A Little Bit Of Everything
I started working in a pub when I was fourteen, which probably explains why as an adult I look like I moisturise with sandpaper and diesel. The pub was called the Quiet Man and I was the glass collector and from what I remember, I loved it. Outside of running betting slips to and from the bookmakers and skimming my small commission, I had very little work to do. I did learn how to do a full line clean before a pint ever even passed my lips. Became pretty adept at intuiting the neon vocabulary of a fruit machine and can still to this day turn empty crisp packets into various elaborations on an origami zoo. The Quiet Man is gone now. Replaced by a retirement home which looks a damn sight nicer than it did when I was in charge of the sweeping up. The majority of the residents are the same people who, at one time, called the pub their local. I’ve always thought that this was proof that the divine Author has a sense of humour. I didn’t think I acquired any grand mystic truths about hospitality during my time as a glass collector but it’s hard to overlook the fact that the Quiet Man set the dominos in motion.
I’ve worked in some capacity behind the bar ever since. I flirted with the idea of being a school teacher for a while. I studied Philosophy, Religion, Ethics and Theology at university for almost three terms. All the while subsidising my scholastic life with tips, late nights and bad fan-pouring. I didn’t set out to be a bartender but eventually, it seemed like a better deal than being harangued about Papal Infallibility and exactly why we let virgins dressed as Dumbledore dunk toddlers in a big gold sink to a soundtrack of pensioners humming. These questions proved too weighty for somebody so academically impaired. So I left the communion wafers and textbooks of higher education for a life of setups, breakdowns and everything in between. So what do I have to show for it? What have I learned in ten years of ducking the death-by-water-cooler small-talk that surely comes as a symptom of having a “real” job? Well in these unsure times and mainly due to the fact I’ve finished “Tiger King” and meditated sufficiently on my own Carol Baskin conspiracies. I’ve had my fill of time to think about it.
Like most people, I had to earn my stripes as a barback. I spent eighteen months in the foggy anonymity of the glass wash. Firing out hot dogs, stocking fridges, deadlifting ice buckets, plunging glasses, mopping sick, dabbing wee and pretty much dispensing of all manner of the kaleidoscopic evacuations that a drunk human is capable of. I was responsible for keeping the ship afloat from below deck and to do so I was required to move as a whirlwind of orchestrated frenzy. Keeping the necessary plates spinning was where I first came into contact with the mounting pressure of impending disaster a busy bar brings. To this day I still revel in the frenetic pace of service. As a bar back I was part of the machinery that drove the team forward and it was probably as hard as I’ve ever worked. You should always thank the barback. They are the foundational structure of every great bar. It is tacit that they efficiently process and dispatch the multitudes of nonsense a shift volleys their way. They arrive first and they leave last. Even so, almost every barback I have ever worked with is willing to pitch in and drag the dispense bartender out of the crossfire of the Saturday night onslaught by jumping on and knocking out drinks. They are no doubt working harder than you, for less recognition and certainly less pay. Hoiking around barrels in a cellar on a busy weekend, knowing you that will no doubt be back again that very same evening requires a physicality that balancing a White Lady does not.
By the time I graduated to bartending, Rye Whisky was in vogue and I would shoot it from between my thumb and pinkie finger. Which made me look about as cool and urbane as Casio scientific calculator. I had acquired a collection of snapbacks and ironic chicken scratch tattoos. Which I wore as medals of honour in place of a personality. Dive bars are carousels of hedonism with sexually suggestive toilet graffiti and Jagerbombs. At their worst, they smell like a specifically antisocial strand of a yeast infection and there’s a high risk of walking into the blunt end of a punch. Still, you can always get a cold beer and dance on a table with a retired dinner lady. At their best, they’re frothy bastions of counter-culture, where pomposity and pretence melt away at the door and you can dance on a table with a retired dinner lady. I wish someone had told me that. As I progressed as a bartender I won a few cocktail competitions and made a name in the most inconsequential way possible. By being the variations on *disagreeable expletive* “who won that thing”. There is nothing more vulgar than someone as chronically mediocre as I was walking around with a Mighty Joe Young sized ego. That is to say, I was a bombastic arsehole with a bar blade. As I found out, you can know all of the phenols per part per million product jargon you want. It doesn’t make you a very good bartender. The most pertinent bartending exercise. Don't be a dick. Thankfully, I’ve always had the good fortune of talented colleagues. Working in a Dive Bar afforded me the opportunity to observe and establish the core tools that I use in hosting to this day. I just had to stop pontificating about different Espadin mescals. Eventually, I was dragged to the realisation, that to be interesting to your guest first you had to be interested in your guest. Nobody comes to a bar, especially a dive, for a humanities lecture. They came to have a good time and I realised the better bartenders around me, the ones that people came back to see, were attentive to that fact. And not, as I was, trying to get them to sip room temperature amaro. It’s a cliche but it’s an important lesson to learn; bartending is fractionally about drinks and predominantly about people.
