Monday, July 12, 2010

Barchetypes: A taxonomy of Boston’s bartenders


JEREMIAH BERNSTEIN OF MIDDLESEX LOUNGE | Photo: MIKE DISKIN
 
Bartenders, like the bars they work in, come in all shapes and sizes. But eventually you start to notice a few recurring archetypes. In Boston, we've got the surly Irish barman, the friendly Irish barman, the old-timey Irish barman... Then there's the indifferent model wannabe, the corporate hack, and the greasy nightclub jerk. Most of those are the types you want to avoid. There are, however, some rarer species whose unique characteristics help turn their bars into destination watering holes. Here is a 100% scientifically accurate study of these curious specimens.


MIKE STANKOVICH OF THE BILTMORE | Photo: MIKE DISKIN
 
THE COCKTAIL HIPSTER
Natural habitats: Gastropubs, retro dives, Somerville, and Inman Square
Appearance: Brightly colored tats, piercings, and a scally cap or fedora
Diet: The classics - straight and simple spirits, blue-collar beer out of a can, or a shot of bourbon
Natural enemies: Bud Light drinkers and customers who ask them to turn the music down
Often mistaken for: A dude on his way to play a gig at Great Scott, a bike messenger, or a record store clerk (remember those?)

There's something about being behind a bar that enhances your level of cool, not unlike the effect taking the stage has on a musician. Since these bartender types usually look indistinguishable from rockers anyway, the comparison makes sense. And like a hipster with a vast trove of music history under his or her belt, these guys have a highly refined sense of taste when it comes to classic cocktails and craft beer. They take the same approach to vintage bartending techniques that music nerds do to collecting old vinyl. "Record collecting is a great comparison. I think before you can understand contemporary anything you have to know its roots," says Mike Stankovich of the Biltmore Bar and Grille (1205 Chestnut Street, Newton Upper Falls, 617.527.2550). "You can't really get into Charles Mingus's improv stuff without getting into all the guys that came before." Beau Sturm of Trina's Starlite Lounge (3 Beacon Street, Somerville, 617.576.0006) agrees. "I used to collect vinyl. I still have a couple hundred records. I think that Miles Davis sounds a lot better on the needle than on my iPod, just like a Manhattan made with great classic spirits doesn't need to be enhanced at all."

Bartending is a natural fit for people who are drawn to artistic pursuits, says Stankovich. "I think a lot of that image or perception just comes with the creative aspect of bartending, similar to cooking, art, or music. You as a person enjoy creating something for others to enjoy. I think a lot of people in this business get into it to allow them the freedom and flexibility to pursue other things like art and music." And though they hew to some hipster traits, these types definitely don't have a hipper-than-thou attitude: they are as laidback and welcoming as they are knowledgable and artistic. "Good bartenders are sort of the host of a nightly party," says Sturm. "We play good music, make our guests some good drinks, serve them some good food, and make sure everyone is having fun and feels like they're a part of that fun." Unlike music snobs, they want to share the cool stuff they've discovered with everyone. "I definitely don't think it should be ‘insider knowledge,' " says Stankovich. "I wish people would explore the old [cocktails] more at home. Classics are classics for a reason."

THE HISTORIAN

Natural habitats: Trendy hotel bars, modern taverns, speakeasies, mixing competitions, and en route to San Francisco and New York all the damn time
Appearance: A white shirt, a black vest, and dark-rimmed glasses
Diet: Fernet-Branca or some long lost spirit from 1863 just rediscovered in an archaeological cocktail dig
Natural enemies: Flavored-vodka swillers and Cosmo drinkers
Often mistaken for: A very hospitable mad scientist

Having trouble keeping track of all the different types of spirits available behind the bar these days? Don't worry; bartending historians have you covered. They not only know how to expertly mix any cocktail you throw at them, but they can also tell you the story of its origin. That's probably because they've spent so much time studying seminal bartending tomes like Jerry Thomas's The Bar-Tender's Guide from 1862 and Harry Craddock's The Savoy Cocktail Book from 1930. While it's easy to take these types for granted in Boston now - it seems like almost every good bar has someone on staff with a veritable PhD in mixology - they haven't been around that long, says Aaron Butler of Russell House Tavern (14 JFK Street, Cambridge, 617.500.3055). "From what I've gathered in my travels, the trend of bartending historians in Boston began with Brother Cleve (a local music and cocktail legend) and spread to people like Misty Kalkofen [bartender at Drink and longtime bartending historian] and John Gertsen [also of Drink]. People sat at their respective bars, imbibed, and learned. I, for one, was a patron of John Gertsen when he was at No. 9 Park, and I learned a great deal."

When you're at the bar tonight drinking a Sazerac or a Hanky Panky instead of a vodka soda, these are the folks you should be thanking for making everything old new again. They're experimenting with house-made bitters and liqueurs and reviving the glory days of the cocktail, before American palates were deadened by tasteless vodka and overly sweet mixers.


