Cocktails and Conversations: The beginnings of a bartender

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I’ve been a professional bartender-cum-mixologist for almost 20 years. I’ve won awards and had recipes published, which I tell you not out of pride—it’s a strange craft to take pride in, after all. If it’s true a bartender is the everyman’s therapist, then we’re also the everyman’s enabler. The service industry in general can be melancholy, which is why many do drugs and stay up late, and sleep with each other disastrously, and talk endlessly about quitting but never really quitting. And, no matter how fancy the restaurant, there’s always shit work—even at the A-listiest restaurants. I never worked anywhere that, at some point, I was not handed the mop. I mention it only so readers know I take the craft of drink-making seriously. It’s a rare art—a necessary art.

I went to bartending school in 1997 over winter break from college. I was a freshman studying to become an English teacher. I had been a dishwasher and a busboy, which I liked because they didn’t require much talking. Still, neither did much in the way of impressing girls. There were about 20 of us in bartending class. The instructor was tall and kind of dorky. The other prospects and I sat around a pretend bar in an office complex, while our teacher showed us how to make whiskey sours, grasshoppers and Long Island iced teas, using fake ingredients. He explained how the Tanqueray bottle was modeled after British fire-hydrants and how Beefeater gin was named after British royal bodyguards who stand outside Buckingham Palace, while wearing red coats and furry black hats. In the 17th century, when many people went hungry, these redcoats with pole-axes were rationed large portions of beef. These days they still wear the same outfits but carry machine guns.

Our teacher demonstrated a different category of drinks each day for two weeks before having us pair up and practice. There were two tests: a written one for recipes and one for speed. The latter required making 12 randomly ordered drinks in three minutes. I had shoulder-length hair and thrift-store clothes. The school boasted job placement opportunities, but the only gig I could find was at a Greek diner, pouring drafts to a couple of truckers watching football.

After getting a haircut, I landed a spot behind the rails at a nightclub. Once a month or so, they had an “all-male review,” which meant I had to serve Malibu Bay breezes to waves of excited women, while well-built dudes in thongs strutted on top of my bar. One of the guys signed bare-chested photographs of himself to hang in the bathrooms. My boss only hired 16-year-old boys to work with him in the kitchen. All the food came in pre-packaged and fryer-ready. Whenever my boss shook my hand, his lazy finger dragged along my palm.

There was an artist who lived nearby in a convalescent tower who claimed to have his paintings and sculptures in most of the major museums in the world, including the MoMA and Tate Modern. If so, I wondered, why was he forced to survive on the kindness of a few aging patrons? On most nights he drank an entire bottle of red wine but rarely paid for anything because of the huge abstract painting on the wall that he had bartered with my boss. Once the artist finished his wine, he moved on to Campari and gin, and often began slamming his fist on the bar to emphasize some point about how our city council was “failing the children” because “no one understood the importance of culture anymore.” He threw old copies of The New Yorker at me, and challenged me to educate myself out of our little coal-mining town. He later commissioned my first piece of paid writing—an introduction to a catalogue of his charcoal drawings. Over the next decade or so, while researching his life enough to write his biography, I realized most of the old man’s stories were true.

Before I became a bartender, I used to think the old men were all gruff and mean, especially the irascible ones. Now I know they were probably just tired and had sore legs. One of my favorites to watch was a stocky, chain-smoking guy with a limp, named “Ray,” who lived most of the year in Florida but came up the coast each summer to work at a dinner theatre in an old mansion. Guests entered through a side door and were asked to wait at the bar. Ray’s friend George, the manager, was tall and had gone to Harvard. He had “a few novels” in the works in unfinished piles on his desk, he said, should he ever expire in our midst. Ray lived in George’s basement and watched the History Channel, while chain-smoking in the dark.

The owner of the theatre wrote, acted and directed the plays. He wore floral-collared shirts and drank a vodka martini with olives after every performance. Most of the other waiters were also actors, culled from college theatre programs. I was not one of them; though, I did get to put on a Mayan Monster/Deity costume once and growl loudly onstage. I was a walk-in, a bum sharing a flophouse nearby with a high-school buddy and his girlfriend. I often hung out after work with a group of Irish kids who came over for the summer and liked to go to dance clubs on weekends where the bartenders spit fire. The Irish became so integrated into the fabric of town that restaurants took to offering French-fry sandwiches. I had one once, a long white roll, inlaid with mayo and fries they called a “chip buddy.” Many of the Irish lived in the same house, usually three or four to a room. I came to love them and later learned some came from wealthy families but were willing to wash dishes all summer in the restaurant just to interact with American girls. They drank Budweiser and shot pool until last call at the predominantly African-American bar near their house. It had the best jukebox.

More so, they taught me how to take things in stride, to not take myself too seriously, and why buying a round of drinks for friends and leaving a generous tip is actually a good investment—which may have been the best lesson of them all.

Veteran bartender Joel Finsel is the author of “Cocktails and Conversations from the Astral Plane.” Feel free to send questions or comments to

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