Wandering Bartenders

By Dale DeGroff

(Originally published in Beverage Media)

Bartending at the highest level has a unique skill set. A talented bartender assembles skills that far exceed the simple act of supplying well made drinks quickly and accurately. A service bartender who spends his time out of view can get by with just making drinks accurately and quickly but once in front of the public the real talent of the bartender kicks in. When a new party walks up to the bar a quick glance and a few words is all a bartender has to make several important decisions. Why are these people here beyond the simple answer to enjoy a drink and how can he enhance their experience. Can he take them beyond the ordinary? A good bartender confident in his recipes absolutely can if he can sell the idea in an attractive way. I cringe when bartenders explain to me that this drink or that product doesn’t move; the bartender is the MOVER! The bartender may have to decide if he can serve the party at all and if not how does he handle that situation successfully with a minimum of disruption and without losing composure. An accomplished bartender can turn and unhappy of difficult guests into a friend of the house. That is after all what we get paid to do.

Many of the skills described above can only come from experience. Young bartenders, like chefs or servers tend to move around early in their careers learning different skills in different jobs. In my early days as a waiter in a high end New York City Bar and Grill I learned people skills that were invaluable later as a bartender. I also spent so much time in the kitchen that I began to understand not just the culinary side of the business but the tempo or flow of a working kitchen. And how the kitchen, bar, and front of the house all must mesh for success.

This idea of the bartender as a wanderer started at the dawn of the modern bartending profession in the nineteenth century with Jerry Thomas. Thomas widely accepted as the father of the modern bartending profession traveled all around North America, and parts of South America and Europe. He was different from his fellow bartenders in one respect he took notes. Esquire drinks editor David Wondrich has provided us with an in lively depth documentation of Thomas’s career and some of his contemporaries against the backdrop of the times in his new book Imbibe.

Thomas and his contemporaries developed this unique skill set that made them a valuable asset to the new cocktail bars that were opening in cities around the country in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Sadly the developing profession after only 60 or 70 years was interrupted by Prohibition. As a result Prohibition provided the next big incentive for the wandering professional. Skilled bartenders traveled to Cuba and to Europe taking jobs in leading establishments in London and Paris to practice their distinctive skill and introduce the unique American cocktail to people steeped in old world tradition. Some like Harry Craddock and Harry McElhone went on to very long and successful careers becoming authors just as Thomas had done in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Post prohibition United States presented a series of challenges to the newly legitimized industry not the least of which was finding skilled bartenders. Two men who learned the skill of mixing and who had the vision to see an opportunity were Donn Beach and Victor Bergeron. Donn Beach, aka Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt started tropical cocktail themed bar concept that became known as the tiki bar. Both he and Bergeron trained countless young men many of them Asian immigrants. These young bartenders kept little black books of recipes for these very specialized drinks. As the tiki craze spread across the United States those books of closely guarded secret recipes became the passports that opened the doors for this new generation of wandering bartenders. The recipes were trade secrets that made these skilled craftsmen valuable to the entrepreneurs who rode the tiki trend in cities all over the USA. Jeff “Beachbum” Berry chronicles these times in his latest book, "Sippin Safari," SLG publishing, 2007.

The wandering bartender tradition has taken a new turn with the emergence of the culinary cocktail tradition of the last several years, a tradition that has seen the raw materials of the cocktail expanded to include herbs and other savory ingredients from spices to exotic and unusual fruits and vegetables. The cutting edge of the culinary cocktail movement was the style bars in London over the last seven to ten years. Those young bartenders eager to expand their knowledge and experience have traveled to other parts of the world and have had a significant impact from the Eastern Europe to the United States, Australia, and Southeast Asia.

This is truly an exciting time to be a bartender; below are a couple drinks inspired by the new culinary style cocktails.

THAI BOXER

Adapted from a recipe by Scott Beattie, Bar Manager at the Cyrus restaurant in Healdsburg, California.

  • 12 fresh thai basil leaves (reserve two for garnish)
  • 10 fresh cilantro leaves
  • 10 fresh mint leaves
  • 1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
  • 1/2 ounce Thai coconut milk
  • 1/4 ounce simple syrup
  • 1 1/2 ounces Charbay Tahitian Vanilla Bean rum
  • 2 to 3 ounces Cock’n Bull ginger beer

Tear the cilantro, mint, and 10 of the basil leaves into small pieces, and add them to a mixing glass with the lime juice, coconut milk, and simple syrup. Grind the torn leaves into the liquid with a wooden muddler for a few seconds, add the rum, enough ice to fill the glass two-thirds full, and top with the ginger beer. Stir the ingredients together and fine strain into an ice-filled collins glass, and add the garnish.

BLUEBERRY & SAGE SOUR*

Prepared for a cocktail dinner at Tremont 647, Boston Massachusetts

  • 1 1/2 ounces Plymouth gin
  • 1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 ounce triple blended syrup *
  • 8 blueberries
  • 3 sage leaves

Muddle the blueberries and two of the sage leaves together with the lemon juice in the bottom of a Boston glass. Add the gin the agave syrup and shake well with ice fine strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a large blueberry pierced through with the stem of the third sage leaf.

* Prepare the individual syrups by mixing 1/2 base with 1/2 water then combine the syrup as follows: 2 parts simple syrup, 2 parts agave syrup and 1/2 part honey syrup.

BRUT PEARINGS*

Prepared for a cocktail dinner at Tremont 647, Boston Massachusetts

  • 1 ounce Plymouth Gin
  • 1/2 ounce Berentzen’s RoterApfel
  • 3 slice Bosc Pear (one for garnish)
  • 3 sage leaves
  • 3 ounces Shinn Estates Brut (North Shore Long Island)

Muddle the pears and the RoterApfel together in the bottom of a Boston glass. Add the Plymouth Gin and slowly pour the Brut down the side of the mixing glass while dragging the other ingredients toward the top with a long bar spoon. Fine strain into a chilled flute and garnish with a slice of Bosc pear and a sage leaf.

*Original Cocktails from Dale DeGroff

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