For eight years, Simon Alam has been something of a legend at Phoenix's trendy Merc Bar (2525 E. Camelback, 602-508-9449), serving drinks to stars and regular schmucks alike amidst groovy music and lighting so dim you feel like you're in a vampire coven. It's an ambiance that suits Alam, as he just may be a denizen of the night himself -- he goes to school, works two jobs, sometimes runs on three hours of sleep, and still manages to look more chipper than most of the people who buy his drinks.
How'd you get into bartending?
I started school in '98 as a CSE major. Then I kind of got kicked out of school. At the same time, I had a job at a software company. I told myself, I don't need school, I could do this. But sure enough, in 2001 the dot com bubble burst and I got laid off. That's when I decided to reapply myself back to school. At the same time, since this was one of the places that I would frequent a lot, and I really enjoyed it, I got to know a lot of the staff members and the manager and just slowly integrated myself. Started as a barback, then watched and learned from the other bartenders.
Are you still in school now?
Yes. I'm actually working on my second degree. I just have two more classes. I've also been doing an internship at Honeywell since November. Trying to keep myself as busy as possible.
What are your degrees in?
The first is in global business, with a concentration in finance and international studies. My second, the one I'll hopefully be done with in December, is in supply chain management. Both from ASU.
Is it hard to balance school and the internship with this job?
Not really. I work here Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and the internship is Monday and Wednesday. Sunday I catch up on my sleep. It's a little hard to wake up at 6 a.m. because I'm so used to sleeping in until noon, but it's something else that you just get used to.
How late do you usually work here?
Depending on how busy the night is, I usually get out of here by 2:30 a.m. Some nights you might be here until 3:30.
Do you have all your cocktail recipes memorized?
For the most part. But I don't know everything. Especially nowadays, with internet and phones and stuff, if someone comes in and they want a cocktail that you don't know, you can easily look it up. It's not that big a deal.
How do you put your own personal twist on a drink?
Well, let's look at a drink like the Caipirinha. If you put too many limes in, or too much sugar, then you're going to get it all fluffed up or it's going to be too tart. Traditionally, what bartenders do is pour out their drinks into a tin and count as they pour. I do it opposite -- I pour it straight into the glass so I can watch the alcohol going in. Sometimes, depending on how big the ice cube is or how big the limes are, you're going to have to adjust. If you pour into a tin, something might be off. I like to watch the drink and gauge what I need.
What famous faces have you seen come through Merc Bar?
Lots. Models, comedians, professional athletes and billionaires.
Is it stressful making drinks for those people as opposed to the regular guys?
Not really. You want to treat everyone that comes in with respect, and those individuals that are up there want to be treated as normal people anyway. If you can bring it down to that level, most of your stress goes away. What's the worst that could happen -- they don't like your cocktail? They send it back to you? Big deal. Make another one.
You have any stories of crazy customers?
Well, yeah! You'll always get those. But, you know, it's one of those rules where, it's that night. That's what happened that night. You joke about it when they come in, and that's about it. There are a lot of stories, but I wouldn't know where to start or which one to pick. A lot of them have to do with me as well, so, you know, I don't want to incriminate myself. Plus even if I use different names, people will know. This town is so small. You'd be amazed how small it is. Word flies.
If there was a drink named after you, want would be in it?
Definitely vodka, since that's the primary thing I drink. I'm not too big on a lot of flavors, but I like orange for some reason. So most likely orange vodka.