Blogger to Bartender

Camper English, and some of us other writers, have been trying to get some sort of conference together for those of us that blog about cocktails and spirits.

Apparently, the food bloggers, wine bloggers, beer bloggers, and mommy bloggers have fancy conferences all the time.

Last year, during Portland Cocktail Week, Camper organized an event he called Drink.Write.2012.

The topics ranged from making money from your blog, (good luck with that,) to publishing a book, (good luck with that).

I was pleased to be in town one of the days and able to attend as well as participate on one of the panels.

I was on a panel with Matt Robold, of Rumdood fame, and Blair Reynolds, of Hale Pele and BG Reynolds Syrups. Our topic was “From Writer to Bartender”.

Tuesday October 23
1:30 – 2:30 PM
The Kennedy School Gymnasium
From Writer to Bartender
Have you ever thought about trying your hand at bartending? This sure-to-be lively panel will be hosted by three bloggers who made the switch either full- or part-time: Blair Reynolds of B.G Reynold’s syrups and the just-opened Hale Pele in Portland; Erik Ellestad of the Savoy Stomp blog and bartender at Heaven’s Dog in San Francisco; and Matt Robold, mild-mannered programmer by day, blogger at RumDood.com, and bartender at 320 Main in Orange County and host of the Rum Society at Cana Rum Bar in Los Angeles at night. We’ll hear stories of their greatest successes and failures and get advice on convincing bar managers to give you a chance on the other side of the bar.
Speakers: Blair Reynolds, Erik Ellestad, Matt Robold
Sponsor: Four Roses Bourbon

Figured, since not all of you were able to attend, I’d write up my answers to the questions here. Camper’s questions are the ones in bold quotes.

“Hi kids – Here is what I’m thinking of asking in the Writer to Bartender panel. It’s only 55 minutes long so everybody talk loud and fast.”

“Tell me about the first time you bartended – how did it come about?”

I started the Savoy Cocktail Book Project, “Stomping Through the Savoy” on eGullet.org in June of 2006.

While working on the Savoy Cocktail Book project, I had added a feature where I would take a selection of cocktails, send them to a bartender, and then go to a bar where they worked and have them make a few of the cocktails. Do a little question and answer, post a bio, and a cocktail they had created. For me, it was a way to give a little back to some of the bartenders who had inspired me attempt the Savoy Cocktail Book project in the first place.

Once I started meeting bartenders, I guess I started to wonder if I could do the job.

On the other hand, I’d worked in restaurants for quite a few years when I was younger. Why would I want to return to working that hard?

When I met Erik Adkins, I believe he had some curiosity about what would happen if he put an Internet cocktail geek behind the bar, so he gave me the chance to try out Bartending a couple nights at Flora in Oakland.

After trying the job out, Erik A. told me I had done as well as anyone else he knew on their first couple nights at the job, but asked me to think about why I would want to Bartend. I already had a good full time day job with benefits and Bartending would take away from the time I could spend with my wife.

He had some good points, I supposed, at the time, and slightly crest-fallen, put the idea of pursuing Bartending as a career away for a while.

But I couldn’t quite get the experience entirely out of my head. I had worked in restaurants when I was younger, and I was starting to feel like I missed it. I ended up doing some catering Bartending for Rye on the Road, restarted the Savoy Cocktail Book Nights at Alembic with the staff there, and eventually I convinced Erik A to give me a few shifts as a Bartender at Heaven’s Dog when it opened in 2009. When another of the bartenders left in 2010, I stepped up to 3 nights a week behind the bar at Heaven’s Dog and was able to cut my day job to half time.


“How did blogging prepare you for it?”

The best preparation from blogging is simply knowledge of spirits, cocktails, and other cocktail ingredients. To Bartend, you need to know what you’re working with, and all the research I did for the blog was great in preparing me for this aspect of bartending. Didn’t hurt that the project gave me a fairly encyclopedic knowledge of pre-prohibition and prohibition era cocktails. Also, I believe, especially, the job I did as a host on the forums of eGullet gained me some good karma and respect as a sensible, if somewhat prickly, expert in the arenas of spirits and cocktails.


“How did it not? What skills should one work on before even thinking about bartending at a real bar?”

First, when you blog, you usually do not have to talk to other people in person. The sort of flam-ey, virtual, you’re wrong and I am right, sorts of things you can do on the Internet, just don’t really work in person.