PETER KETCHUM OF ANTHEM KITCHEN & BAR | Photo: MIKE DISKIN
 
Of course, just because someone can recite the batting averages of the lineups in the 1920 World Series doesn't mean they know how to hit a baseball. At their best, these types combine a sense of history with a mastery of technique, even if it takes them a little bit longer to get your drink out since they're fussing around with so many arcane mixing implements and eye-droppers full of oils and essences like some boozy chemist in the lab. "It's always nice to be able to have a conversation with someone who knows what they are talking about," says Peter Ketchum of Anthem Kitchen + Bar (101 South Market Street, Faneuil Hall, Boston, 617.720.5570). "It's nice to walk into a bar and order a Corpse Reviver #2, and the only question I get in return is what kind of gin I would like. I don't think it's so much a requirement to have a historian on the bar as it is a necessity to have someone behind the bar who understands how to build a classic cocktail."

If a bartender can entertain you with a story of the drink's history while building it, all the better, says Butler. "People are drawn in with stories, and that's what I love doing. I love telling stories and teaching people." Some of the trivia is actually quite fun, too. "I always like to tell the one about why we put three espresso beans in sambuca," says Ketchum. "Beans were put in glasses of sambuca by European underground resistance members during WWII to alert U.S. and British military to not speak openly in a bistro/cafe because German undercover agents were on site. Supposedly three beans meant they could talk openly, so it became a tradition and good luck." Get (responsibly) drunk on that knowledge.

THE SEEN-IT-ALL VETERAN

Natural habitats: Classic neighborhood bars and low-drama establishments
Appearance: A touch of gray and an air of frank wisdom
Diet: Soda and lime, Miller High Life, expensive wines, and the occasional special liquid gift the distributor dropped off
Natural enemies: Customers who act like their kids or set off their finely honed bullshit detectors
Often mistaken for: The owner

The elder statesmen of the bartending trade, these types aren't exactly your grizzled dive-bar tap-pullers, but they've been around long enough to know better. They've seen trends come and go, and they don't need characters like you giving the place atmosphere. All the same, they're professional enough to handle anything that comes their way with a smile and sharp service.

Guys who have been in the business 20-plus years, like Frank Reardon of The Beehive (541 Tremont Street, Boston, 617.423.0069), get to see a lot of bar fads. The ones he's happiest to see dead? "Spinning bottles, lighting drinks on fire, dancing on bars, juggling anything, and all the other gimmicky garbage bartenders used to define themselves," he says. The moment we're in right now seems to be a good one though, says Paul Christie of Gargoyles on the Square (219 Elm Street, Somerville, 617.776.5300). "The popular bars these days are putting much more emphasis into making their own infused liquors, different forms of simple syrups, and various bitters. Twenty years ago, I wasn't making my own ginger syrups or orange bitters."

Twenty years ago, he probably wasn't as patient behind the bar, either. With their lengthy experience, these types have also learned not to let the little things bring them down anymore. "I think you achieve a certain Zen simply with maturity," says Christie, who's been at the same bar for 15 years now. "One of my favorite old sayings is that the more you stay in one place, the easier it is to find yourself. I find that very true for me. And I think I take things less personally."


JOSH CHILDS OF SILVERTONE | Photo: MIKE DISKIN
 
"After a while, you can let most everything roll off your shoulders," says Josh Childs of Silvertone (69 Bromfield Street, Boston, 617.338.7887). "I think I acquired that around year 10. Now I'm at about 20 years into bartending, so maybe it's just that my hearing is going."

The hearing might be going, but these pros are staying put right where they are. "Be it time on the job, age, experience, or what have you, the Zen I have found is in the profession itself," says Reardon. "I'm not a transient bartender. I want to be doing what I'm doing. I'm proud to be doing what I'm doing, and while I may not be good at a lot of things - I could have a better golf game, but so could everyone I guess - I'm good at this. I actively participate in the process. I love meeting people, and it's pretty much my goal to access each customer and level the playing field."

THE MULTITASKER

Natural habitats: Night clubs, exceptionally popular bars, and seemingly everywhere all at once
Appearance: It's really hard to say - they're a blur as they mix 10 drinks at once amid a throng of impatient drinkers.
Diet: Liquid crack? We're not sure how they do it.
Natural enemies: Indecisive types, money wavers, wasted douches, and ballers
Often mistaken for: An octopus

Plenty of night clubs have bartenders who can sling 'em out, but rarer still is one who still manages to bring a degree of quality control to the job. How do they pour with precision while meeting the need for speed? "Patience is extremely important," says Jeremiah Bernstein of Middlesex Lounge (315 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, 617.868.6739). "It is the greatest of all virtues in a fast-paced bar environment. If you don't have it, you'll be strangling people all night, and that's never good for business." Keeping quality ingredients on hand and setting up ahead of time help too. "As long as you have those in the right quantities, you'll have a great drink. Great syrups, fresh juices, etc. I try to keep our specialty cocktails to no more than three or four ingredients - that way it stays pretty idiot-proof."
No one wins when things get too hectic, adds Courtney Abatsis of The Estate (1 Boylston Place, Boston, 617.351.7000). "It doesn't benefit the club, the customer, or the bartender to make drinks like a crazy person. You end up spilling, breaking bottles, over-serving, serving bad drinks, and getting bad tips if you rush too much. I just try to help the customers as quickly as I can while still providing quality service."

