The Passion of a True Bartender
A great bartender is not just their knowledge of spirits, or their ability to commit to memory a thousand different cocktails. One of the key things that separate a "bottle jockey" from a "mixologist" is the passion and the enthusiasm that they have for their endeavors. A pride in their abilities that is capable of infecting their customers. As my second test that I present to a new bartender, I focus on how to quickly identify how dedicated they are to their chosen career.
Test # 2: A Personal Specialty
A true craftsman will always have something that they know they can do exceptionally well. An artist may specialize in painting hands, a landscaper may do amazing things with topiary, a chef may prove themselves with shellfish, and likewise a true bartender will have a handful of drinks that are exceptionally proud of.
While I can excuse a bartender for not knowing the correct way to make an Old Fashioned, I am far less forgiving for a bartender who shows no passion, no focus. For my second test, I will always ask a bartender what their "personal specialty" is. This is my way of asking a bartender to prove to me that they deserve that title.
When I ask a bartender about their personal specialty, I want to see their eyes light up, I want them to carefully look me over to determine which of their various drinks might suit me best. I want them to feel challenged as well as recognized. Unfortunately, far too often the result is a blank stare or a response that proves their lack of ability.
Here are some of the sad responses I often receive to this question, and what I interpret such a response to really mean:
"How about a Cosmopolitan?"
This bartender doesn’t have a clue as to what is good. They are simply pushing the "trendy" cocktail in that area. Perhaps it isn’t the Cosmo in specific that they recommend, but chances are that any recommendation that starts out with "How about a…" is simply a recommendation for the cocktail that they make the most of. Hey, if everybody else is drinking it, it must be good, right?
"I make a really good Martini"
So what. You probably make it just with gin (or vodka), shaken and then strained. How hard could that be? The biggest challenge you face is simply pouring enough spirit into the shaker to make a full glass. While a Martini can be made really well, it is rarely done so by somebody who simply tosses a statement like this out. If the bartender truly understands the art of the Martini, and wants to make one for you, he will embark upon a conversation with you to help you understand how he plans to make it. It should almost seem to be a test that he is applying to you, in order to discover if you are a worthy candidate for such a cocktail.
"I don’t have a specialty, all the cocktails I make are good."
Yeah, right. Then why did your Old Fashioned taste like swamp water? This is a sure sign of somebody that likes to think they are a good bartender simply because they’ve memorized all the recipes in the "Mr. Boston’s" recipe book.
"I don’t think I have one."
Ok, perhaps an honest response, but in that case what the heck are you doing working as a bartender? I get this response far too often. And I’ll then follow up by asking them what their own favorite cocktail is, hoping that if they have a cocktail they like drinking themselves, they’ll be able to make it pretty good. Unfortunately, the most common response to that question is "I don’t normally drink cocktails, I usually just drink beer." There is nothing wrong with enjoying beer, or wine, or drinking spirits straight. But for a bartender to not really be able to appreciate the product they are producing, then chances are good that any cocktail they make is just going to be mediocre.
I think this particular test, more then any other that I inflict, attempts to identify the bartenders that treat their craft the same as well trained chef approaches their cuisine. A True Bartender is very much like a chef. A chef doesn’t just cook from a recipe; they cook from the heart. They have a deep understanding of the ingredients they are using and how they interact with one another. Likewise, a bartender should understand the nuances of the ingredients they use and be able to fine tune a recipe until it sings.
All of this is not to say that every bartender needs to be an "artist" at his or her craft. There’s plenty of room for dive bars and hack bartenders. The problem is that there are bars out there that "think" they are upscale just because of the trappings that they surround themselves in, or the restaurant that they are associated with. But they fail to realize that without true bartenders that can breath the life into that empty shell, they are little more then a glorified Denny’s.