Behind the Stick is a series highlighting perspectives and experiences of Scofflaws Den’s veteran barman.
I’m dying for a drink. My eyes watch warming brown whiskies, sudsy beers, bubbly sparkling wines and more pouring all around me. A picture in my head shows me leaping across the bar, knocking over glassware and garnishes, to catch a stream of booze into my mouth. And it has only been three days into my month without alcohol.
It may seem a little strange to write about sobriety on a site dedicated to good hooch in its various forms. Yet, here I am, writing about just that.
Why not one drop of alcohol and why now?
First, February is the shortest month of the year with the second fewest intoxicant-related events behind January. Second, the bar/restaurant industry demands a life so drowned in the hard stuff I feel every so often one needs a real, meaningful break – a challenge.
I have done this exercise several times before of course. The only amendment I am making this year is starting before the Superbowl. I suppose I wanted to up the ante a little. As one of my favorite journalists, Christopher Hitchens, often said, the drink is a wonderful slave but a terrible master. Life, in many ways, can be about mastering one’s weaknesses.
The tricky part for a craft bartender is performing my job as flawlessly as possible. Guests often ask me to experiment when making their next cocktail. This proposition forces me to perform with one hand tied behind my back. After all, good chefs obsessively sample their food as they go along, tasting for too much salt, too little, proper seasoning and so on.
How do I get around this predicament as a mixologist?
Luckily, I have cultivated a skill set for building drinks without absolutely having to taste them. The classics: the Old Fashioned, Sazerac, Manhattan, Martini. I have mixed so many of these drinks I could serve them in my sleep (sometimes, in fact, I have lucidly dreamt of making them).
I also rely heavily on only the most trusted co-workers’ palates. You see, ultimately I am never really certain of my own taste buds to determine if an original tipple is enjoyable. Brutal honesty can actually be scarce from folks expecting a high level of craftsmanship. In the end, the true test comes when a guest has swiftly gulped down one of my concoctions.
Lastly, I often prepare a guest for an eventual flop. Food and drink is so subjective even the best bartenders fail to meet expectations. Much of the service industry is designed to provide its customers with a high quality product. If that product does not meet a guest’s expectations, most of those establishments are happy to try with another attempt free of charge (this is often called a “spill” or a “comp”). I am upfront about that obligation and, particularly during this challenging month, make clear one does not have to commit to the beverage before them.
As I like to remind guests cheekily, “besides, it’s not my booze.”