Make no mistake, the real-deal bartender is serious about the craft. So serious, in fact, that the best bartenders set themselves up for successful evenings, to banter and make conversation that leads drinkers away from the usual script and toward getting the best cocktail for into their hands.
If you know what to look and listen for — and these five signs are a good start — then you've found a bar and a dynamic professional worth frequenting.
They've done their homework.
Curaçao, Cynar, Laphroaig — even if you don't have the pronunciation of these down, don't worry. Good bartenders do because they've done their homework. They know not only the difference between styles of gin, but styles of whiskey, what aging does to spirits, and why a spirit is or isn't worth top dollar. Some of them know the history behind drinks, and some have a wheelhouse of classics they can build from the ingredients in their bar in case a guest asks for an off-menu drink. And if they don't have the spirit in question, they can come up with similar drinks to make guests happy. They describe drinks beyond "it's nice" or "it's really great" or telling a guest that his Manhattan will be stiff or that his daiquiri will have refreshing, citrusy qualities.
Their body language.
Good bartenders knows their next step — even their five next steps — in sequence when they start a task, and they're confident enough in their motions that they can field questions and make eye contact with guests throughout a sequence. When they aren't making drinks, their posture is open and squared to the guest, and they often illustrate points with their hands, as a showman would. The real pros don't roll their eyes at tough questions or once their backs are turned to a trying table. They're gracious and quick to fix drinks that didn't land right on the palates of patrons. The bartenders who prepare themselves for success with mise en place — prepared systems to make drinks better and quicker; garnishes together, bitters lined up, glasses chilled, ice filled — have more time to go the extra mile, and even appear comfortable enough to crack jokes and be the entertainers we expect them to be.
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They are experimental at heart.
Real-deal bartenders question the status quo: Why is a Negroni a drink of equal proportions sweet vermouth, gin, and Campari? Should it be? What if a guest doesn't care for bitter drinks, preferring sweet ones instead? Why a dry gin? Why Beefeater, with orange qualities, over Nolet's gin with notes of rose-hip and raspberry? Is it time to modify the status quo for the guest or time to suggest a new drink entirely? Experienced bartenders have done the tinkering already, know how to adjust, and when to adjust: Maybe it's best to respect a classic — or maybe it isn't. Your ace bartenders have preferences, have opinions, and have integrity. They will field modifications with grace.
They steer you clear.
If you're frequenting a bar, the real-deal bartender likely remembers whether they've served you their favorite drink, their signature drink, or a new menu item — and, mostly likely they remember your reaction and whether you liked it or not. This level of rapport helps start conversation efficiently, and get the right drink in the hands of the guest a little quicker and a little better. Often, a good bartender will update you on new additions to the menu, especially if it fits your preferences. Over time, they will steer you out of your comfort zone and approach you with increasingly thought-provoking drinks if you've responded well to challenging drinks or ingredients in the past. They also will down-sell you or give you a drink they don't need to sell more of — typically a big no-no in the service industry — if it means heightened enjoyment and a better experience.
They care about presentation.
Lastly, and certainly not least, good bartenders truly care about the presentation of their drinks. Their wait staff is expected to deliver drinks cleanly if the bartender isn't doing the running. Either way, drinks should not arrive wet and overflowing onto soggy bar napkins or with too much or too little garnish — or limp peels or clumpy salt rims. And if someone at the table next to you gets the same drink, it had better be identical in proportion and presentation. Glassware is clean and free of water spots or residual lipstick. And drinks should never even be built past the point of mistake — too often are drinks (cocktails, beers, espressos — you name it) delivered with precursors like "My citrus juice is a little past its prime" or "I think I added a little too much egg white." These should never get past the bartender.