When Internet cocktail geeks think of bartending, they usually think of making different cocktails and mastering cocktail trivia.

For the most part, making cocktails is just a small part of the job.

You go to work in the afternoon, (or morning,) spend an hour or two getting the bar ready for service. Juicing citrus, preparing garnish, getting the stations set up, checking inventory, stocking, etc.

Then you spend from 6-10 hours making small talk with random customers and mixing the same few cocktails over and over.

Afterwards, you spend an hour or two cleaning the bar, stocking it for the next day, counting money, and accounting for credit card charges.

While it is important to know some cocktails and be able to make them consistently, a lot of the other parts of the job are much more important.

Finally, as a blogger, you don’t have to pay too much attention to personal hygiene. As a bartender, you may need to learn to iron and almost always need to wear pants on the job.

“What is the hardest part about bartending, or what did you have to learn on the job? How did you screw up horribly and embarrass yourself?”

There are a few completely unrelated skills which are necessary as a bartender.

First, you need the ability to relate to and remember random people, and coworkers, in a sincere, personable, and positive way no matter how you are feeling on the day.

Second, you should be able to handle money in a confident and accurate way.

Third, you need to be able to perform a repetitive task, making drinks, accurately and consistently.

Fourth, and most important, you need to do all these things simultaneously, and with the appearance that you are comfortable and relaxed with all of them. As my friend Matt Robold said, “You need to own the bar.”

For me the worst days, are the ones where a miscommunication with a customer leads to a misunderstanding and then some sort of escalation. You made the wrong drink because you or the customer asked the wrong questions. You misheard a food order or forgot to send the order for something. Usually, there is some way to salvage an interaction, but sometimes there just is not. Accepting that and trying not to take it too personally is hard.

Also, reading negative yelp reviews you know are about yourself sucks.

“How should someone who wants to get a bar gig prepare for it in advance?”

Don’t work for free for more than a very limited set amount of time. In my opinion, the so called “Stage” is nothing more than a scam perpetrated by restaurants to take advantage of over eager Culinary school graduates and lower their restaurant’s bottom line with free labor.

Working as a Barback is good experience, but generally will not lead directly to a bartender job, except in very rare circumstances. Also, Barbacks who spend all their time trying to learn to be Bartenders, instead of actually doing their barbacking job, are annoying.

The best preparation might be working in a restaurant as a Food Server, Barista, or Cook.

Other than that, know your ingredients, and be willing to work hard and learn on the job.

Also, working as a bartender for a catering company is a great way to get started, though a somewhat different discipline from working in a actual bar.

“How do you ask for a bar job? Just walk into a place like you own it and ask?”

First, spend some time at the bar or restaurant figuring out if it is the sort of place you would feel comfortable working. Stop by and case out the joint, make some small talk with the bartenders, barbacks, and servers. Do your best to make a good impression, but don’t appear over eager. Pay attention to the demeanor and apparent morale of the staff, it goes a long way towards indicating if it would be a good place to work.

If it seems like somewhere you would want to work, dress appropriately for the venue, put on your most outgoing demeanor, and drop by the bar or restaurant during a not too busy time of the day. Ask to see the bar manager, and if the bar manager isn’t there when you stop by, leave your resume and ask when s/he will have time to talk to you. Be persistent, but not annoying, we are all busy people. When you meet the manager pay attention to how s/he relates to you, remember you will probably be working for them closely.

Also, when you get the job, remember it is a real job. Showing up on time, behaving in a professional manner, and expressing a willingness to work hard will go a long way towards gaining you credibility.

Bartending, at its most basic, is usually a minimum wage (if you’re lucky), no benefits, service industry job.

Along those lines, as the joke goes, bartenders work where (and when) everyone else plays. Nights, weekends, holidays.

If you want to work in Food and Bev, you need to be willing to work those hours.

“What have you learned as a bartender – and how has it impacted your writing?”

While Bartending does open up some different subjects to talk about on the blog, it also tends to negatively impact the ability to write.

At least at first, if you are holding down a full time job, Bartending part time, and blogging, one of those things is going to suffer. Most likely the one which doesn’t pay, is going to be the one to suffer the most, and you will have a hard time finding the time and willpower to write.

