While there are universal truths to greatness behind the stick – grace under pressure, strong work ethic, excellent communication and sound product knowledge – it’s important to realise that the different types of bartending also have their own skills.
With World Bartender day fast approaching, I got to thinking about what it is that makes a bartender, but to do this, I believe it’s important to separate out the different styles of bartending and discuss why each of them is important.
Most of the friends I’ve made in this industry are now authorities in the trade. From humble beginnings, they are now regarded, on both the national and international stage, as being at the top of their game.
Yet these folk are not necessarily all cocktail bartenders. Some are publicans, others have been instrumental in raising standards in the restaurant world, while others again have mastered the art of speed and efficiency to train teams that thump out gallons of drink at high volume for the full 8 hours of a shift.
So where does the gene of being a great bartender split?
Like many of my contemporaries, I started as a humble pub barback/cellar hand, nights spent hauling kegs, stacking glassware and fetching ice in the hope that I could absorb the information flying around a frenetic workspace.
Pubs are the backbone of drinking culture in Australia, and a warm, comforting presence to me whenever I’m visiting a new town. Good pubs breed great bartenders, as it’s here that we first learn about the basics, not just beer and wine, but food, hospitality and how to move around safely in a workplace filled with glass, steel and liquid.
The best pub bartenders are nearly always the ones that you feel like you might have met before, their casual and disarming nature puts you at ease and welcome you instantly. They can talk of sport, current affairs, or the local brewery’s latest limited release because they are masters of conversation.
In a building open all day and into the night, these are the bartenders that can upkeep a tap system, talk to Barry (who’s been coming in since the 70s) and hold down the fort for the lunch, dinner and post-game-rush, all while being the most affable legend you’re likely to meet.
Time spent behind the bar at a Restaurant will teach you many things, especially about food and wine. It was during my time at the first restaurant I ever worked where the bartending bug truly bit me hard. With the standard of restaurants creeping ever upwards, so to the status of the restaurant bartender rises with them. No longer the poor sap who polishes wine glasses and makes the odd Gin & Tonic, their role is now one of insanely well-organised, and efficient, utilitarian strength.
The greats of restaurant bartending possess impeccable attention to detail, which in turn affords them, a seemingly endless amount of knowledge for all things food and wine – key traits found in their team-mate, the section waiter. Creativity is not stifled, and often their cocktail creations are things of simplicity and beauty, designed as much for pre-or post-dinner, as they are to be enjoyed with food. Always polite and charming in nature, the restaurant bartender is born to serve.
Next up we have the workhorse of the industry, as it is the volume/nightclub ‘tender to whom I will tip my hat every time. I have never done harder or more physically and mentally demanding work than when I was behind the stick at large volume venues (and I spent a brief stint as a Builder’s labourer).
Hundreds, sometimes thousands of patrons, all thirsty and looking for a party, combined with litres and litres of stick drinks, vodka sodas and an endless array of RTDs, all flow from their fingers at a dizzying rate. All of this is, of course, done in an atmosphere of loud, frenetic music, (usually) dimly lit bars where the end of a day’s work sees the sun rises rather than set. It may seem like a crazy work environment to your average punter… but I’ve never had more fun!
The best of these bar weapons are cool under extreme pressure, have incredible speed and accuracy for long stretches, and are master multitaskers. Their love of music, nightlife and the energy and vibe that envelopes a high volume space, often fuels these party-starting, drink dispensing machines, long after the other barkeeps are counting their tips for the night.
Unfortunately, gone are the days where I could still hold six conversations at once, pour basics with my eyes closed and literally put thousands through the til, surrounded by hyped-up, balls of pure intoxicated energy until dawn. What a bunch of legends!
Last, but certainly not least on our bartending family tree, is the cocktail bartender. Having counted myself as one for the better part of my career, I can tell you that they are the best in the game; their skill and their knowledge is a culmination of everything that has been mentioned above, and then some. Possessing a wealth of knowledge around spirits, flavours and techniques for creating drinks, the world’s top cocktail bartenders have an arsenal of tools in their belt to take your experience to great heights.
Larger than life characters with a desire to share the experience they are creating within the four walls of the establishment, these excellent hosts are quick-thinking multitaskers and highly original thinkers.
They are probably best described as the journey-men and women of the bar world, who are always on the lookout for new ideas, collaborating with their peers, and burying themselves in the latest cuisine technique textbooks, all just to be able to come up with the next new and exciting ways to deliver flavour, concept and booze, all neatly packaged in a glass that doubles as a work of art.
Whether you are a budding bartender yourself, or a self-described Bon Vivant, the next time you belly up to the bar, take a minute to appreciate the different styles, see if you can pick the pedigree – but above all, appreciate the craft for what it is.
Bartending embraces an amazing and often dizzying array of skills. They may stand behind a simple plank of wood but that belies the skill, effort and creativity that every bartender, no matter where in the industry they find themselves, brings to the job every day.