Life Behind Bars. A true look at a bartender’s life.

By / Mavericks / March 14th, 2016 / 15

 

“Mixologists serve cocktails; bartenders serve people.”

-Bartending industry saying

“I’ll have a martini … and I’ll have mine wet.”

-Pierre Trudeau to The Martini Club’s Michelle Hunt

 

It’s a stereotypical image portrayed in countless books, movies, and television programs. He’s pictured behind the bar, shirtsleeves rolled, wiping down glassware, drawing pints, pouring shots. Or he’s the flashy fellow juggling bottles like some booze-inspired circus performer. Maybe he’s the gruff but friendly dude who lends an ear to those crying into their cups because their girl ran off/dog died/girl ran off with dog.

In more “real life” scenarios, he’s likely to be seen as someone “making a few extra bucks” while waiting for their “real” ship to sail (he’s an aspiring actor, a musician, or — God help him — a writer).

Indeed, there’s been a certain consistency over the years when it comes to bartenders that hasn’t wavered too much from the script: they’re a) male b) entertainers/psychiatrists c) economically “making a few extra bucks.”

Is any part of this really the case these days? Can a bartender actually make a decent living? How does one prepare for life behind bars and how does such a life play out?

Imbibing minds want to know. So grab your shakers and let’s go.

When asked about the accuracy of the stereotype, Matt Jones, a bartender and Whisky Ambassador for Beam Suntory Canada (we’ll get to the whole Brand Ambassador thing later), confirms that while the mainstream media may paint bartenders with the stereotype brush, it’s an inaccurate picture when put through a reality check.

“We have come leaps and bounds since the 1987 classic,” he says, referring to the movie Cocktail, the Tom Cruise vehicle that defined — and inspired — a generation of flairboyz. “Today that stereotype is grossly inaccurate,” he rules. “I know more MBAs that are getting into the trade than students trying to make ends meet.” To illustrate how things have changed, Jones cites a line from Patrick Gavin Duffy, author of the 1933 The Official Mixer’s Manual: “Bartending is an old and honorable trade. It is not a profession … The idea of calling a bartender ‘professor’ or ‘mixologist’ is nonsense.”

“Fast-forward to the 21st century and you better believe [bartending] is a profession,” Jones asserts. “And there has been enough history and innovation to warrant professors of mixology.” Such a title may not be simply fanciful thinking.

Adrian Caravello is Program Co-ordinator for the Centre for Hospitality and Culinary Arts at Toronto’s George Brown College. Having worked on the specifics of it for over two-and-a-half years, he is ready to usher the first students into the Advanced Wine and Beverage Business Program set to kick off this fall. Taught by faculty experts and industry leaders, the year-long, three-semester program will provide students not only with advanced knowledge of beer, wine, and spirits, but also of mixology. And it’ll also teach future bartenders and industry up-and-comers essential business skills, including financial management, organizational behaviour and strategic marketing. There will also be visits to domestic and European distilleries, wineries and breweries to learn best business practices directly from the professionals in the field.

“The hospitality industry has been in need of a program like this for years,” Caravello confirms, adding that successful graduates of the program will come out with not only an Ontario Graduate Certificate and four additional industry certifications (from the Wine amd Spirit Education Trust and Prud’homme Beer Certification), but perhaps an awaiting career.

“Depending on experience and areas of interest, graduates can pursue rewarding careers as servers, bartenders, beverage directors, sales agents, territory managers, product consultants, brand ambassadors, wine stewards/cellar masters, wine country tour guides, specialty retail operators, portfolio managers, and merchandising/inventory coordinators, domestically and internationally,” Caravello reveals.

Jones also points to other training institutions like Mixxit Canada (a program he’s affiliated with), and the Society of Wine Educators Certified Specialist of Spirits (CSS), which is coming to Calgary in late spring of this year. There also local spirit and mixology courses offered through local establishments, like SpiritHouse Toronto.

Many newer programs aim, in part, to bring business to bartending, a concept that has perhaps been neglected in the past.

“Ah, the downer side of the bartending conversation,” sighs Michelle Hunt when asked what business skills bartenders need to have. Hunt, along with partner Laura Panter, formed The Martini Club over 20 years ago and have been shaking up the Canadian cocktail scene as industry trainers and consultants — and bartenders — ever since.

