Posts filed under Open Mic

One Perfect Moment: Vodka

Tucked away in a little corner of the Internet, away from the hustle and bustle, you'll find Scans Daily - or its most recent incarnation, after the original fell victim to alleged grumpiness - where comic fans trade in snippets from their collections. Sometimes pages are posted because they're flat out awesome. Sometimes they're posted because they're really, really bad, or obscure, or intriguing, or weird. Sometimes, they fit to the week's theme. Last week, the community started posting scans of their favourite characters' One Perfect Moment - the essence of the character expressed as eloquently as possible in a couple of pages or panels. It's an absolute treasure chest of potential reading material. So far, so geek, but we're not really into drink territory. So here's the thing: working in a bar, you'll come across those same elegant moments that express an idea perfectly. For example, Scottish vodka drinkers...

Customer: What vodka do you sell?
Bartender: We've got [house pour], [insert super premium brands here], and maybe a bit of [random, appallingly expensive boutique brand] somewhere.
Customer: You've got Grey Goose? That's a great vodka, it's my favourite.
Bartender: No worries, one Grey Goose. On the rocks?
Customer: Yeah. With Red Bull.

Posted on June 16, 2009 and filed under Open Mic, Thoughts.

Monday Night Open Mic: Plan B

Imagine if careers advisors suggested 'bartender' as the ideal profession for your child.

"Well, Mr. Smith, young Jimmy is basically a nerd, but with a bit of coaxing, I reckon he could develop a drink habit and an astonishing ability to withstand hangovers while essentially whoring himself for change from people who inevitably think they're better than he is. "I imagine his projected earnings would be somewhere in the ballpark of minimum wage, but he'd have tips on top of that. "Excuse me? Sorry if I wasn't clear. Tips would be related to the whoring, yes."

I've been working full-time in a bar/brasserie/hotel/nightclub complex for about three years now. Before that, I spent somewhere north of two years working for a nationwide chain of food-serving pubs while at university. I'm still young - relatively speaking; among the staff at work I'm technically in the Ancient category (thankfully not in the Old/Creepy subset, so I'm told) - so there's a chance that I could try a new profession in the future, but the hospitality industry looks like it's become a career. Which was totally not the plan.

The plan wasn't your normal sort of plan, lacking a part in which it was specifically planned, but I took my first bar job because I needed money and I took my current job because I needed money. There wasn't a great deal of thinking, rather more, "I'm skint and they'll take me," followed by, "I'm skint and have a degree of experience." And somehow, I've stayed in the industry, which is remarkable given that bars generally turnover staff quicker than suicide cults.

It's incredibly hard work, for one. You'll spend upwards of 10 hours on your feet and if you're really lucky, the bouncemats will give you the knees of someone in their mid-70s. You'll have to be outgoing and friendly to vast numbers of people that you would, given the choice, prefer to avoid (the percentage of customers that are actually nice is probably a good few zeroes down from the decimal point, though thankfully, so is the percentage of customers who are actually malicious), and you'll have to help them reach a level of enjoyment and probably deal with them when they get past it. On top of that, there's the cleaning - the normal stuff is bad enough before you let drunk people bleed and throw up on it; heavy lifting, because beer doesn't move itself; the learning - the person who thinks a 70 drink cocktail list is a good idea is usually not the person who has to make those drinks. In the same round.

So, why stay? There's better money to be made doing other things. Apparently, setting fire to £24bn can net you up to £700k a year - in retirement! Burning money's way easier than tending a bar. But, after the first few hours, it's nowhere near as interesting. I've lost count of all the people I've met at work, and that's just staff. Some of the old-school staff reckon we've had upwards of 2,000 members of staff across all departments, which makes for some interesting social events. And then there's the customers. Sure, staff bitch about them all the time. We mock them, give them stupid nicknames (shout out to Crazy Geordie Sailor Dude, Captain Narcolepsy, Big George, Little George and The Lady Who Basically Pays Our Part-time Wage Bill), and just occasionally, we do actually hate them. But they make the job amazing.

(Busy bar by S2 B, licensed under Creative Commons.)

Why? Because bars exist almost entirely to help people enjoy themselves.

Not because their owners are altruistic folk, but because happy people part with their money a good deal more easily than angry ones. And from that point of view, my job is to help people have fun.

You can't knock that. Screw Plan A. Plan B's magnificent.

Posted on March 2, 2009 and filed under Open Mic, Thoughts.

Saturday Night Open Mic: goodwill to all

It's Christmas, or to observe the correct Noddy Holder pronunciation, it's KERIIIISTMAS, which has meant a good two weeks of pain for anyone working in hospitality. I'll preface this by saying I really don't want to post specifically about work here, and all things considered, the holiday season's been pretty smooth. After all, my bar hasn't caught fire yet. But Christmas is a tough time to work behind a bar, or waiting tables. I always think that it's the one time of the year when bars and restaurants feel useful -  necessary isn't the right word, but it's close. There seems something ritualistic about a work Christmas party, a feeling that it's a separate, though still important, affair from the family meal, and this is the time where we have to step up.

Festive customers don't make it easy. My first ever bar shift was on the Friday before Christmas - the day we call Black Friday - and my new boss took the time to tell us to watch out for the people who don't go out. Ever. Except at Christmas. It's hard not to feel a flash of anger every time someone waves a bill in your face, or clicks their fingers at you, or argues about the amount of ice in their drink and how much it costs, and it's harder not to take it personally. But somehow, every year, we get through it. We'll call it an easy day if we finish after 12 hours, a quiet dinner service at 250 covers, and running out of ice a hiccup, but we get through it. We take the crazy requests, the stupid questions and the people who just refuse to understand, but we get through it. We end up broken and abused and so hungover it hurts to blink, but we get through it.

