Why you should care
Because sometimes it’s OK to talk to strangers.
In this occasional series, OZY takes to streets and neighborhoods across the globe to ask a simple question: “How was your day?”
It’s been pretty good. I’m currently prepping and going over all my lessons plans for tomorrow’s class — a special class on tiki drinks. My teaching is pretty much the same for people who have never made a drink in their life and people who’ve got 15 years of experience. I focus on the pre-Prohibition tradition — if you’re going to play tennis without the net, you need to know where the lines are. The art of learning mixology for a bartender is in understanding the drinks, like how Neil deGrasse Tyson can talk about astrophysics.
The remnants of the old tradition are all around us, but our sensibilities are dead to them.
Two dashes of bitters, about a teaspoon of sugar, a jigger of liquor, cracked ice, stir until it’s very cold, strain into a cocktail goblet and garnish it with lemon zest — by understanding basics, you don’t have to memorize anything. My students know how to make a drink without ever looking at a recipe. Everybody in every bar today, no matter how conspicuously they’re hand-cutting ice or whether they’re wearing an ascot or have a handlebar mustache — those things may be evocative of the pre-Prohibition tradition on a superficial level, but I’m trying to give people the tools to understand drinks better than most bartenders.
The remnants of the old tradition are all around us, but our sensibilities are dead to them. There used to be a term before Prohibition that bartenders used: bar creatures. They would impress their customers by juggling shot glasses or telling wondrous romantic tales about the ingredients. It was sort of like using tricks and tall tales to keep your customers happy even though you didn’t really know your trade.
In a class, it’s usually a race against time to cover as much material as I can in a four-hour session. I’ll teach students how to shake so that they don’t slush the drink and make it too watery. There haven’t been any terrible mishaps. But sometimes people have lost their grip in shaking, so liquid flies everywhere. The ice has to have a dry, clacking sound against the shaker — that’s music to my ears.
A lot of days are taken up by mundane tasks such as preparing ice, seeing that everything is clean and in place, ruminating on what paradigm-shifting items and drinks I can present. I have every kind of liquor that you can imagine, including liquor that you can’t find anywhere in the United States — the Havana Club rums, the old Fitzgerald pot-still whiskey that isn’t made anymore, the Sunchoke Spirit from Germany.
My first bartending job was in the fall of 1987, but you probably could train a robot to do what I was doing. I was just following directions — not because I understood why, but because that’s what I had been told to do — like almost all bartenders still do. It was culinary school that made it a science, an “-ology.” In addition to wanting to work for myself and my knees starting to go, I started teaching mixology because I realized there was no Escoffier of drinks — I realized that mixing drinks involved very little of the broad, rich understanding that was so often found among traditionally trained cooks. I was compelled to take up that cause. Like biology and sociology, mixology is a straightforward science built upon pre-1910 tradition.
Bartenders aren’t glorified. People come to a bar to drink and they’re willing to pay a much higher per ounce cost for their drink to have some experience they couldn’t have if they stayed on their couch. Maybe it’s to be around other people drinking, or to avoid going home. Maybe it’s because they’re stressed out, maybe they’re alcoholic. But they didn’t walk into the bar to worship you.