High volume bars are tough. I took to Callooh Callay about as naturally as the Pope takes to dry humping. Making that many drinks, in that amount of time and not combusting takes a considered mental effort. To succeed in a high volume venue you have to take stock of your own shortcomings. You need to learn quickly because the engine doesn’t stop for anyone. My shortcomings pointed to the fact I just wasn’t very good. The mechanics of bartending are simple enough. It’s moving liquid around until it’s both cold and pink enough that people want to pay for it. Mastering the specifics is a matter of controlled repetition until the movement is so practised it becomes habitual. Which I admit sounds about as sexy as Ronseal. The whole thing is one big rehearsal. Like anything else worth doing, getting better at bartending is a frantic paddle against the current until eventually the culmination of your forward momentum drives you through the challenges. There’s this prevailing sentiment that the bartender is engaged in some kind of alchemical art form. That’s the hocus pocus mysticism of the mini-peg mixologist. Look, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with fixing a piece of lego to the side of a coupette with wood-glue. As long as the drink is tasty. Basically, all of the powdered sugar and flash paper in the world won’t retroactively balance a bad drink for you. If you jammed a catherine wheel onto an undercooked risotto, it’s still shit dinner with a cheap trick stapled to the plate. The same goes for the assumption you need to be in possession of technicolour taste buds. Because you drink a niche distillate that is used to run tractors in its country of origin doesn’t mean that you have a refined palate. It means you’ve got nothing else interesting to talk about. Why would you want to be a mixologist? What does the word bartender not adequately convey? To me, a bartender means hard work, long hours, lime juice in cuts and unerring dedication to other people. It is with an immense feeling of pride that I tell people what I do. A mixologist, on the other hand, is someone who plays in the dress-up box of their own inadequacy because they can't come to terms with telling their parents they dropped out of university. It's a great job if you let it be, you don't need to cheapen it with bells and whistles. Working in a high volume bar like Callooh shone the floodlights on my various deficiencies as a bartender. Thankfully it also provided the apparatus in which I could fix them. It just took a lot of bad drinks, slow ticket times and very accommodating colleagues.
Remember when Chris Moore first served that Champagne Pina Colada and literally everyone was like “I could have done that.”? Well, you didn’t. But I agree, you certainly could have. Or when Marcis Dzelzanis did… Well, when Marcis did anything. I’m pretty sure that he could stand next to a jar of Bovril and by the sheer virtue of it being in close enough proximity to Marcis’s immense talent we’d spend the summer drinking “Bovril + Pine”. Making drinks and creating drinks are two very different skills. The assumption is that a firm knowledge of the classics will invariably lead you to the sacred tool kit of cocktail creation. Which is marginally true and acts as the prologue that leads into the primary narrative. Our senses of taste and smell that together make up our perception of flavour are registered in the most ancient parts of our brains. Flavour is a centrally personal experience. Teaching someone how to taste is like teaching someone how to listen or be ironic. From a barback, I was taught about drinks in a strictly theoretical way. By that catchall metric of parts. You'll know it all too well. Which works fine by broad strokes but it doesn’t allow much space for personal development. Working at Three Sheets put all of this under the microscope for me. I have a portion of my brain the size of a chicken nugget that is specialised in decoding the shades of sensory information and I was relying on second-hand information to be creative. That’s like trying to paint over someone's shoulder. My drinks were as complicated as a wifi password because I had never stretched my legs in that kind of personally informed creativity. The drinks at Three Sheets hinge on a very simple premise. Make it better. That’s all it takes. One spark to start the engine and you’re off. Flavour is an individual matter. I began to realise to get better I had to get involved. It didn’t matter if I broke some rules or if it wasn’t short or swimming in maraschino. The equipment was rattling around my skull. All I needed to do was ask questions, stop taking things as a given because “that is how it has always been done”. In principle, that lesson sounds easy but it takes a lot of discipline to make something as simple as a “French 75”. Also, if you want to make drinks like Three Sheets, the formula is easy enough. A double measure of something clarified, topped with soda and garnished with a leaf. Then play LCD Soundsystem.
Nearly two thousand words on the things I have learned as I’ve stumbled through bartending like a disorientated Chuckle Brother with a bucket on his foot and it all boils down to; Be nice to people, don’t get a big head. Ask questions and make tasty things.
Artwork by Flora Dorian
Originally Published by Discard The Zine