As it is, you need to be pretty careful, unless you want to go all in, to set boundaries for both bartending and your day job so neither one is too adversely affected by your choices. If you’re just checking out Bartending, don’t quit your day job, and don’t let Bartending kill your chances to advance at your job. While professional bartenders usually don’t drink to excess while they are working, they often drink copiously when they are not working. If you are out until 5 AM drinking with your new bartender friends, you aren’t going to be in any shape to do a good job at your day job the next morning. Likewise, be forthright with your day job employers, if possible, and inform them about things that might affect your availability to do whatever it is you do during the day.

Speaking of being careful, you also need to be even more careful to balance work/family. Adding another job means less time with your family. You’ll have to work extra hard to make the time you do spend valuable and refreshing to yourself and your family. Not to mention, the whole, “out until 5AM drinking,” thing tends to be viewed even less favorably by your family than by your employers.

For me Bartending is an ongoing learning experience. It helps me to not just stay interested and informed in cocktails, spirits, wine, beer, and food, but also helps me to be more confident and loosen up my natural reticence to be outgoing and talk to strangers. I feel like I am a more well rounded person for having made the choice to pursue a career as a bartender.

Hello world!

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Picon Biere #7

One of the classic combinations in certain regions of France is Picon Biere, that is a Pilsener or Wheat beer with a splash of Amer Picon poured in.

Unfortunately, we don’t get Amer Picon here in these United States.

However, even if Diageo refuses to send us Amer Picon, we do get a lot of other Amaros…

With this series of posts we shall explore the possibilities we do have available.

Well, sometimes you do have Amer Picon available.

So let’s say you’re scanning the shelves behind the bar for interesting things, as I often do.

Perhaps you see a bottle that looks a little like this:

Amer Picon

What do you do?

Amer Picon

Trumer Pilsener & Amer Picon

METHOD: Pour beer into the mason jar or glass of your choosing. Pour in 3/4 ounce (or to taste) of Amer Picon.

Well, the polite thing is to observe the bottle with some degree of apparent awe. Someone probably had to carry the damn thing back in their suitcase from Europe, for gosh sakes. Ask your bartender politely, if that might be a bottle of Amer Picon. If he acknowledges your query positively, ask if he wouldn’t mind making you a Picon Biere.

Now it is possible that your bartender type will take some offense at this notion, that you might waste his precious Amer Picon in Beer. In which case, perhaps, if it seems the situation is salvageable, ask for a Brooklyn or Creole Cocktail. Whew.

Picon Biere

However, if your bartender is as nice as Kevin Diedrich at Jasper’s Corner Tap, he might be impressed that you have ordered a Picon Biere and gladly make one for you. Though do note, the label says this is, “Kevin’s Bottle,” so don’t be offended if he doesn’t oblige.

Meyer Lemon Rickey

A friend recently came back with some pictures from Pouring Ribbons in New York. Apparently, the talented bartenders there have been doing interesting things with ice.

In one case, they make puck shaped ice circles which nearly perfectly fit in an old fashioned type rocks glass. They build a portion of the drink, place the cube in the glass, then pour another portion of the drink on top of the cube. As the drink sits, the two parts slowly come together as the ice melts.

Dammit, Joaquin, you are making us look like we are not trying!

The idea of a drink that evolves as you consume it has always appealed to me, whether it was layers or flavors which come out as it warms, or through some other physical process.

At Alembic, where I sometimes work, they have been making ice made from water lightly flavored with cucumber for one of their drinks.

I like tea, so I was wondering about making ice from tea. Could you make a drink evolve by using ice made from strong tea?

I have a comical comment in my notebook, “Long Island Tea Ice,” which cracked me up when I first thought of it.

A few weeks ago, Erik Adkins had asked me about some posts I had written on eGullet in 2007 regarding the Rickey. I had to do some internet autopsy action to even remember what I had written.

The Rickey is a simple drink: Spirit, Lemon (or lime), and Soda. A very literal Highball with Lemon.

From Gary Regan’s writeup of the Rickey:

Whiskey Joe Rickey is Cool, Lemon or Lime

Joe Rickey disavowed the drink, though, saying in an interview published in an Ohio newspaper in 1900, “The ‘rickey’ originated in Washington, and I was in a sense responsible for it. You see, it was like this: I never drank whisky neat – it’s a mighty injurious system – but whisky diluted with a little water won’t hurt anybody. Of course, a carbonated water makes it brighter and more palatable, and for that reason I always took a long drink, usually whisky and water with a lump of ice.

