Pay It Forward

At one of my first bartending gigs in NYC, a small Midtown dive, a regular said to me, You make better drinks than the owner. But that’s because he does the books, right?

By better, he meant stronger. In fact, I poured strong Jack and Cokes for this loyal customer because he consistently tipped very well, typically five dollars per drink, or upwards of twenty five per cent on his tabs.

As a drink dealer, I never even consider attempting to seduce customers into giving me a good tip by giving away the bar. However, I do recognize loyalty and generosity by pouring stronger drinks and occasionally comping a round for people who show up and throw down night after night.

I’m not perfect. Last night, a customer at my current bar complained that his Three Olives Berry Vodka mixed with Sprite was not strong enough. Give me some more medicine, he wailed. I’m dying!

I did not acquiesce because I’d never seen the guy’s face before.

After he’d signed his tab and left, however, I saw he’d left an eight dollar tip on an eighteen dollar tab. Good man, I thought. Next time I’ll take care of him. If he’d returned to finish his half-full glass, I would’ve topped it off.

The couple in Iowa who left their harried server a one hundred dollar tip on a sixty six dollar tab has generated much internet buzz. Former servers themselves, the couple wrote a note on the tab saying they’d been in the server’s shoes before and that they wanted to pay it forward.

As a bartender, I want to pay it forward, too. For this reason, when a customer tips me well, I’ll serve him or her first when my bar is slammed, and I’ll make his or her drinks more potent. It’s a truly symbiotic relationship.

Old Habits

People call me an old soul. I prefer the rustic and comfortable over the new and cutting edge. If we have an issue to discuss, I’d rather meet over a beer to talk about it than shoot emails and texts at each other.

Maybe this is why, in Astoria, NY, where I lived for two years amidst the melting pot, my favorite Sunday afternoon haunt after a weekend of flipping bottles was the the old Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden, not the new Garden at Studio Square. Sure, the newer joint was cleaner, more modernized and de rigeur with the young throngs who flocked to it for a weekend afternoon of beer guzzling. And yet, something about the gravel floor, the beat up wooden picnic tables, the traditional Czech fare, the roistering authenticity of the crowd at the old garden kept me coming back for more.

In a similar vein, on a recent visit to my native New York City, I felt an deep comfort in going back to Le Cheile, the same bar I always go to when I return to my family’s neighborhood, Washington Heights. I ordered the same Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA from the same bartender, and it still tasted kind of off, like it did when I went there with my mom and sister the previous December. This time, however, I didn’t care. I just enjoyed being at a local bar on a Tuesday night in The Heights, watching the bartender take sips from his pint of ale whenever he turned to his cash register to close out checks, and the taste of beer from a possibly less than pristine draft system.

We are, indeed, creatures of habit. We find comfort in the familiar, be it a beer garden, bar, or the type of beer itself. Somehow, despite my unquenchable curiosity and all the craft brews popping up in LA, when in doubt, I always stick to my guns and grab a six-pack of good ole’ Lagunitas IPA.

Following the advice of successful entrepreneurs and moguls on LinkedIn, I seek to embrace change, break my routine, take risks. But if the decision concerns beer or drinking location, I’d rather not gamble. I jump on the wagon that always brings me to where I want to go, and ride ’til the wheels fall off.

Back To Basics

Bitters!

Ah, simplicity. It’s a beautiful thing. Naturally, as a ‘tender, I get excited when I see something like this on a cocktail menu. This one is from the list at Malt in Newport, Rhode Island. With the current resurgence in whiskey and classic cocktails, it is no wonder that there is a concomitant resurgence in bitters. Bitters are, after all, a principal ingredient in the original cocktail, by definition, along with spirits of any kind, sugar, and water. As a professional mixer of spirits, I have great respect and admiration for an establishment that pays homage to this classic. Not only does it allow us to imbibe and appreciate history, it also lets us savor the flavor of the principal spirit—in this case, whiskey—unadulterated by too many added ingredients and flavors. Whenever a discriminating patron asks me to make them something, I almost always use this archetype as my inspiration, selecting a good bourbon or rye as my base, and build it from there.

Scrub-a-dub-dub

Hear ye, hear ye, drinkers! I just earned my California Food Handler Certificate of Achievement. Rest assured that I can now safely handle and serve you your popcorn chicken that makes that pitcher of Goose Island IPA so much more refreshing.

Furthermore, I will make sure to vigorously scrub my hands with soap and scalding water for at least twenty seconds after each cash transaction, before I resume slinging drinks.

I apologize for the lag, my thirsty brethren, yet it is necessary. It is my duty to take every reasonable action to keep your tipple pathogen-free.

On Display

Many customers devour me with their eyes. I can’t tell whether it’s because they enjoy watching me tend bar or because they’re imagining me naked. Maybe both.

As a bartender, I instinctively assume that when someone sits directly in front of me and stares at me, they want to order something.

Often, however, when I ask them what they want, they immediately snap out of their trance as though they’ve been caught in some lewd voyeuristic act.

Finally, one asks me, what’s the closest beer you have to Blue Moon?

Blue Moon, I say.

