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.

Cafe Royal and the Bronx

Continuing the writeup of the day I spent in London celebrating the life and legacy of Harry Craddock.

Previous Posts:

Gunnersbury Tube Station

Robert Burns, The Savoy Hotel, and the White Lady

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

Cars

Our cars deposited us outside the
Cafe Royal Hotel and we were escorted through the very modern new bar and restaurant, where I believe I spotted Rowan Atkinson, to the recently remodeled, and at that time not yet quite open, The Grill Room at the Cafe Royal.

“The iconic Grill Room (originally established in 1865) has been exquisitely restored to its original Louis XVI detailing and is now the place to enjoy Champagne, cocktails and a light menu.

“Nestled between the elegance of Mayfair and the creativity of Soho, the Grill Room is where great minds came together to change the world. It is in this very room that Oscar Wilde fell in love with Lord Alfred Douglas, Aubrey Beardsley debated with Whistler, David Bowie retired Ziggy Stardust and Mick Jagger, the Beatles and Elizabeth Taylor danced the night away.

“The Grill Room is open from 6pm Monday to Saturday and has a regular programme of entertainment throughout the week.

“Reservations are required after 9.00pm. Please send details of your request to grillroom@hotelcaferoyal.com

“We will do our best to accommodate your request and will respond within 24 hours.

“Please note, admittance will always be at the discretion of the host.
“Dress code: celebrative and sophisticated.”

Well, so far this day had proved itself both “Celebrative” and “Sophisticated”, hopefully they will let a bunch of slightly tipsy bartenders, booze industry insiders, and journalists into this rather posh establishment! I mean, if Mr Bean can get in…

Dorelli Pours Bronx

(Photo by Jared Brown)

It was Peter Dorelli’s turn to make a drink for the cocktail shaker time capsule, in this case, the Bronx Cocktail. Some banter was exchanged regarding Italian Bartenders and their prominence in the English Bar Trade, not to mention how odd it was that they managed to maintain the strength of their Italian accent, even after years, nay decades, of living in England. I’m sure it has nothing to do with tips and charming the ladies.

Anistatia Speaks

(Photo by Jared Brown)

One thing that was most interesting about this trip, was to catch some glimpse of Harry Craddock, the man. There is so little of Craddock’s personality in the Savoy Cocktail Book, just a couple quotes and a picture, that he has always been something of a cipher to me. I’ve also not spent much time researching him, much more time on tracking down the origins of the recipes he compiled in the Savoy Cocktail Book.

This, I suppose, is the wrong way to go about it, something Anistatia Miller and Jared Brown have gone a long way to rectify in their book, “The Deans of Drink: The Amazing Lives & Turbulent Times of Harry Johnson & Harry Craddock as Seen in a New Light.” If you can’t tell, I am leaning heavily on the text of their book for some of these articles, but there is much, much more detail in the book itself.

“Being a narration of the Golden Eras of American & British cocktails as told through the careers & persona lives, with sundry historical notes & observations as well as cameos of other who made their mark, most notably Willy Schmidt, Ada Coleman, Paul Henkel Jr, James B Regan, Ruth Burgess, & William J Tarling; with rare photos & drawings; plus relevant walking tours of New York & London. Recipes herein are not only of historic import, the reader will find formulas created by leading bartenders of today who are influenced by these masters.”

Whew!

So, yes, Mr Tarling was the head honcho here at the Cafe Royal and the president of the United Kingdom Bartender’s Guild. Tarling’s book, “The Cafe Royal Cocktail Book” is one of the gems of that gilded age of cocktails. The Cafe Royal was the place where American spirits, even native American spirits like Tequila, came together with European liqueurs and aperitifs in astounding ways that reflected the glamor and decadence of pre-war England.

Sidecar Cocktails

(Photo by Jared Brown)

We enjoy our Bronx Cocktails, snap some more photos, and off we go, back into the cars to head to another unknown destination.

Taxis at Cafe Royal

(Photo by Jared Brown)

The Harp

image

Good Life at The Harp, London, UK.

Looking for a great bar in Covent Garden, London? Somewhere close to Charing Cross Station and Trafalgar Square maybe? Then come and try the Harp – a fantastic pub in Chandos Place.

The pub’s emphasis is firmly on real ale, real cider and real conversation, with 8 hand pumps on our bar serving a great selection of beers from our favourite breweries. It’s a place to meet friends and make friends.

Try the buzzing downstairs bar with its collection of old victorian portraits and beautiful coloured glass frontage. Or seek out the calmer upstairs room with its comfortable chairs – a place to relax and enjoy a more intimate atmosphere.

21 Fizz Salute

It must be happy hour, I’m alone behind the bar and a long order comes in.

“21 Gin Fizz Tropicals for the Lounge?”

“Everyone in that group wants the same cocktail?”

The server assures me this is the case.

“Well, that will be a while, Egg White drinks and all. I can only make 4 at a time.”

I set about making them…

“What the!?”

Someone seems to have swapped out my measuring jiggers for others I don’t recognize.

Ack! I fumble around, trying to make sense out of the equipment.

Suddenly, for some reason, I’m also having a hard time remembering the recipe… Is it apricot liqeuer? How much Gin?

I awake with a start and quickly run through the Gin Fizz Tropical in my head, 2oz Plymouth Gin, 1oz Lime, 1/2 oz Orgeat, 1/2 oz Pineapple Gum, 1/2 oz Egg White. Dry shake, shake with ice. Soda.

Whew.

Brunch Hell

Somehow I am working as a line cook during brunch at the Slanted Door.

The printer start chattering away and foot upon foot of tickets starts rolling in: large parties of people, huge numbers of entrees, items that are unfamiliar.

I ask my coworkers about the bizarre items on the tickets and they don’t really know.

Erik Adkins appears from somewhere and tells me, don’t pay any attention to the food, you just have to pick out the drinks.

I try to sort through the feet of orders, looking for drinks, but still, the items are unfamiliar.

“Where’s the Whey for this drink?” I ask, “I can’t find it in the reach in.”

He says, “Who ordered that drink? It’s been 86’d.”

Funny. It has been over 15 years since I worked as a brunch line cook, yet it is still the touchstone for my unconscious mind to express fear and anxiety.

Scarred.

Entertainment!

One of the first comments I got regarding my playlist post was the following from SFPaul.

I’m always surprised when it appears that music falls low on the priority list for a restaurant. Don’t they understand the roll of music is to the human experience and how it has accompanied us for thousands and thousands of years.
To have it be an afterthought tells me a lot about the management and how little they care about the dining experience as a whole.

As far as I can tell, the combination of music and intoxicating substances goes back as far as both have existed in human history. However, since many animals have been known to consume spontaneously fermented or naturally intoxicating substances, maybe longer. Who knows what those drunk Cedar Waxwings in the berry tree are saying to each other?

Music in bars would have first started, I presume, as spontaneous communal entertainment and drinking games.

Soon after, someone who was better at performing or singing than average probably received a drink, (or chicken,) for their stellar efforts and realized there were some goods or services which could be received for their efforts.

A couple centuries pass and soon the technology for performing songs without actual human musicians becomes possible. First clockwork bands and player pianos, then audio recording and playback. The iconic Jukebox of the 1950s diner and eventually the iPod.

Restaurants are trickier. I really am not sure when music started to become as ubiquitous as it currently is, as background music for dining. I tend to think, rather recently.

All the same, here we are, and restaurants, along with bars, are very nearly required, unless they are very, very fancy, to have some sort of background music for dining.