H. Joseph Ehrmann
Proprietor of Elixir, San Francisco
Knowledge is the key to confidence When I worked in sales roles trying to sell something I didn’t really know or care about, I was miserable and I ultimately failed. When I left all of that behind to follow my love for the bar business (because I accepted that I knew nothing better, nor enjoyed anything more) I excelled immediately and the success kept coming. The more I threw myself into it, the more I succeeded. Today when people ask me about anything I am passionate about and follow that with “How do you know so much about that?”, I simply say “Because I love it.”
Know yourself It is important to go beyond your norms and stretch your boundaries in order to grow, but it is also important to know when you are clearly not in the right position and sinking. Being self-aware is an amazing way to avoid wasting time in your career.
Exploit your strengths When I won “Bartender of the Year” I knew it wasn’t because I was the “best bartender in America,” but that I was quite possibly the “best marketed bartender in America.”
Compensate for your weaknesses I’m not a numbers guy, but I got an MBA and forced myself to understand finance and accounting because I knew I had to if I was going to run my own companies. Now I pay an accountant and I consult with financial advisors, but I can understand them and use the information to make smart decisions.
Grow by replacing yourself and moving forward Empowerment is the key to moving on (for everyone). I miss being behind the bar all of the time, but at this point in my life I have three companies and I have to tend to all of them every day, and be home by six to bathe my daughter and put her to bed. My bar runs great because my bartenders are pros, they enjoy what they do and they are fully capable of carrying on what I started. Learn everything you can, pass it on to others and keep learning more.
I was born in one of the coolest cities in the world, Washington, D.C. At least I thought it was cool (still do, by the way) because we had great punk bands. I’d go to shows at 14-years-old and some slightly older kids, let’s say 16-years-old, were booking them, playing in them, making ‘zines about them. They’d have Go-Go shows at night and we’d take over during the day with punk rock matinees. We never ever thought that this would become a movement or that these bands would become famous. For my friends and me, we just listened to one mantra: DIY. Do it yourself.
So, when I started bartending, I never thought about the fact that we didn’t have cocktail spoons behind the bar. I don’t mean that they didn’t exist. I mean that they weren’t de facto bar equipment. When I found out that some drinks were supposed to be stirred, I just grabbed an ice-tea spoon and began stirring with the spoon handle clenched in my fist, bent inward, rotating my elbow. I call that the chicken wing. If that wasn’t horrible enough, at least it was better than “swisheling,” which I saw other bartenders doing. They would swish around the ingredients with ice in a circular motion and that was somehow supposed to blend the drink.
Either way, I didn’t know any better. The Craft of the Cocktail and Joy of Mixology didn’t exist yet. Unfortunately, I hadn’t heard of Jerry Thomas or David Embury. Blogs were a thing but few existed that gave you real, tangible advice. The first time I stumbled on one was Robert Hess’ drinkboy.com, which I found a few years into bartending. It was a revelation.
On his blog, Robert discussed things like orange bitters in a Martini. That really got me going because I wanted to learn. I didn’t know what bitters were let alone orange bitters. It was completely new to me. We did have one crusty, old bottle of Angostura where the paper sleeve around it was soaked through with the dark brown stain of caramel. But orange bitters? I looked everywhere, but not a single liquor store carried them. One of the servers I worked with had a sour orange tree, so I found a recipe and just made my own.
My managers thought I was an idiot. I was, a little. But I was also determined. Whatever you’re one day to do well, you’ll begin by these infelicitous starts and fits, like learning to dance. You mustn’t be too concerned with who’s watching. Your job is to get better. That takes time and practice.
I remember thinking to myself that someone on this planet is the best bartender in the world. I didn’t know who that was. I hadn’t met the people who would begin the cocktail movement, who would become my mentors, but I thought to myself, why not me? Why couldn’t I be the best bartender in the world? So I set out on a path. I wanted to learn everything I could.
Of all the things that make a good bartender — not great, just good — I’ve now determined that this is the sole requisite besides having two hands (and even that is up for debate). You must first wish to be a good bartender. But that’s not my advice. If you’re reading this, you actually give a shit. You actually want to be a good if not a great bartender.
Here’s some real advice:
Take a chance. Bartenders are not a shy race of people. Should you be thwarted easily, you’ll fail. You have to have a little chutzpah. What bartending taught me more than anything is confidence.