Just don't try to big-time her to get better service in the middle of the club. "Guests say very strange things to impress us. I don't care that you produced Pink Panther 2 the movie, you own two Dunkin' Donuts franchises, your watch is made of three pounds of solid gold, or that you are Paul Pierce's bodyguard and can get me free tickets to Summer Jam." Those are all true stories by the way - sad but true. Bernstein just wishes people wouldn't order such awful shots, like kamikazes, grape crushes, and redheaded sluts. "It really makes me sad when people order redheaded sluts. If you order a Hennessy and Red Bull, I will hose you down with my soda gun."


HAYLEY THOMPSON-KING OF ZUZU AND GOOD LIFE | Photo: MIKE DISKIN

THE BRAINY BEAUTY

Natural habitats: Newbury Street, the South End, and rock clubs
Appearance: You can probably figure this one out on your own, but just in case, consult the photos.
Diet: Probably whatever they want. (Not fair!)
Natural enemies: All those other guys trying to talk to her. Not you though - we've got a feeling she really likes you.
Often mistaken for: Aloof model wannabes

Hot bartenders are a dime a dozen, and a lot of bars seem to hire like they're casting for a goofy Maxim ZuZu (474 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, 617.864.3278) and Good Life (28 Kingston Street, Boston, 617.451.2622), says customers don't underestimate her cocktail knowledge as much as you might think - which is great, but which also kind of screws up our premise here. "I think people are used to hot ladies tending bar, especially at places with great cocktails like Green Street and ZuZu. People seem intimidated as of late with this whole cocktail craze, so I think they are open to guidance from whoever is wielding the jigger." But Jessie Pray, a writer who pens a regular column for a wine magazine and also bartends at Sonsie, says there are still plenty of clueless customers out there. She hates it when people assume that industry workers "are uneducated and do this as a ‘last resort.' I once had a guest tell me that she thought it was great that I was bartending because it was ‘better than dancing.' I was shocked." photo shoot. But it turns out that the qualifications for mixing a good G&T have nothing to do with T&A. On the other hand, far too many people assume that when a bartender is attractive, he or she isn't bringing some real knowledge to the table. Our girls here shoot that theory down hard. Of course, Hayley Thompson-King, a talented musician as well as a barkeep at

If you're a less-than-slick dude, please don't approach these fine specimens as you would some lovely would-be lady friend on the dance floor. Here are some rules to live by: don't waste her time, don't be a dick, and don't flex your spending muscles in an attempt to show off in front of a pretty girl. "Once I was attempting to close out a tab for a guest who had been extremely rude all night," says Pray. "When I asked for his name, he just said, ‘It's the black card,' and returned to his conversation. I got his attention and said, ‘I'm sorry, sir. We have quite a few black cards back here. Can you tell me which is yours?' He was surprised."

THE CHARMER

Natural habitats: Upscale bars and fancy hotels (and back at their place later, perhaps?)
Appearance: Gentlemanly, well-kept, convivial, and often European
Diet: Whatever you're having, if it's not too much trouble
Natural enemies: None
Often mistaken for: Shrinks, matchmakers, and party hosts

All of the bartenders mentioned here provide courteous, professional service as they pour. But The Charmer is a bartender who makes you feel instantly at ease, like you've been welcomed into someone's home. These types know how to listen, or talk when necessary - but not too much. Keep your eyes open and be ready for whatever comes, and everyone goes home happy, says Bill Codman of Woodward (1 Court Street, Boston, 617.979.8200). "The longer you spend behind a bar, the better you will be at reading and understanding people. Your skill at understanding what a person wants gets better and better over time. Everyone in the world is unique. Every situation has any number of possible outcomes. The more observant the bartender, the happier the guest."

Part of making guests feel welcome is allowing them to dictate how the course of their stay is going to go. "I believe most people go to bars to be social - to interact with one another, meet people, and have new experiences," Codman says. "When I talk to guests, I ask them about themselves. Most people feel comfortable talking about themselves; it is one thing they know for sure. But I never ask too many questions. Freud said, ‘A doctor should be opaque to his patients and, like a mirror, should show nothing but what they show him.' I feel bartenders should do the same. Way safer."


LARIS GACANOVIC OF M BAR AND LOUNGE | Photo: MIKE DISKIN
 
Making a connection with the guest is key, says Laris Gacanovic of M Bar & Lounge (776 Boylston Street, Boston, 617.535.8888). "For example, when a gentleman takes a lady out on the first date and they come to the M Bar, and when I am serving them, I like to find out more details. Maybe it might be a date, birthday, or something else. So I like to be ready in advance to give them an unforgettable evening. I just put myself in their shoes. If I go out or take somebody out and I don't feel a connection with the service staff, most of my evening would feel wasted. For me it's important when guests leave with a smile on their faces."

If you're getting friendly and polite service, make sure you give it back. The server is always going to have exactly as much fun as the guest is having. It's a symbiotic relationship. Says Codman, "I love people who are open and willing to try anything and just have fun." That's where you come in, drinker.

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