I’ll have that.

I go to grab the beer. Still, I can’t escape the others’ constant hungry gaze.

What Do You Want?

I have a system.

Here’s a scenario to illustrate it:

Five deep at the bar. Mayhem.

One guy is making out with his boyfriend, gabbing with his girlfriend, smacking his guy friend on the bootie, dancing with his mom, and ordering several drinks, one at a time. But he keeps changing the order, stuttering, stumbling, blundering, forgetting.

I want a Grey Goose vodka, he says.

Grey Goose is vodka, I tell him.

He laughs at his mistake. Grey Goose cranberry, he says.

What else? I ask him.

Uhm, hold on, he says, and turns around to ask his mom what she’s having.

Another guy casually raises his hand to get my attention. Without making a show of it, he has a $20 bill ready to pay. I’ll take a Blue Moon, he says.

For the sake of expediency, I will serve this guy his beer while the other dude figures out the rest of his order.

Ordering a drink at a bar is an art in itself. Please, strive to be clear, concise, and direct. Much of my work boils down to communication. Tell me what you want. Do it clearly, and say it like you mean it.

Group Drinking, Done Right

Go ahead. Be baller.

If you sidle up to the bar with several friends, why not offer to buy everyone a round? Not only does it make you look classy and generous in front of your crew, it makes my life much easier, especially if I’m dealing with plastic.

Swiping one credit card for one transaction involving several drinks is much more efficient than swiping five or six credit cards for each individual. When seven people walk up to the bar as a group and each of them orders, and insists on paying, separately, it slows down service for everyone at the bar.

I love to cater to every patron’s whim, yet I truly appreciate those most considerate of drinkers who gallantly buy a round for their entire posse. It speeds up the process, and time is money. More importantly, time is alcohol, in your body, which makes you have more fun.

This unwritten rule of etiquette holds especially true, I would argue, at lower priced establishments like dive bars. Where I tend, for example, 5 drinks at happy hour can easily cost less than $20. This is roughly the price of just one or two drinks at swankier, more expensive joints in the area.

So next time you order a vodka soda, a Jack and coke, a Bud Light, and two shots of tequila, and the grand total is $19, just hand me that card, flash a sexy smile, and tell your posse, “I got it.” They, and I, will respect and remember you for the rest of the night. Even better, throw down cash and tip heftily. I will make sure it comes back to you.

Did you eat your avocado this morning?

My version of Wheaties

You know you’re a bartender when you eat breakfast and drink that sacred morning cup of coffee at 8:30 PM. For the joe I go with Bustelo, and take it black. As far as victuals, I’ve developed a ritual. Sliced ripe avocado on whole grain toast or crusty French bread, with a squeeze of lime, salt, and a drizzle of olive oil. Drink your java, they say, for it’s a jungle out there. Just don’t forget your avocado.

Give Me Whiskey

“Do you have persimmon vodka?” a customer asked me Wednesday night.

I replied that we did not. He requested several other flavors of rare fruits one might find at Whole Foods, or in the rain forest, if one were lucky.

Later in the evening, a regular ordered himself a Stella and a Loopy Diet for the DJ, Loopy being Fruit Loop-flavored vodka. I informed him we were out of Loopy. The DJ approached the bar and asked me about the bottle with the colorful stripes.

“That’s Tartz,” I said.

“So it tastes like Life Savers?”

“No. It tastes like Sweet Tarts, as its name suggests.”

“Do you like it?”

“I drink whiskey.”

On my way home from the bar, I stopped at a 24-hour mini mart to indulge a serious chip hankering. This is just one of my post-bartending rituals: a cold brew and a bowl ‘o’ potato chips.

The options lining the shelves overwhelmed me. Feeling adventurous, I snagged a bag of Beer and Cheddar-flavored chips, rather than going with the classic Lay’s.

The chips packed a potent beer-and-cheddar punch. Yet as I neared the bottom of the bowl, I couldn’t help feeling they left something to be desired. In a sense, they were a tease, an artificial suggestion of multiple flavors that ultimately failed to deliver the satisfaction of eating the thing itself.

My conclusion: Instead of buying beer and cheddar chips, I should’ve bought real cheddar and regular chips to go with my beer. For the same reason, I would never drink persimmon- or Fruit Loop-flavored vodka. I’d much rather slice a ripe persimmon or pour myself a bowl of Fruit Loops to go with a chilled shot of Ketel One.

But this is me. And I mean no disrespect for those who enjoy flavored spirits.

Leave it on the bar, please

Let me acknowledge, first and foremost, that I, as your bartender, very much appreciate your tip. However, it is in no way necessary to put that dollar bill directly in my palm. I’m multi-tasking. I’m taking orders, making a cosmo, and running a credit card and cash transaction, all at the same time. I am in the zone. Unless you are tipping me $20 per round or some exorbitant amount, please, dear drinker, consider the breakneck speed at which I’m moving before you disrupt my flow. Again, I am grateful for your generosity. However, you will make my job easier by just leaving it on the bar. I’ll see it, I’ll get it, and you, my fellow imbiber, will get your drink faster when you return for Round Two.

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