Tuesday, September 28, 2010

barman's lament

the bar was only about three hours old. in that time friends, family, and hoards of locals who had anxiously anticipated this bar's opening had lined up four deep to get their hands on a drink. the four of us, with beads of sweat decending from our brow, sloshed together mojitos and cosmos as fast as our hands could move. i recall exhausting all available space in my area with shaker tins lined up with built cocktails in front of a line of chilled cocktail glasses snaked around the bend of our oval bar, extending farther than my wingspan.

once jovial, the crowd was turning surly as they smashed together in wait for their libation. mandi and i shared a glance from her side of the bar to mine that said without words, "i don't think we're gonna make it", then quickly returning our focus to our mixing tins. following a clamourous clinking of shaker tins crashing loudly together a voice rang clearly and loudly, dragging each syllable out for maximum effect.

"If I could please have your attention! Ahem..So....You're prooobably wondering why i called this meeting".

uproarious laughter ensued.

the moments that followed still give me chills; while the simplicity and beauty of that statement is lost on most I can say now was a defining moment in my career. as the eyes and ears of the thirsty mob focused on the vested barman elevated above their eyeline, the remaining three bartenders worked feverishly with a bent ear whilst he spoke. Barry Lovell continued with a succinct but hammy speech to the patrons of the bar and the change in atmosphere was palpable. the surliness of the mob had been asuaged, their scowls turned quickly to applause, and as his oration concluded they chatted and laughed together...with drinks in their hands.

later that night, as we enjoyed a cocktail together and counted our tips Barry humbly shared with us, that was all he could think of to distract folks long enough to allow us to catch up on drink orders. our small family of bartenders shared a laugh, Barry gave me a deep look that conveyed that he passed on something significant to his successors, and i returned that look with understanding.

since working under Barry, whom we called O.G.1 for his old school status, I have been the 'teacher', as a matter of speaking, at every stop of my career. Barry discovered fresh juices and artisan spirits long after I had left his tutilage, and I've never had much of an opportunity to discuss the journeys we've both led since parting ways half a decade ago.

in that time I've managed some large and influential properties and have turned the focus of my energies towards my passion for libation technology. i've learned a great deal as a teacher, and have done my best to further the education and growth of those I'm surrounded by. the staff i hired and trained in Chicago still gives me great pride, as two of my bartenders (with somewhat pedestrian experience when we first met) were amongst the five nominated last year as best in the city by Timeout magazine. No other bar, including the Violet Hour, can claim the same. the chef i hired, in one of the smallest kitchens in the city, has built quite a name for herself. the bar, whose beverage program I had fashioned, is still one of the finest in the city using only artisan spirits (read:not a single bottle of stoli or grey goose). but I haven't had a mentor since Barry Lovell.

i suppose it's not neccessary after a certain point, as one finds ways to grow without the tutilage of another. having immersed myself in the northwest cocktail scene I've certainly become aware of certain aspects of technique and hisorical integrity that I hadn't paid much heed to as of yet. the good bartenders here, and the good ones are exceptional, have a wealth of knowledge to share and are rightly well regarded in the global community.

one thing I miss in this cocktail scene, however, is the art and showmanship that few posess. Barry Lovell was my Jerry Thomas, a showman and raconteur who could make your experience at his bar rail one that you would never forget. i feel a deep gratitude for my place in the world each day, but it is with great lament that I recount my short apprenticeship. As years pass and I forget the names of barbacks come and gone, I take great delight in passing along the stories and Barryisms I gained in my formative years behind the rail. I never miss an opportunity to remind the 'kids' that 'rockstars have no rules.'

and so, as I look forward to a weekend crowd at my bar piled four deep for stirred rye/amaro/stonepine cocktails, I'll always keep a couple of shaker tins nearby in case I need to buy some time.

"Ahem....Soooooo...You're proooobably wondering why I called this meeting..."