In twelve days time, we'll sit down, together, with a beer or a glass of wine or whatever, and say, "Good work. Let's never do that again."

Until next year.

(Busy bar photo from S2 B's Flickr photostream, issued under a Creative Commons license.)

Posted on December 21, 2008 and filed under Open Mic.

Sunday Night Open Mic: it ain't where you're from

I'd been planning on writing a post to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Repeal Day. It's a day worthy of celebration for anyone who works with alcohol and reminds me that bartenders have an obligation to dispense spirits, liqueurs and wines responsibly. The problem is that I don't have a lot to add - US Prohibition carries more weight over here in symbolic terms rather than practical ones. My first thought had been to write about the legacy of Prohibition in terms of its effect on the culture of bartending and alcohol consumption, but Camper English wrote a great post at Alcademics.com that hit the topic right out of the ballpark. My second thought was, "it's 3am on Saturday morning, I've got a 12 hour shift starting in 8 eight hours and I haven't slept or eaten since Thursday." Sleeping is over, work is over and Repeal Day is over. We didn't have a shindig to celebrate US citizens' ability to drink booze for three quarters of a century. After all, we've been doing it for much longer in the Old World. Eastern European peasants discovered that skimming the slush off the top of a frozen barrel of mead made for a way more interesting evening. Canny Scots - I don't think they come in other varieties - hid whisky distilleries so far into the glens that the excise men couldn't find their stills to assess their tax liability. Londoners even got up to producing north of 2 gallons of gin for every man, woman and child in the capital, in a calendar year. Round here, drinking has a long and storied history. That's not to say that alcohol can't lead to societal problems, because it can and it does - there's no better illustration to that than working in a bar over the Christmas period - but it's part of the culture, as much as football (the one where you actually use your feet), talking about the weather and disliking the English. Having never had it taken away, we don't feel a powerful need to mark the occasion.

But, still, I'd missed a party. It happens, so I sat down with the Sunday papers and came across Miranda Sawyer's column in the Observer Music Monthly:

Still, who cares about gossip? There are still bands having their moment, whose small press acknowledgement coincides with a ground-swell of love from us punters, a realisation that, yes, this is music to cherish.

Obviously preferable to an Old-Fashioned

Back at university, I was music editor of the student newspaper. One of the key battlegrounds in the struggle against manufactured pop was authorship - popular music couldn't truly be authentic and therefore artistically interesting if its authorship was in doubt. For example, the awkward, vacuous sentimentalism of Starsailor's debut album would be deemed more vital to our cultural life than the entire oeuvre of Girls Aloud. This was not a bold position for student critics to take: "mainstream" was our black spot, the kiss of death, our ultimate seal of disapproval. The question of authorship would, in some cases, override all others - my review of the previously mentioned Love Is Here listed every discernible influence on the album and seemed to view the fact that they were so blatantly obvious as a good thing. I may have used the words "proud songwriting tradition".

No, I am not proud.

The point I'm digging at is this: whether you're listening to a song or a symphony, the most important question is "do I like what I'm hearing?" If the answer's "yes", then nothing else matters. So, cocktails. Bear with me.

I can't source it online, but there's a bartender themed version of the lightbulb joke.

Q: How many bartenders does it take to change a lightbulb? A: What's wrong with the original bulb? It's got 100% authentic ingredients, classic presentation - look, are you saying Edison didn't know what he was doing? It's better this way... 

Heading into work this evening, I pulled off a sales report to adjust my stocking levels ahead of next weekend. The report contains a breakdown of all of the wet (alcohol) sales in my department, including cocktails, which I always check for trivia's sake. The top three tend to swap places throughout the year, but at any given time it will contain:

  • Mojito
  • Cosmopolitan
  • French Martini

...and those three drinks will be head and shoulders above the next tier of drinks, which is made up of a couple of our original cocktails and classics like French 75s, Bellinis and Long Island Iced Teas. You have to get right into the long tail before you start seeing things like Martinis and Manhattans. Even Margaritas are rare, and Sidecars and Old-Fashioneds appear on a chart measured against months, not days.

This seems counter-intuitive, given that classic cocktails represent a huge part of my training. They are the foundation on which my  ability to make new drinks is built. Looking at their recipes and structures let me pull back the curtain and see the old guy behind it, the insides of cocktails. My thinking is so skewed towards the classics that I can tell you how to make a Gin Daisy off the top of my head, but I have to look up the Alabama Slammer.

Working behind a bar tells you that classic cocktails aren't that popular. Britain may have a centuries-old tradition of social drinking, but our cocktail tradition is much younger. But how much?

I'd guess it's about 75 years old.

Prohibition saw an emergence of a cocktail tradition, or at least the recognition of its existence, outside of the USA. It's often said that the essential American cocktails are the Martini and the Manhattan; in the UK it's probably a vodka-Coke, and there's one good reason for that. They've been doing it longer than we have.

Focusing on the history and traditions of mixology has improved product quality in the industry - Edinburgh's bartenders are creating better drinks than they were five years ago, but that focus isn't a major concern for the consumer. A successful bar is one that makes money, regardless of how intimately its staff know Jerry Thomas. Manhattans might have the heritage, but French Martinis move units, and that is the ballgame.

Time to make a tenuous connection.

There's no reason to discount a drink because it doesn't fit your idea of what a cocktail should be. For every bartender who rolls his eyes and closes his mind when he discovers a drink has Malibu in it, for every mixologist who won't look at a bottle of vodka, for every bar chef who thinks a product isn't "premium" enough, try this: have a taste and ask one question: "do I like the way this tastes?"

Nothing else matters.

Posted on December 8, 2008 and filed under Open Mic.