Posts filed under 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.

Meme: thinking to get drunk

There is a thing going round Facebook. It's a lot like ebola, I think, because it seems that when you contract it, it kinda percolates for a little while before forcing things out that probably should have stay inside. That's right, it's the 25 things meme, as seen in proper magazines and forums, not to mention Facebook. I am, of course, going to play. But I'm setting some rules. My list is going to be mainly about drinking. It just seems more appropriate.

  1. I don't like whisky as much as I feel I should.
  2. A classic strawberry daiquiri - shaken with fresh fruit, served straight up - is an utter pain to make.
  3. A frozen strawberry daiquiri is at least a thousand times easier to make.
  4. I have refused to serve a drink to a customer because it was too tasty.
  5. I have shown someone how to make a Cheeky Vimto* at a "Cocktail Masterclass".
  6. I have only truly regretted making out with one person when completely wasted.**
  7. I don't know why, but I do actually like vodka.
  8. Whenever I try to brainstorm new drink ideas, I'll come up with at least three drinks that are basically Cosmopolitans.
  9. You shouldn't refer to yourself as a mixologist. If that's what people want to call you, fair enough - but don't put it on your business cards.
  10. You should be able to barback before you bartend.
  11. Getting 33 Seabreezes out of one 70cl bottle of vodka shouldn't be encouraged, but I'm still proud of it.
  12. Twelve mojitos in six minutes, but I probably couldn't do it again.
  13. I have more fun at work than it looks like.
  14. Good music makes a bar. Bad music, or bad DJs, bring everyone down.
  15. By good, I don't mean scoring well on Pitchfork or in the NME. It means whatever plays well, whatever lifts the crowd.
  16. I thought Bombay Sapphire was blue for a good three or four years.
  17. Blue Curacao on ice cream is just flat out awesome.
  18. Bartenders are not as important as doctors, teachers, emergency services, soldiers.
  19. But we come damn close at Christmas.
  20. The customer is not always right.
  21. But they're allowed to be wrong.
  22. I don't like being drunk.
  23. Apparently, I get more sarcastic the drunker I get, which makes 22 seem weird.
  24. I'll cut you off before you start falling over. It's not personal.
  25. A good drink can totally make someone's night. If I can make it, it's an honour.

* Don't ask. If you don't know what it is, you're probably better off. ** To date.

Hmm, oddly cathartic as an experience. Right, who's next?

Posted on February 6, 2009 and filed under Thoughts.


Britain is known for many things - our royal family, our long and storied history of making war with the nearest major landmass and, more recently, binge-drinking. This latest scourge of our civilisation has now spread to the middle class, according to new statistics from the, uh, Office for National Statistics (PDF link). Cue up the highlights reel:

  • 37% of adults exceed the Government's recommended guidelines for alcohol intake.
  • 43% of adults in professional and managerial households overindulge, which colours professional managers screwed.
  • 22% of adults in professional and managerial households drink on at least five days in the week.
  • When surveyed, 16,000 adults felt that public health advertising had succeeded in raising awareness of the dangers of excessive drinking.

All of which makes for pretty grim reading, really. But it's unlikely that entire swathes of British society are not going to disappear into a booze-fueled haze. Amid the headline statistics, the ONS also notes that alcohol consumption has not significantly changed over the past decade, excepting 2006 when a new method of calculating the unit strength of alcohol lead to a "statistical glitch".

However, while Britain's adults are not necessarily drinking more, they are often exceeding the Government's recommended limits for alcohol consumption. These stand at 3-4 units a day for men and 2-3 units a day for women. 1 unit is calculated as 10ml of alcohol, so a 25ml measure of spirits at 40% ABV equals one unit, as does half (UK) pint of beer or lager at 3.5% ABV and a 125ml measure of wine at 9% ABV, which can prove troublesome when the majority of draught lagers sold in the UK clock in north of 4% ABV, and many licensed premises serve wines nearer 12-13% ABV in 175ml or 250ml measures. There is also a small problem that the guidelines are based on a 20-year old best-guess solution.

The disclosure that the 1987 recommendation was prompted by “a feeling that you had to say something” came from Richard Smith, a member of the Royal College of Physicians working party that produced it.

He told The Times that the committee’s epidemiologist had confessed that “it’s impossible to say what’s safe and what isn’t” because “we don’t really have any data whatsoever”.

But simply exceding the guidelines doesn't constitute binge drinking. That tends to be defined as consuming twice the guideline limits - 6-8 units for men, 4-6 for women. Put it another way: for a woman, two small (175ml) glasses of wine at 13% ABV is a binge. For a man, three pints (UK, 568ml) at 5% is a binge.

It is possible that the definition of binge drinking has been widened so far as to be meaningless. John Aitch, a recovering alcoholic, suggests that the guidelines themselves are essentially useless.

Why do they waste their time and ours on this nonsense? Statistics, advice, guidance, warnings, threats and general interference don't do much more than irritate everyone, since those who choose what they drink don't need to hear it and those who are in denial about booze can't or won't hear a word said against it.

Posted on January 27, 2009 and filed under Links, Media, Thoughts.

Brave new world

There's been a discussion over on Barbore about a new range of pre-prepared foam sauces called Airspuma, and what this means for cocktails. I made the point that it's the kind of product that could lead to a national chain (let's say All Bar One, for example) including a cocktail with a foam component on its menu, which would open that particular strand of mixology up to a new audience. But, thinking about it, we're not going to see foam cocktails in the mainstream anytime soon.

The drinks that you see presented at competitions, the cutting edge, experimental concoctions you see in the very best bars, these all represent a small section of the market. They're the drinks that will be included in programs 5, 10 years down the line, but they're not necessarily right for widespread adoption yet.

For things like foams, gels and airs, semi-liquid pearls and all the tricks in the molecular mixology toolkit, you can add another decade before they even enter the conversation, let alone become a part of a standard service. At the moment, it's hard to convince regular drinkers (the ones who stick to what they know, and it ain't cocktails) that making a mixed drink requires more thought than “lob it in a glass and give it a stir.” A drink with a foam component is going to be so far outside of their frame of reference that you may as well be talking about particle physics.

There will always be bars and bartenders working at the bleeding edge of innovation, and they do important work. Give it time, let the ideas filter out from those in the know to everybody else. Then we can talk about whether a premix aerosol foam garnish will damage the authenticity of a drink.

Posted on December 18, 2008 and filed under Thoughts.