“I KNOW MORE MBAS THAT ARE GETTING INTO THE TRADE THAN STUDENTS TRYING TO MAKE ENDS MEET.” MATT JONES, A BARTENDER AND WHISKY AMBASSADOR FOR BEAM SUNTORY CANADA

“I KNOW MORE MBAS THAT ARE GETTING INTO THE TRADE THAN STUDENTS TRYING TO MAKE ENDS MEET.”
MATT JONES, A BARTENDER AND WHISKY AMBASSADOR FOR BEAM SUNTORY CANADA

Hunt notes that there is a high level of passion, knowledge and skill in the bartending world today, but a grounding in the business side of things still needs a bit more development. A venue does, after all, have to turn a profit if it expects to survive … and if a bartender expects to be paid. “Every six minutes a bar closes because the business side wasn’t there,” Hunt points out. Barkeeps need to keep track of what’s coming in, what’s going out, what’s overstocked and what’s running dry. They’ll have to be able to control a range of cost, right down to how they price their possibly elaborate concoctions. You even need to think about the availability — and affordability — of those exotic ingredients. “Kumquats are hard to source in the middle of winter,” Hunt (sort of) jokes. “And they won’t be cheap if you can find them.”

“There are many setup and closing duties,” Jones confirms. “Opening bar, inventory of products served, preparation of fresh produce for the shift, setting up the mise en place of the bar, balancing the cash float and accounting for sales. At the end of the shift, the whole bar needs to be reset for the next day.”

Neither Jones nor Hunt had the luxury of attending a “Bartender U” to learn this stuff. And many of those who are now true professors of mixology polished their chops using their own ingenuity and creativity. Blood, sweat and beers (as it were).

Having been seduced by the movie Cocktail, Jones used the recipes showcased in the film as a jumping off point, even teaching himself to juggle (all before he had reached drinking age). Though he took one Toronto-based training course, he realized just how much there was to learn. Armed with a true “thirst for knowledge,” he set off on his own. “The Internet had just hit for me,” he recounts, “so I began my research online while reading every resource I could. I quickly realized that what was being taught in bars in Ontario barely scratched the surface of this old and honourable trade.” Though his talents as a bottle flipper landed him plenty of job offers, it was his interest in classic and tiki cocktails that led him to a four-year stint in the Caribbean (“… directly mirroring the Cocktail script,” he informs) before returning to Canada and setting up his own bartending school in Southern Ontario.

For Hunt (and Panter, for that matter), honing her own mixology skills came as a response to finding a general lack of said skills in the local market. She came to Toronto from hip and happening Vancouver armed with a pre-med degree and ready to find a career as a doctor. In the meantime, however, what she couldn’t find was a decent martini. To remedy this — and to widen her social network — Hunt formed a little club of other drinks enthusiasts, and from there, things took off.

Word of Hunt and Panter’s doings spread and it wasn’t long before Smirnoff was knocking on the door with a book offer. “We wrote 101 Martinis,” Hunt recounts, “then we decided we really wanted to become experts.” Visits to distilleries, representing Canada at international spirits symposiums and developing a global network of enthusiasts led to new career paths for both of them. “We took all the courses we possibly could on wine and beer, but there was nothing specifically geared to the cocktail,” she reveals, adding that a growing interest in cocktails lead to a growing need for those who really knew their way around the back of the bar. The same need that took The Martini Club from a social outlet to a respected drinks industry training operation is the need that is fuelling the demand for skilled drink-slingers today.

If you happen to be serious about picking up the torch (or shaker) and getting “behind the wood,” (bartender parlance for life behind bars), prepare yourself for something a bit different than the typical nine to five.

“The landscape [of the typical bartender day] has changed a fair bit,” Hunt points out. “There’s a lot more set-up to do these days.” If you’re a nighttime barkeep, Hunt says you’ll probably be on site starting between five and seven p.m., depending on the amount of prep work that needs to be done. You’ll start the real work at around seven or 8 p.m., and work through till close, which can be two to three a.m. Then, as Jones mentioned earlier, there’ll be cleanup and some prep work for the next day. And you also have to be on your toes, not only to keep the service moving, but to monitor the condition of your patrons. If you over-serve someone and that impaired someone does something stupid, your butt’s, legally, on the line.

“In Ontario, for instance, a bartender can be held personally liable for the safety of their patrons and other members of the public after consuming alcohol in the establishment,” Jones verifies, adding that if, for example, an impaired patron gets into a car accident after leaving your pub, a criminal investigation will be launched to determine the liability of both the server and the establishment.

Once you do extract yourself from the bar (hopefully without police escort), it’s pretty unlikely you’ll head home to bed. “You have to unwind,” Hunt emphasizes.

