The Lost Art of Professional Bartending
It is five PM. It is cold and raining. I pull into the parking lot. I can see the sign “Top Hat Bar” when my windshield wipers stop. Below it is the familiar blinking red sign “Cocktails”.
It has been another tough day at the construction site, “Thank God for the rain” I am ready for a drink. It has been on my mind for the last hour.
It is dark as usual as I open the door. I pause for a few second to get my eye adjusted. I can hear the Juke Box playing loud music. Next the familiar scent of bourbon and beer mixed with cigarette smoke hits me. Nothing has changed.
Walking in very slowly I see the small round tables seated with customers leaning over, talking in a low voice to each other.
Along the wall there are red leather booths with dimly lit stained-glass tiffany lamps hanging low. The walls are covered with burgundy and gold-flocked wallpaper.
It’s the usual bar crowd. The jukebox is playing Tony Bennett. There’s laughter and clinking of glasses.
A voice calls out my name. It’s Fred the bartender and familiar faces turn to acknowledge my presence. I can expect Fred to catch me up on the latest gossip as well as a good joke to start off the night.
“Here’s your Jack Daniels and water,” he says confirming that he knows my favorite drink.
A female voice from the end of the bar invites me, “Fred, down here.,” she pats an open stool next to her.
History of Bartendering
That is how bars were in the 1950’s and early 60s. But bartending has lost its art—its ability to create intimacy and an ambiance of familiarity. Bartenders no longer orchestrate client conversation like symphony leaders.
Bartending started in ancient times and remains as one of the oldest professions in the world. It started from Greek and Roman hosts that relied on expert craftsman to pour their wines.
19th century innkeepers made their own beer and spirits, to today’s bartenders serve up Happy Hour specials.
So, what happened to the Freds of the bartending world—those old-school bartenders who knew every single client’s name within the first five minutes?
We first must know a little bit more about bartending and what it took to be a professional bartender before the digital technology revolution.
What it takes to be a good bartender
Bartending was part mixing, part serving drinks, but the major portion was creating an experience for each customer sitting at the bar. Customers used to come into a bar for a number of reasons: for conversation, some were lonely, some might just be passing through.
Whatever the reason, the good bartender recognized that the customers’ needs were deeper than a drink. There were signs the bartender picked up very quickly, like someone that talked to the person beside them as soon as they sat down; someone that waited for the bartender to approach them or someone who hailed him right away. The good bartender knew what kind of conversation to start based on these cues.
The good bartender was able to entertain with his knowledge of cocktails as well as the history of popular drinks…did you ever hear the story of a Gibson Martini? It illustrates the importance and art of what bartending used to be.
The story goes that, Mr. Gibson, a Wall Street businessman in the 1950s did not want to get drunk during lunch but he wanted to keep up with everyone else’s drinking. He made a deal with the bartender to make his drink weak and in order to know which martini was his, the bartender put an onion in it. He became known as big martini drinker that could hold his own and they named a drink after him.
There were other factors that came into play, like the type of bar it was and where it was located. It might’ve been a bar in a downtown business area or in a resort. It could’ve been a country club bar where all of the customers acted like they owned the place, or in one case it was a tavern located on the side of a busy highway…
The darkened “BJ’s” sign advertised “cocktails” in a bright neon light beneath it.
It was on a lonely stretch of Highway 66—about 50 miles east of Los Angeles.
In 1964 I was a bartender there and it was pit stop for drivers right off the highway. People got a quick drink or used the restroom and it was one of those places where time stopped.
You walked into a small foyer and turned left to a long bar, almost the length of the room. There was a bandstand and a dance floor with tables all around it with a sign advertising country music every Friday and Saturday night.
The parking lot was always full which meant the bar was always full of customers.
You never knew what kind of wanderer would drop by. Anywhere from celebrities coming from Palm Springs or would-be movie stars carrying their disappointment back home to the Midwest. There were people running away from their lives and they mixed with enchanted strangers and the lost tourists with their over-folded maps. I remember a couple of construction workers on break from a job down the street chatting up a woman sipping a grasshopper. She had an expensive fur coat and had arrived in a Cadillac.
I knew they all had a story to tell and that was how I approached them.