“This is the highball of common commerce, and has been known to thirsty humanity for many generations. To this, however, I added the juice of a lemon in my desire to get a healthful drink, for the lemon acid is highly beneficial and tones up the stomach wonderfully.

“This combination became very popular at Shoomaker’s in Washington, where I did most of my drinking, and gradually the folks began asking for those drinks that Rickey drinks. About this time the use of limes became fairly common, and one afternoon an experimenter tried the effect of lime juice instead of lemon juice in the drink, and from that time on all ‘rickey’ were made from limes.

“I never drink the lime juice combination myself because I think the lemon acid is mellower and more beneficial.”

That may be, but the juice of a whole regular modern lemon makes for a pretty tart drink.

Thinking about that, myself, I thought of Meyer Lemons and their slightly lower acid content. Plus, I’ve always liked the gamey-thyme like flavor of their peel with Rye Whiskey.

Also, what if I upped the complexity of the drink a bit, by using the tea flavored ice?

If you’re using tea flavored ice, you might as well use a strong flavored tea…

Meyer Lemon Rickey

Rye Whiskey Rickey, with Meyer Lemon and Tea Ice

1 1/2 oz Rye Whiskey
Juice 1 Meyer Lemon
1 Lapsang Souchong Tea Ice Cube*
Soda Water

Pour the Rye Whiskey and Lemon over the ice cube in a highball glass (smallish is better, 8 oz is best). Stir briefly. Top with a little soda and stir once.

*Lapsang Souchong Tea is a black tea dried by smoking over a fire. It displays strong campfire notes. Brew a double strong batch of tea (2 tsp per cup) and pour into ice cube molds. Freeze.

At first you don’t really notice the smoke notes of the ice, but by the end, you wonder, “Is this a Scotch Rickey”?

Stay tuned for Long Island Tea Ice…

Once in a Lifetime

Back in the US, as I started to contemplate writing this fantastic and amazing day up, I really found I had a hard time dealing with the enormity of the experience.

Frankly, I’m from the Midwest. We just don’t deal with emotion particularly well. Garrison Keilor is not lying.

As I was writing up some of the posts, the statue and portrait of Winston Churchill in the Savoy Meeting room still bothered me.

Dry Martini Setup

Googled “Winston Churchill Savoy Hotel”.

Oh shit, that room was the Pinafore Room, where Winston Churchill used to meet with The Other Club.

“Churchill, who in 1910 was Liberal Home Secretary, and barrister and Conservative MP F. E. Smith had not been invited to join the venerable political dining club known just as The Club. Although both had friends in it, the members thought Churchill and Smith too controversial. So they established their own club, to be called by contrast “The Other Club”.

The initial membership was 12 Liberals, 12 Conservatives, and 12 “distinguished outsiders” who were not in politics. With the help of David Lloyd George (then Chancellor of the Exchequer) another non-member of The Club, they put together such a list and the first dinner was on 18 May 1911. The Chief Whips of the two parties were co-secretaries of the club, so that pairs could be arranged, meaning members dinner would not be interrupted by divisions in the parliament.”

Churchill, famous for his love of a Martini, especially the version that is simply a Big, Cold, Glass of Plymouth Gin.

Friday Afternoon Cocktail: Churchill’s Martini

“Churchill loved his martinis, and he was particular about how he made them. He demanded gin, not vodka or any mix of the two, and Plymouth gin to be exact. You’ll know Plymouth because of its notable Mayflower motif, apparently because “Like the pilgrims, gin traveled from Leyden to Plymouth before coming to the New World.” He was very light on the vermouth – the legend is that in place of it, Churchill would simply nod in the direction of France.”

OK, so we made a Plymouth Martini for the time capsule shaker in the Pinafore Room at the Savoy Hotel, where Winston Churchill used to meet with The Other Club.

Head Explodes. That is some serious voodoo.

The whole day, honestly, was like that.

Harry Craddock’s grave. Meeting the Savoy Head Barmen. Burns’ statue on Burns Night. Simpson’s-in-the-Strand. Cafe Royal. The Dorchester. The grand old Savoy Hotel herself.

So much history, so evocative.

“Once in a Lifetime,” hardly sums it up.

I started this whole Savoy Trip on eGullet in June of 2006. Not intending to start a blog. Not intending to be a bartender. Not intending to do anything other than to learn a little more about how classic cocktails were made.

