by Hannah Lanfear
For many moons we’ve banged the drum for anyone in earshot that a bartender is more than a mere drinks maker. Your trusty drinksmith will find you a delicious drink to suit your palate, split your check twelfty ways, attentively tend to the whims of drunken clientele, clear the bathroom of carelessly discarded paper towels, help you book a restaurant table, wash out manky bins late at night and we’ll do it all with speed, and charm, and good humour. Making drinks is but a teeny, tiny part of it. Despite all these myriad skills the wanna-be bartender must attain the barrier
to entry is low: all you need is a cracking grin, a can-do attitude and a willingness to learn, and you too could be the next Monica Berg, the next Ryan Chetiyawardana.
Maybe I read it or maybe someone told me, I completely forget, but I once heard the difference between a cook and a chef as being not how they worked, but what they knew. Because a cook may use the same processes to get to the end result, but a chef can tell you why a goose gorges itself on grain to fatten its liver before it makes its migration. It’s that care for the detail that divides them.
Bartending is a trade that seems to attract the curious. Yes, we’re a motley crew of international descent – gnarly night workers with a dangerously social bent, but within each of us a passion for learning, and it’s that learning that means this by-rote job is so addictive. Like great chefs the constant pursuit to understand our ingredients completely leads our learning to places you’d never expect and before you know it you’re lost in exploring the volatilities of different alcohols, or arguing the finer points of yeast selection for making rum. What a decadence, what rich food for our brains. It’s the romance that makes spooning the sick of a cityman from a bathroom basin with your bare hand just about tolerable.
The most knowledgeable people I ever met are those who learn voraciously and without ego.
Who are absent of concern that they’ll appear weak if they don’t know something; and who wield knowledge lightly, like a feather, sharing what they’ve learned gently. On the other hand that acquisition of knowledge can make a person a monster, arrogant and dismissive of our guests’ requests. As the old adage goes the more you learn the more you realise you don’t know. As a spirits educator that not only teaches but learns every day I’m reminded of it often.
It could be that in the present climate it’s a lot to ask for us all to hit the books and keep learning. Right now the world is filled with hundreds of thousands of hospitality workers who are anxious about rent, food, the future, and bar owners wondering if they can even open the doors again. And though it’s terrifying to look ahead and wonder if COVID-19 could tear down the professionalism in our industry as Prohibition did in the 1920s we have to hope we’ll come back stronger, and to the future I hope that bartending will never lose its beautiful brain. Once people can leave their homes again that we have to ask the difficult question of why does a person go out for a cocktail at all? Why do we spend such sums on a moment’s luxury? Whatever the answer is we need to bring it in spades to eek people out for a cocktail away from the safety of their homes.
There’s been a laudable swing in the focus of our industry towards the importance of hospitality, a movement away from bartenders behaving like grouchy pissflaps and rediscovering the importance of being humble, warm, and kind. The charge has been led most overtly by Dandelyan who employed bartenders expressly to be nice to people. What a tonic, what a refreshing change from the perpetually furious (and often absurdly high) bartender of the early century, gurning their way through yet another ticket and yelling at guests for unwittingly trying to order a drink in dispense well.
Niceness coupled with the gentle wielding of knowledge are a heady combination, and for me it’s literally the only reason I’d want to drink a twelve quid drink. If you can select a spirit especially for me and maybe even hand-pluck a tasty morsel of wisdom about it for me then I will be forever your regular guest. Heck that’s probably going to be my new favourite drink.
Yes we need portfolios of fantastic priced premium spirits to keep the lights on in our inner city bars, but I’d LOVE to see more bartender- autonomy in selecting products to make drinks with because they have a passion for the spirits themselves, and for me that begins with a well- rounded, brand agnostic knowledge of distillates and their production (insert subtle WSET big-up here). Knowing how to find the perfect whisky to fit the guest’s Bobby Burns, how to lightly give the tiniest titbit of info to enchant them. We find our guest’s next favourite cocktail and we make it their own, and in doing so we make a gift of our curiosity. Possibly that sounds pretentious as fuck but here we are.
As a young bartender I learned all I could. I was enthralled by early cocktail books, and would take obscure books into work and we’d recreate that snapshot of history in liquid form. It kept the lights on for me, kept me in love with my work but as I moved up the ranks I can’t say that I always used my learning to help bring others up. I was a talented bartender that loved to make drinks and thrill people with cocktails and then suddenly I was put into a management role and it wasn’t clear to me then as it is to me now that there is an obligation to nurture young bartenders rather than expect them to self-study. And if there’s one thing I am longing to change about our trade post-COVID it’s that we teach bartenders how to move up the ranks, teaching them the skills to lead a team, to manage a stock, but most importantly how to pass on what they learn with love, and a lightness of touch.
The spirits industry puts SO much investment into teaching the bartender to be the gatekeeper of their spirits stories but then they steal them away to be brand ambassadors, which yes, it’s a teaching position, but the on- trade is missing out by not training great bartenders to become great bar managers and keeping that knowledge and passion within the bar for just a little longer.
To all you people who made it right to the end of my sermon give yourself a pat on the head. Just to say I cannot WAIT to smash a Junglebird with you all, real soon.