Learn every day. Customers are relentless in their inquiries. You can fake it a little but at some point you have to put in the work. Muhammad Ali said, “It’s not bragging if you can back it up.”
Be your own idol. Rather than wait for the cocktail movement to happen and its resultant awards and recognition, or anyone to bless our work, many of us just became its foot soldiers. That’s how we rose through the ranks.
That we didn’t have spoons, books or blogs at first is not just me telling you an “I-walked-a-mile-in-the-snow” story. The point is that people started this. It was their drive, passion and obstinacy that started this. They revived a craft that had languished for over a century. They figured it out. They effectively brought it back from the dead.
Now it’s your turn to improve upon that legacy — to start with the work of others and create your own body of work. It’s truthfully what I learned going to those early punk shows. Take chances and learn everything you can but, in the end, no one is going to do it for you: DIY. Do it yourself.
My advice to new bartenders? Stop quitting your jobs. Seriously. Stop that.
New bartenders have a terrible habit. Many of them believe that once they learn all the recipes at a bar, and how to work efficiently behind it, they’ve stopped “learning.” They will eat the low-hanging fruit at a bar, make it through training, get pretty good at working in that particular space, hear about a cool opportunity down the street, and leave.
This is wrong for so many reasons.
First of all, beverage alcohol is a small industry and everybody knows everybody. Your boss right now is friends with your future boss. And all those bartenders you’re working with? Like it or not, you’re going to work with them all again in the future, whether it’s at an event, a conference, an opening of a new bar, or the next place you want to work. Word of mouth is far more important than your actual resume in this industry, and so your reputation is everything. If you are trying to get a job with me, I will absolutely ask around about you. If I hear that you’re a solid bartender with a great attitude and a strong work ethic, then that matters more to me than how many bars you’ve worked at, or how many recipes you know.
There’s a word for a bartender who gets a new job every six to twelve months: a Grasshopper. It’s not a word you want associated with you and your career. If you keep quitting jobs, then why would I put in the time and energy into training you? Grasshoppers will leave their job the moment they learn all the recipes and get tired of the playlist. They expect the bar to do everything for them, and not the other way around. A bar is an investment. Pick one bar that you believe in. Work there full time. Stay, build a team, and grow with them.
Something profound happens after you’ve been working at a bar for a solid 18+ months. You know the cocktails, you know the space, you know the regulars, you know the backbar, you know the wine, the beer, the rules for everything. You know where everything is stored. You know which ice machine is acting up, and how long before it’s getting fixed. You have learned everything about the bar, and are no longer asking questions.
Once you stop asking questions, you don’t have to focus as hard on your environment, and you can start focusing on yourself and your technique. How perfect was that pour? Did I face the bottle’s label? Did I spill anything? Is there a faster way I could have built that round? Was I smiling? Is the bar perfectly clean and organized? Is the music too loud? Am I pushing myself to learn new drinks or am I lazily making the same things? Could this recipe be better?
Focusing on these questions is what will take you from being a great bartender in that specific bar to being a great bartender in general. And it’s a lot harder than it sounds. You’ve eaten the low-hanging fruit. The space is no longer pushing you. Now you are pushing yourself. It means reading books and making flashcards and never getting lazy. But it’s important to note that you can never focus on any of these things if you’re constantly changing jobs. If you are always learning a new menu, then you can never focus on perfecting your craft and developing your own style.
Stop moving around and commit. You’ll be a lot happier in the long run.
I remember my first opportunity to recognize the difference between the styles and habits of bartenders. Like most Seattle bartenders, that lesson was (unintentionally) at the hands of storied bartender Murray Stenson at Zig Zag. Where most bartenders are looking forward to the next tip, where most bars are transitory hubs for the staff as they move on to other careers, Murray was just present.
Murray was one of those people that, when he spent time with you, he was there. I’ve observed bartenders though the filter of that experience ever since. The memory of his incredible level of service, recognition of the customer’s needs, and dedication to his craft are to this day a constant reminder of what we can be as bartenders.
As I travel around the country and go to America’s “best” bars or read or hear of experiences at these bars and their storied bartenders, each tale – for good or ill – reinforces for me the importance of that day at Zig Zag. No longer will PR replace reality, and never will fame excuse bad behavior. The reality is that as service professionals, we are in service to each other and to and for our customers.
