It's 2012, and bartenders the world over are heaving sighs of relief after successfully surviving the mother of all nights out. I have been a bartender too long to hold much sentimentality for the champagne, horns, and streamers that comprise New Year's Eve, but it is a party, and someone has to throw it, so I spent this year the same way I've spent most others: slinging drinks and counting down to midnight.
'behind the bar' on Serious Eats
I began my bartending career in Seattle in the mid-90's, when the microbrewery revolution was transforming how people drink beer, and the philosophy of using fresh, local ingredients was pervasive in restaurants and on the upswing in bars. This was before the bubble popped, so every internet startup had an office with an on-site masseuse, and paper-millionaires populated the slew of new bars and restaurants that popped up to house them. Those of us who worked in these joints were both a close community of friends—but we were also stiff competitors. We competed for jobs, clientele, and bragging rights.
It was recently Halloween, so my wife and I took the Princess of Rabbits and the grumpiest little Sunflower you've ever seen out in to the night, and helped them fill their bags with all manner of wrapped confections that we would never consider letting them eat the rest of the year. All this candy brings to mind of one of the essential ingredients in making cocktails: sugar.
Since it's finally whisk(e)y drinking weather (if you need weather to justify drinking whisk(e)y, which I don't), it seems appropriate to expand a bit on last week's post on the topic. At the hundreds of whiskey events we've hosted at the bar, the most common question I hear is, "What is the difference between bourbon and whiskey?" Or Scotch. The answer is both very simple and supremely complicated.
I've been living with actual seasons long enough to own a proper winter coat, but I have yet to develop seasonal rituals over what I drink and when. If it's cold out, I might still enjoy a cold beer. If it's warm, I might drink my bourbon with no ice. This year in New York, September 30th was balmy and beautiful. October 1st was rainy and cold. Autumn happened overnight, and the only thing anyone in the bar wanted to talk about was whiskey.
Bars have a limited amount of space in which we can offer our services. I currently work at a bar that has fifteen bar stools, which are valuable assets on most nights. I recently had an interaction that highlights the value of real estate, and how it is often not factored in to the equation of what people think they are paying for in a bar. It was early on a Friday. Three people sat down at the bar. One ordered a Manhattan, another a red wine, the third, a glass of water.
What we offer for sale in bars and what people pay for are often two different things. We list food and beverages on a bill of fare, but what we can't write down is the bulk of the experience. Things like service, cleanliness, vibe, notoriety, and a host of other intangibles are all vital to success. The trick is figuring out how to monetize them. Someone asked me recently how the price of a cocktail is determined. It's an interesting question. Let's take a Manhattan, for example.
Much of modern drinking lore can be traced to naval tradition. In 1867, the Merchant Shipping Act required all ships in the British Royal Navy provide a lime ration for its sailors to aid the prevention of scurvy. Luckily, that same year, Lauchlan Rose patented a method to preserve lime juice without the benefit of alcohol. Rose's mitigated the sour taste of lime with just enough sweetness to make it tolerable in your average Jack Tar's rum ration, and the term "Limey" was born.
My parents were never big drinkers. With a grandfather who lived and (eventually) died in Alcoholics Anonymous, my early exposure to alcohol was a truckload of invective and a surreptitious taste of an abandoned Coors Light that turned me off of beer for the next fifteen years. My conversion happened in 1991 at a house party my roommates and I threw in Massachusetts. For some odd reason, I was asked to make a punch.
As nearly every other business near us, bar or otherwise, shuttered their doors, we stayed open. We are a part of our community, and felt it was our obligation to be there for the people who might need us. We had ice, food, first aid supplies, candles, water, beer, spirits, and company. Any of which can come in handy when the proverbial rubber hits the road. More than that, we were determined to stay until we were somehow forced physically to go, not because we thought something bad wouldn't happen, but precisely because something might.
And as any good playwright knows, every performance needs a backdrop. Throughout much of human history, that backdrop has been the local bar. Bars exist at a beautiful nexus of time and space. They simultaneously help connect us to our lives and escape them. Bars of any stripe are more than bricks and mortar—they are the collective experiences of all who frequent them.