I was sitting at a bar (that will remain unnamed), drinking tequila neat and enjoying a nice moment of peace. The gentleman on the stool next to me says to the guy behind the bar, "I've been working a lot, and haven't been able to keep up on the Avs. How have they been doing?"
To which the bartender replies, "I don't really watch sports."
Then he walks away and leaves his guest hanging.
I was dumbfounded. I wanted to grab the guy by his flannel shirt and skinny jeans, take him outside, place him on his fixed-gear bike and tell him to pedal on home. Just twenty minutes before this exchange, I'd listened to the same "drink delivery unit" (hereafter referred to as a DDU, since I refuse to call him a bartender) go on for five minutes about one of the beers he was serving on tap. He was happy enough to talk about that...
(Warning: I'm about to sound off like an old man sitting on his porch screaming, "Get off my lawn, you kids!!!")
This interaction is a small example of what's wrong with the newest breed of DDUs. I've met more bartenders in the last few years who know nothing about sports than I care to count. The point is, it's not about just sports: It's about being informed about the world outside of your bar for the benefit of your guests. These DDUs care much more about what they are doing behind the bar than they do about the people sitting in front of it.
Some of the most amazing cocktail creators I've ever seen have been shitty bartenders. Many of them have encyclopedic knowledge of drink recipes, history, spirits, beer, wine etc. But they never learned hospitality; they never learned to serve. I take great pride in being a barman. It is a profession built on a foundation of hospitality. Many, many before me and many of my peers also take great pride in serving and pleasing people. These DDU's piss on that heritage and the history of our craft.
Growing up as the son (and grandson) of a bartender, I watched my father set up his bar in the morning, and then sit and read through the NY Post, Daily News and the Bergen Record before he opened his doors. This was not just because he wanted to be informed; he also read so that he could converse with his guests about current events, sports, entertainment. As a bartender, he took great pride in being a conversationalist, counselor, sports nut, etc. Essentially, he was (and is, since he's still behind the bar today) whatever his guests needed him to be. That is a real bartender. And he loves his job.
Don't get me wrong. I am excited about all of the new spirits, cocktails, tools and methods that are available to us now. Our craft has seen an amazing re-emergence over the past ten years. I geek out as much as the next guy. But as we progress, attain knowledge and push the boundaries of creativity... we can never forget to be bartenders first, to take pride in our profession, to serve with passion and sincerity.
I know (with a slight nod and wink to my good friend Brandon Biederman of Steuben's) what you're thinking: "Sean, the view from your ivory tower must be wonderful!" I'll be the first to admit that I am not the perfect bartender. But even at age 42 with 26 years behind a bar, I'm still trying. I've seen a lot of good and bad over that time, and I've learned from both....
So please don't be a DDU: Be a bartender first.
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Now I'm stepping off that soapbox. Can I get another tequila -- and would you happen to know the Avs score?
Sean Kenyon knows how to pour out both drinks and advice. A third-generation bar man with 26 years behind the bar, he is a student of cocktail history, a United States Bartenders Guild-certified Spirits Professional and a BAR Ready graduate of the prestigious Beverage Alcohol Resource Program. You can often find him behind the bar at Williams & Graham, the speakeasy he opened this fall; at Euclid Hall; or here, where he'll answer your questions. Post them in the comments section below. And in the meantime, read his piece on why Colorado bartenders are winning so many contests here.