To the new bartenders, I always say that, in my opinion – and, it’s just my opinion – a great bartender is one who recognizes the sublimation of the ego. I point out that we should ignore any personal pet peeves, we should not react when someone behaves in a way that bothers us, and, in fact, we should challenge ourselves to pay attention to those moments and then practice calm restraint.
I also warn of the easy path of the humble-brag, a form of self-aggrandizement and ego in and of itself. There’s a Daoist proverb that so cleverly states, “To be too humble is half proud.” The ego is what we as bartenders need to eschew in order to achieve these goals of unsurpassed quality of service, recognizing instead the customer’s needs and to become sensitive to what this changing need may be, from moment to moment.
Picture the seats in front of the bar that you work behind. That first person maybe is sampling some great mezcal. Perhaps the couple next to them are celebrating an anniversary. That next person obviously had a bad day, while the next after that is a regular, watching the show. Each of those people needs a different form of attention, and it’s our job to learn to recognize this, to communicate this with our co-workers, and to provide for that customer exactly the kind of experience they are seeking.
That’s my challenge for all of us. Let us constantly pay attention to how we appear behind our bars, and let that appearance be one of seamless service. In the end, the customers’ experience should be something that we each and every time learn to recognize as their experience, not one of our likes and dislikes forced upon our customers.
Don’t give in to the peer pressure of your environment if that entails anything that finds fault with the customer. Please don’t speak ill of or casually insult vodka drinkers because someone who you looked up to as a leader at some point misled you into thinking that it’s okay to insult those customers. And, for lordy sake, don’t agree to drink a Smirnoff Ice because of peer pressure.
In short: become your own person. “Murray wouldn’t do that” is a quiet Seattle refrain, a genuine and meaningful motto. Find your own and always lead from example.
Bar Director, Wingtip, San Francisco
Dear Young and Aspiring Bartenders,
Shut up and listen. Shut up and watch. Shut up and study. Shut up and act accordingly.
We were all young once. All of us veterans of this business had to start somewhere. Some of us made noise, maybe a little too much, some of sat back and watched. But the best thing I can tell you after all these years is to sit back and listen to what people have to tell you. Not just us old-timers and veterans, but your peers, your bosses, your customers.
You will never learn if you don’t listen, and this is a business where if you want to succeed and have great career you better be prepared to learn. We are all standing on the shoulders of giants who have laid the ground work for us to be here. If it weren’t for a slew of people ahead of who started this whole cocktail revival many moons ago, none of us would have jobs doing what we do.
We learn every day, no matter what, as long as you listen. And just because you hear something from one person doesn’t make it so. Listen to everybody. Form your opinions, but mostly just shut up and remember there are hundreds if not thousands of people who have worked their asses off just so you have the chance to stir a martini and not shake it.
Watch what the great bartenders do. I know this may seem similar to the previous paragraphs, and you know what it is. But completely different. Watch how great bartenders make people laugh, make people say “hmmmm,” make drinks quickly. This is part of the learning progress.
After you have watched the great ones, and see how they do it, start to think about how you can be that great. What makes them special, what makes them unique. And then and only then after hours and weeks and months of watching and listening, start to figure out how you can be great. Watch how they hug a customer with their smiles, watch how their customers hug them back when their eyes light up. These are some skills that may not be able to be taught, but we as bartenders should all try to have.
Study. Study! Study!!! Read every cocktail book you can get you hands on, read every blog you can find, cross reference every drink you find online or in said books. Learn where every drink comes from and who “created” it or what book it was first published in. Learn why every spirit is unique and how every spirit is made. Then and maybe only then will you understand how to create a cocktail. And once you are done studying, remember there are always people who know more than you. so don’t act cocky because you read something online.
Act humble and remember that we all came from nothing. (See first paragraph). This is all about acting accordingly. Do not get drunk at work, do not get drunk at bartender functions, and do not get drunk at a competition. People will notice, and maybe one of those people will be a prospective employer someday. Remember you are always being interviewed when around your peers whether you know it not.