While “unwinding” usually doesn’t mean scarfing down more fancy cocktails, it does include trying to find some chow (you may have worked the whole shift without breaking for much food) and it likely involves a beer or two (perhaps accompanied by a shot or two, “depending on how grueling the night was,” according to Hunt). You’ll obviously sleep in then head out for brunch, which could wind up being the big meal of the day.

It’s a bit of a weird, demanding, high-pressure existence. And you’re no doubt wondering what — other than the ability to mix to your heart’s content — it’ll actually get you. While there are some “celebrity bartenders” out there (a few even with agents) who can make some respectable coin, the average bartender paycheque isn’t huge and, like many servers, you’ll be dependent on tips. Jones says that, in the case of bartenders who really have their Schlitz together, these can sometimes exceed 20 percent of the bar tab. He also says that bartenders looking for full-time hours as well as benefits usually try to bag a position with a large, corporate hotel chain or casino. But there are other ways for a personable, knowledgeable bar(wo)man to make some bucks … and see the world. Enter the Brand Ambassadors (told ya we’d get to them).

“This role has exploded over the past five years in Canada,” Jones discloses. Established distilleries (typically) will select accomplished, knowledgeable, enthusiastic bartenders to tout the corporation’s brand in every place from local watering holes to international competitions. “The Brand Ambassador is intended to be an extension of the distillery, telling the brand’s story of heritage, process, features and benefits,” he adds. They also act as media spokespeople, trade liaisons and consumer educators. Here’s the really good part: “The Brand Ambassador’s calendar can often be 75 per cent travel to the brand’s various markets, conducting consumer and trade events and developing and launching new cocktails. It’s almost a sales and marketing hybrid role.” The pro bartender/Brand Ambassador role can indeed have its perks. Jones rattles off some that he’s realized:

“Being tipped 200 per cent on a guest check. Travelling the world and working as a bartender in Asia, Central America, all over the US and Europe. Being flown to exotic locations in Belize to train bartenders for the Tourism Board … and those are the ones I can actually tell you about … I’m a bartender, after all!”

Sometimes the rewards are a bit more esoteric, but every bit as gratifying. Panter recalls the time she and Hunt crafted the Red Violin Martini for the 1998 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) gala honouring the movie of the same name and having the film’s star and cowriter, Don McKeller, exclaim to the entire assembled audience, “My movie is a drink!” (Needless to say, this pretty much cemented the success of The Martini Club and ensured its reappearance at all subsequent TIFF soirées.)

For Hunt, being dubbed “The Tony Robbins of Martinis” by a member of a (possibly initially very skeptical) room of bartenders was a personal standout moment. Then there was the Pierre Trudeau moment.

“I made Pierre Trudeau a wet martini while he held me with those piercing blue eyes … and at that point my clothes were basically off,” she admits, speaking, we can only assume, figuratively. With an outro like that, it’s only fair to let Hunt do the wrap up.

“Is bartending a career? 100 per cent. Is there room for women? 100 per cent. Are our tastes changing? Yeah! Are we getting smarter at bartending? For sure. Are the global food influences we see in restaurants coming to the bar? Uh-huh! Where will it stop? It won’t!”

So if you’re looking for a job where you’ll be shakin’ all night long (and possibly travelling the world), consider mixing the goods behind the wood.


 

The Martini Club’s essential bar tools kit

Boston shaker (3 pieces; silver, glass (clear), julep strainer) or Cobbler shaker

Pour spouts

Beer opener with can opener

Wine opener (servers corkscrew)

Citrus zester

Citrus peeler

Dedicated sharp knife

Dedicated cutting board

Vermouth atomizer

1 oz/2 oz silver jiggers x 2

Bar spoon

Citrus squeezer


 

hawaiian old fashioned

(A twist on a classic courtesy of The Martini Club’s Laura Panter)

 

2 orange half wheels

1 lemon half wheel

1 oz honey syrup

2 oz dark rum

Pimento bitters

 

To a rocks glass, add the orange half wheels, lemon half wheel and honey syrup. Press to extract juice (do not over muddle). Add dark rum and a dash of pimento bitters. Stir to mix. Fill the glass with ice and stir well. Garnish with a slice of orange.

 

PHOTO ABOVE: MARTINI CLUB’S MICHELLE HUNT (SEEN ABOVE RIGHT WITH CO-OWNER LAURA PANTER

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tod Stewart is the contributing editor at Quench. He's an award-winning Toronto-based wine/spirits/food/travel/lifestyle writer with over 35 years industry experience. He has contributed to newspapers, periodicals, and trade publications and has acted as a consultant to the hospitality industry. No matter what the subject matter, he aims to write an entertaining read. His book, 'Where The Spirits Moved Me' is now available on Amazon and Apple.

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