Bar Balance

Rely on the classics

By Tony Cross

A friend of mine recently made the transition from lifetime server to behind the bar. As a server, he’s probably one of the best that I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with. He’s fast, knowledgeable and friendly, but most importantly, he can work a room. Whether a server has been given multiple tables at once, or it’s an extremely busy night, if he/she can get everyone on their side, the rest of the night is butter.

And that’s what he did. Night in and night out. I’m talking upselling appetizers, better wine, and that extra dessert. This always results in great tips and constant requests from big spenders.

But now that he’s a bartender, the night feels a bit foreign. He wants to do the best job that he can do, and knowing his work ethic, he’ll do just fine. However, when he first made the transition, he started asking me how to do infusions, and other drinks that, for novices, are a bit over the top. My friend — we’ll call him “Danny” — is not a big drinker; what he does drink is quite simple, e.g., domestic beer, wine and the occasional cocktail.

My response to Danny’s questions might have come off a bit unsympathetic, but sincere, and I hope he takes it to heart. “Learn the classics first,” I told him. For someone that’s never experimented with cocktails in the workplace or at home, this is pretty standard advice. There’s no point in making a fat-washed bourbon for a Manhattan if you don’t understand the Manhattan to begin with. I don’t care how good your infusion is, if your specs are off, your cocktail will be, too. Not to mention the other things to be mindful about while bartending: engaging customers while making copious drinks; being able to juggle making different cocktails at once while making eye contact with your guests; greeting newly seated bar guests, taking orders, and creating an atmosphere. Did I mention engaging? If you’re new to making drinks, you most definitely do not need six-plus ingredient drinks on your menu. You will set yourself up for failure one way or another. Either your drinks or your guests will suffer. Maybe both.

I have another friend who is a retired bartender. And by “retired,” I mean he was behind the stick for a decade or so before he decided to move on to another profession outside of the hospitality business. We’ll call him “Adam.” Even though Adam was a bartender by trade for many years, he couldn’t make many drinks that I would deem drink-worthy. God, that sounds pretentious. But if you knew Adam, you’d know what I mean.

I worked with Adam for a few years while I was a server. It pained me waiting for my drinks. It wasn’t that Adam was physically slow making drinks; it was just that he was more interested in chatting it up with his bar guests. Many a night, while I was standing there waiting for my three or four cocktails, Adam would be in the middle of mixing them while talking to one of our regulars. Uh-oh. His face read, “Did I or did I not already add that ounce-and-a-half of vodka?” Just to be sure, Adam would go ahead and pour more into the shaker. Like clockwork, I would return in five minutes because my table couldn’t stomach the unbalanced drink. One Wednesday night I came as a customer, sat at the bar with Adam, ordered a beer, and stayed for dinner. That was when I realized why Adam had so many regulars. Even though I ate alone, Adam kept me entertained the whole evening. I had a good time and left with a smile on my face.

I’m mentioning my two friends for a reason. Yes, there’s a moral to the stories. A great bartender is able to cover multiple tasks while looking cool under pressure. I’m certain that Danny is going to learn the ropes quickly — multitasking is his first language — and once he gets his drinks down, he’s going to be amazing. And Adam. Though I’d never say he was a great bartender, he was spot-on in his hospitality. If you’re new to bartending, especially in a restaurant bar, you’ll need balance.

Start with the classics. Have a handful of drinks that you know like the back of your hand, and study up why they work. Lots of great bartenders have used these recipes as backbones for new drinks when they are inspired. Keep your cocktail list simple, but delicious. And if you’re just the imbiber and it’s your first time at this bar or restaurant: order a daiquiri. If it’s no bueno, chances are the rest of the drinks on the list aren’t either.

Or do what I’d do when visiting Adam — just order a beer.  PS

Tony Cross is a bartender who runs cocktail catering company Reverie Cocktails in Southern Pines.

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