If you need to get drunk do it at your local watering hole with your friends who are not “interviewing” you. I learned this lesson the hard way. Along with act accordingly, dress accordingly. If we want to be respected as professionals, dress like you care what people think of you. I love jeans and t-shirt more than most, but when out at a professional function, I dress like a professional, or at least like some one who knows how to iron a shirt.
Now these are just ramblings of a bartender who has learned a lot along the way. Made more mistakes than he cares to admit, and learned from some of them, and still making some of them. I hope this helps at least one of you.
Before you learn how to bartend, you need to learn how to converse with people. Then you need to learn how to clean and organize. Next learn how to serve. After you’ve mastered that, you are ready to begin learning recipes and techniques. Eventually you’ll be ready to apprentice as a bartender.
If you love bartending, don’t become an owner, as it will be the thing that you now do the least. You’ll be too busy fixing toilets and broken equipment, doing payroll, and dealing with government officials to bartend anywhere near as much as you used to.
As you rise into a position of higher management and/or ownership, the responsibility to fill your previous shoes can sometimes fall on you. You might begin your search, and even see yourself in the people who have been with you.
You see the “potential” in people who have natural gifts as bartenders, servers and cooks but have never been in the position of management. For example, because they are a great server, you believe they can be an even better floor manager. But ultimately, that is a slippery slope.
When someone is ready for an opportunity, it is because they have to have earned it outright. Only work with people who have the skill set, are hungry for the opportunity, and have a level of maturity worth rewarding.
You might be afraid to lose this person if you don’t promote them – but if they are not ready for the opportunity, you are setting them up for failure. And the worst part is, they will ultimately resent you for it.
Take care of your feet and back. Invest in good footwear. When I started bartending in the ’90s, nearly everyone looked at bartending as something you did until you figured out what you would do for your career. Now with this cocktail renaissance, bartenders are starting to have longer careers behind the bar.
It is imperative to take care of your body, and one of the most important areas we can take care of is our feet. Avoiding plantar fasciitis is a really good thing. Working for years while standing, without taking any breaks to sit down, is brutal on your feet, knees and back.
So get good shoes! Everyone’s feet are different so here are some recommendations that cover a good range. Red Wing Oxfords, Danskos, Mozos, and Shoes for Crews have some good ones. Make sure that you get non-slip shoes, and I highly suggest going with leather.
One other thing that I swear by are bar mats behind the bar. I once worked at a bar where the owners were unwilling to get bar mats. My back, knees and feet were killing me after only a few shifts. The bartenders got together and decided to put aside a few dollars each shift until we could buy our own bar mats. Turned out to be the best investment we could have made.
Second piece of advice that I have is more for the vets. I once told this to my bar staff, and have heard it repeated by them many times since then. “As soon as you start to believe what people write and say about you, you are fucked.” We all get good press, and it’s nice to get recognized for your hard work. But as soon as you start to think that you are the shit, because you get your name in print, win a few drink contests, write a book, open a bar, etc., you are already losing in my book. Bartending is not about the bartender, it is about our guests and taking care of them and providing service.
Final piece of advice is to read the front page of the paper. You know that thing that gets delivered to some peoples’ houses and gets your hands dirty when you read it? Fine, you can read online if you like, but read about what is going on in the world. Our job as bartenders is to be able to communicate with our guests about their interests.
Yes, I am impressed that you know thousands of obscure cocktail recipes, but 98% of your guests will not want to talk only about those. They may work in real estate and would love to be able to talk about a mortgage that fell through, or what the stock market is doing, or how the local sports teams are doing. These things may not interest you, but you should be able to hold at least a basic conversation about them. Remember it is not about you, it is about our guests.
A little piece of advice that I give everyone I’ve trained over the years is that this profession is always about giving. To some it’s a very natural talent, and to others it doesn’t come so easy, but nonetheless. it presents itself every single day many, many times over.
You’ll find yourself doing it in so many different ways, whether it’s giving somebody a napkin, directions to dinner, or a piece of yourself through a cocktail you created. It can be something thoughtful, like selecting a wine for them on the list from a region you adore, or something as simple as a smile and a warm welcome.
It’s all an extension of you in some way. It’s important to know that giving is a strength and not a weakness. Being aware of this element is key to having lifelong satisfaction with choosing to be a service professional.
I was able to recognize this very early on, and the enjoyment I get out of bartending grows exponentially every day.