Get
The way money flows in a restaurant is rather complicated, and many bartenders work really hard for what they actually take home. Of course there are some rock star bartenders, especially in high-volume city clubs, that do quite well. But I think that's the exception, not the rule. I only brought home tips, but there was a huge swing in what I brought home that didn't necessarily relate to how busy I was or how busy the restaurant was.

I learned a lot from this adventure, and I'm really glad I did it. I haven't officially asked, but I hope the restaurant feels I did a good job for them too. I definitely have a whole new appreciation for how hard my friends behind the bar are working, and how many things they are juggling.

Friday, February 13, 2009

A Taste of Rum Jumbie

We didn't see much that was new to us in terms of drinks on our recent trip to Florida. Initially, we were surprised to see only one bottle of absinthe the entire time we was there, given how prevalent it has become elsewhere in the country. After seeing what people are drinking in Key West, however, I'm not really surprised.

The only bottle that was new to us was Rum Jumbie. According to their website, it is/was available in Chicago, but we've never seen it and I could not find it on the website they suggested was selling it online. Other things are out of date on the website (links don't work, latest news is from 2005, etc.), so things might not be going so well for Rum Jumbie in the US these days.

At any rate, it was new to us, so I asked to try it. It tastes quit ea bit like Hawaiian Punch, something I had entirely too much of as a kid, with orange notes. Although the Ministry of Rum's website indicates that it is bottled at 40% alcohol, ours definitely wasn't - I'm pretty sure it was 20%, but I didn't write it down and can't remember for sure.

The friendly poolside bartender advised that he uses it in tropical drinks sometimes, although he couldn't remember a time he'd used it recently. Tropical drinks are probably the right category for it, given that it comes from St. Maarten and has a rum base. Anyone else tried this and/or have a recommendation for drinking it?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Time Behind (the) Bars

A mixologist friend of mine asked me for a favor. Kind of a big favor, and not one she could ask any of our bartender friends because of the timing. She asked me to cover a couple of shifts for her on Valentine's Day weekend. She has an important family event to go to that had to be moved up on the calendar, but it's a big weekend in the restaurant business and everyone we know will be working. So, with some trepidation, I said I'd do it. I've never been professionally behind the bar before, although I've made thousands of drinks at home, at parties and at events.

So far, I've spent one night behind the bar, trying to learn the computer system, the menu and the basics of where everything is kept, and I have one more training session tonight. The restaurant has a very nice wine list and food menu, but I was surprised at just how much wine by the glass was ordered compared to other drink options. Most of the cocktails were very simple ones - scotch on the rocks, vodka tonic, etc. - only a couple of the specialty cocktails were ordered all night, despite the nice list.

I'm figuring it'll be a lot of wine & champagne this weekend, like it was the other Friday night I was there, but who knows? Tonight, my final night of training, is half price martini night, so at least I'll get to shake some cocktails. Last time, the only thing I shook was a Negroni (that wasn't really a Negroni, since it had dry vermouth not sweet and grapefruit juice added).

I've got my fingers crossed for a smooth weekend behind the bar - wish me luck!

Drinking in the Keys

We went to Florida for a wedding last week, and spent most of our time in Key West. We saw some beautiful scenery, and were part of a wonderful wedding.

However, we didn't have any great drinks. The best drink I had was a Mojito at Ortanique in Coral Gables. It was well made and tasty, but it was very small (total liquid must've been about 2 oz tops), and it cost something like $15. Even more than I would pay here in Chicago, and I'd likely get a larger drink.

Ernest Hemingway Haunts
We of course made the requisite visits to Ernest Hemingway's house and saw his 6-toed cats, and also stopped at Sloppy Joe's and Capt. Tony's (the original Sloppy Joe's) to walk in his shoes a bit. Ever since Phil Greene's session at Tales of the Cocktail last year about Hemingway, I was anticipating this trip.

Disappointing Drinks
At most of the bars we visited, virtually everyone was drinking beer or a pre-mixed rum concoction (usually far too sweet for me). The other mojitos I tried were not as good as the first, so I ended up sticking to beer too. Boy does Bacardi spend a lot of money down there getting placements on menus and listings for the "Bacardi Mojito," and people claiming to serve a Hemingway daiquiri always put sweeteners in it - it's just not right.

And the beer was not very interesting most of the time - aside from the big brands, which dominate there, Key West Sunset Ale was relatively common, and we found some interesting beers at Sloppy Joe's back room and at the Wagon Wheel. Surprisingly (to me), Yuengling has quite a presence there.

Just for fun, here are a couple of photos from the Everglades - that was the highlight of the trip by far, aside from the wedding. It's the dry season, so wildlife congregrates near the larger water holes looking for food. We happened onto one trail that had many alligators resting nearby - it was mating season so we even got to hear some of their mating calls. Cool! And it truly is a sea of grass, but when you look down, there are a few inches of water or more - did you know that the water is actually moving? It moves slowly (about 1/4 a mile a day, I believe), but it is moving.