bar•ten•der \ˈbär-ˌten-dər\ n : one that serves liquor at a bar
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Google it. But (a) I like books and (b) it’s important to note that Merriam-Webster’s website now defines it as “a person who serves drinks at a bar.” In a mere 15 years we’ve progressed from ‘liquor’ to ‘drinks.’ Nothing is safe from progress. Given its blatant simplicity, this should pretty much end the discussion. But it doesn’t. I can’t tell you how many people ask me “Are you a mixologist?” Or rather, “Do you consider yourself” as such. My response is always the same, “No. I tend bar. I’m a bartender.” The term ‘mixologist’ conjures up all sorts of images. Mostly images like that one douche bag bartender that replaced Sam in Cheers when he left to sail around the world. Upon Sam’s return, he meets this dour, condescending tool in a cheaply tailored vest who claims to boast an encyclopedic bevy of drink recipes. According to MW’s website, the first known use of the term was back in 1948. That’s interesting. This would hardly, then, make the term a modern dialectical flourish. It should be noted, however, that neither ‘mixologist’ nor ‘mixology’ is to be found in my trusty 1997 print edition. No, to me mixology is a justifiable, however overly technical reference of method or craft or, hell, even a philosophy. But to refer to oneself as a mixologist begs a flogging.
To make my point, I simply find its use a bit silly. The etymology negates what a bartender actually does. He or she tends patrons at a bar. Everything else follows suit–the mixing of ingredients to create a delicious cocktail in a creative way by whatever means of convention are at hand. Any word that insinuates a scientist’s grasp of altering molecules or an architect’s power of design in building a concoction is absurd.
I firmly believe that much of today’s drinking culture has looked past the bartender’s primary function: to serve the person in front of them. Not simply hospitality but preempting their needs and wit. As a good friend and fellow bartender once said, “your job is to make people feel better about their lives.” This might come across as horrifically simplistic but it contains a pearl of wisdom. Now, I don’t subscribe to the grandiose notion that we, as bartenders, should act as psychiatrists. We’re not. And I don’t claim to have answers to all your fucking problems. But at the end of the day, what exactly is it that draws people to a bar? Forget all the ghastly trimmings of promotional fervor and happy hours. Why do people want to be served a drink by someone else? It’s for the social interaction. Sometimes this interaction is therapeutic. More often than not, it’s medicinal. But it’s always for the social element. If not to engage directly with another human being, to sit back and watch the social sludge bubble up around you. I personally sit at a bar to engage. Either with friends next to me or with the person pouring on the other side. Don’t get me wrong I, too, take a certain creative satisfaction in mixing amazing drinks that bring a smile to otherwise downtrodden faces. And there are definitely some customers I can’t stand interacting with. But one of the true marks of any bartender worth his margarita salt is the ability to engage with all sorts of people on all sorts of levels. I often fall short. But I’ve seen other bartenders with this skill in action and it’s harder than you might think.
But as much as the bartender can be one’s social demigod in this sense, sometimes he/she is forced to act the opposite. I’m reminded of a recent episode in which a woman came to my bar in Brooklyn. Visibly drunk, papers and folders in hand, she ambles up to a stool and slurs out “cranbry v-dka!” I deciphered that she was ordering a vodka and cranberry and responded with a polite rebuttal, “I’m sorry but you seem as though you’ve had a few too many and I would hate to over serve you.” (A forgone conclusion at this point.) “You’re welcome back any other time but not today. I’m sorry.” She responded in a slobbering drone, “Well, I’m just getting– divorced, but perhaps– vdka crnbrry.” After turning her away in what seemed like days until she found her way to the door, I probably felt as low as anyone could. Here this woman was, innocent enough, with what were most likely divorce papers in hand on probably the worst day of her life, and I had to turn her away. Don’t get me wrong, booze wasn’t what she needed then and I don’t mean to encourage it as an emotional crutch. But what else would propel this woman to a bar, rather than just simply go home, hunker down in the bath tub turn on Michael Bolton and suck down a bottle of Chardonnay? It was the human element. And I had to say no. On the bright side, she was so obliterated that she probably won’t remember her anguish of me casting her away as she meandered across the street to a lovely little dive bar. I did not see her emerge. Everyone wins.
I don’t mean to end this discussion on a sour note. Let me just suggest that the role of a bartender by its very definition is not to simply entertain or host a party or perform as a comedian on stage, however much all of these skills help. It’s to simply be there with an open bottle, open ears, and as much creativity and knowledge as you can muster in order to supply them with a brief respite from daily life. Sometimes at the best time in someone’s life, sometimes at the worst. Booze is great but I truly believe it’s secondary; a wonderful craft but secondary. It’s a sanctuary where Johnny Boy and Charlie hide away from their woes in Mean Streets. It’s where Harry Angstrom and his father try to bond over daiquiris, and ultimately fail, in John Updike’s Rabbit, Redux. It’s where Ilsa and Rick, scorned ex-lovers cross paths again amid the war-time thieves, hookers, piano players, and refugees in Casablanca. But the bar is also where conversations start. And where every good joke begins with a simple phrase.