7 years later, after finishing making the Savoy Cocktails, (don’t talk to me about punches and cups,) this trip was the culmination of a lot of work, a lot of fun, and the capper to a whole chapter of my life.

I really am still trying to figure out what it means.

Thank you Plymouth Gin, Jared and Anistatia, Erik Lorincz, everyone who reads this blog, and especially, my wife Michele, who has encouraged me at every turn, to follow my interests and my dreams.

Savoy Head Bartender Signatures

Previous Posts:

Gunnersbury Tube Station

Robert Burns, The Savoy Hotel, and the White Lady

Simpson’s-in-the-Strand and the Sidecar

Cafe Royal and The Bronx Cocktail

The Dorchester and the Manhattan

The Savoy Hotel and the Dry Martini.

Problems in Modern Mixology

The Martini poses a problem for the Modern Mixologist.

It is composed of a required three parts: Gin, Dry Vermouth, and Orange Bitters, with a lot variation on execution and garnish.

However, the main thing we struggle with, in these modern times, is how to get the Gin into the drink.

Everyone loves Dry Vermouth, so that’s not a problem, but not a lot of people love Gin.

In varying degrees, they think Gin will:

  • Cause them to behave erratically.
  • Be smelled on their breath by officers of the law.
  • Be perceived by their peers as a sign of aging.
  • Send them straight to hell.

Extreme Modern Mixologists propose that simply infusing your Dry Vermouth with Juniper is sufficient. Juniper plus Dry Vermouth equals a Martini.

Other Modern Mixologists theorize that simply placing the gin in a sunbeam, and having that sunbeam strike the mixing tin is sufficient.

I disagree, I think there must at least be some hint of Gin in the drink.

The Martini issue can be solved with the salaciously named ‘good old in-and-out’. That is, you pour the gin IN over your ice cubes, agitate briefly, pour the Gin OUT, then add the Dry Vermouth and bitters.

This is OK, but I often find the Gin accidentally, and embarrassingly, spilling into my mouth. Never Good, with the potential for unintended drunkenness.

I propose another solution:

Misto

Load your favorite Misting device with Gin, Navy Strength for extra credit, and in a semi-vintage bottle, for a gold star. As a bonus, this can be used as an aftershave applicator, attracting lonely, alcoholic, spinsters, or even, perhaps, widowers, depending on your predilections. Plus, Gin Scented Flame Thrower!

Martini, Extra-Wet

3 oz Dry Vermouth
2 Dash Orange Bitters
Gin Loaded Mister

METHOD: Add Dry Vermouth and Orange Bitters to a chilled mixing glass. Add ice and stir until chilled. Spray Cocktail Glass with Gin Mist. Strain drink into glass. Garnish as required.

For extra points, I thought I might tackle applying this technique to the much maligned Vesper Cocktail. Why, not even it’s creator, Ian Fleming, liked the drink. Perhaps with a bit of tweaking, we can fix its problems.

The traditional “Vesper” is typically quoted from “Casino Royale”, as follows, “Just a moment. Three measures of Gordon’s, one Vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon-peel. Got it?”

Let’s see if we can’t bring this black sheep of a drink back into the fold.

The main problems, are twofold. First, too much Gin. Second, no one can agree on what the recipe means by “Kina Lillet”.

As we have several contenders for the “Kina Lillet” throne, perhaps we can use all three, and their combined might will overcome what one alone cannot.

Reverse Vesper

Evening Prayer, a.k.a. Why Can’t We All Just Get Along

1 oz Cocchi Americano
1 oz Lillet Blanc
1 oz Kina l’Avion d’Or
1/2 oz Oude Genever*

Gin Loaded Mister (see above)
Orange Zest

METHOD: Combine Cocchi, Lillet, Kina l’Avion, and Genever in a chilled mixing glass. Add ice and stir until well chilled. Spray Cocktail Glass with Gin Mist. Strain cocktail into glass and zest orange over glass.

A little intense, but not bad. You’ve got the fruity, light flavor of the Lillet, the bitter intensity of the Kina l’Avion, and the Orange, Cinnamon Gentian of the Cocchi. Not bad, for a first try. I think this whole thing might work out, after all.

*I just never have any Vodka in the house. I refuse spend money on flavorless spirits, and whenever I get some for free I end up using it in an infusion. Genever is tastier, anyway.