Words by: Terry Cashman
I’ve always believed that the first five to six years of my bartending career were well spent, forging an appreciation for hard work and the value of getting my hands dirty. Most of us who began bartending over ten years ago will have done it at some point. It’s where we all had to start once upon a time. I’m talking, of course, about THE DREADED CRAPPY PUB JOB! Mine happened to be in reasonably nice digs in Canary Wharf, though no less ‘cowboy’ than the many student bars and city centre pubs where my fellow veterans spent their formative bartending years. You know the type of place; Sour Mix in the Long Island, 3-day-old lime wedges, staff that are only there for the £4.40 per hour before tax… BEFORE tax mind you, and the 50 free pints of 1664 on line cleaning day (of which there were oh so few).
Up until recently, I’ve shared a belief with many, that this time was not wasted. That, somehow, being bad at a profession for many years prepares you to be good at it. Gives you a deeper understanding of the industry as a whole. It’s slowly dawning on me that this might not actually be the case. That, maybe, those five years were a bit of a jolly, better-spent working in somewhere high-end from the very beginning.
Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t regret those years at all. It was great fun and I have a lasting fondness for all the places I worked. I just think it might be time we stopped using it as some sort of moral superiority club, wielded over the new generation of bartenders… “You might have passed your WSET and know every Craddock recipe, sunshine, but have you ever layered a Key West Cooler for a Lithuanian Plasterer on his lunch break? No? Amateur.”
The reason for this change of heart has been the absolutely stellar level of bartending I’ve seen recently, from several guys in great bars with less than two years under their belts. Thinking back, I have to say that after 18 months in a good training programme, I wasn’t nearly at the level these guys are. Was this down to the fact I had so many bad habits from my previous experience? Or maybe it has more to do with industry standards having improved so much? Obviously, the argument made for ‘paying your dues’ is one of benefit to attitude and application, rather than to technical skill or spirit knowledge. Over those early years my attitude and application improved very much, but I’m not sure how much of this was down to just growing up, and learning that hard work gets you ahead in life. That happens to pretty much everybody right? I certainly can’t attribute my work ethic to making Woo Woos for much of my early 20’s.
On a side point, could this lack of having to work your way up, be making younger bartenders too impatient for their own good? I think it was Angus Winchester who famously started his seminar on ‘How to become a brand ambassador’ with the request that everybody under 30 leave the room. Now, whether or not the above actually happened (Because as we all know, the bar community never lets the truth get in the way of a good story), it does illustrate a point that I hear quite often from people in the industry. Namely, that a lot of rookie, albeit good, bartenders seem to be too keen to jump into brand management, without having had time to develop the breadth of experience required to work with authority within their chosen field. This poses us two problems. The first, quality of brand ambassadors and reps, is not something that should concern us overly. The best brands will always attract the best people, those who seek them out to work for them, and are dedicated to spreading the word. The second is more concerning, which is the loss of many of our newest alumni. Bartenders who, ordinarily, would have been around to train the next generation, are now quickly siphoned off with the lure of expense accounts and unlimited evenings off. Only time will tell if this has an effect (Though one thing I have noticed is the large imbalance between male/female ratios in bartending compared to ambassadorship. The big brands are picking off female bartenders, creating an ever increasingly male dominated, bartending landscape. But that is another article entirely).
Perhaps I’m missing the point. A recent conversation with a fellow old hand shed new light for me on this very topic. Her viewpoint was one of positivity about having worked in dive bars, but for very different reasons. It’s not the value of hard work that you learn. It’s the experience of being a smiling, happy, in-control Pint dispenser in front of a baying horde of 200 UTTER BASTARDS. If you can deal with that crowd while being shouted at, having money waved at you, mopping up sick, never making anything more interesting than gin and tonics, and all on minimum wage, you can handle ANY crowd. Especially the smiling, knowledgeable, ready-to-tip types we tend to get in better bars. It’s a pleasure to be a great host to a nice crowd of grown-ups, when you’ve had to be a great host to the bad guys.
I still can’t say for sure whether those early years have made me a better bartender, I definitely feel like they did, though we all love to romanticize the past. One thing I can say for certain, is that they have let me appreciate this recent renaissance of bartending and cocktails so much more. It’s given me the perspective to look at a snapped pair of shirt-stays, a 50p tip on a £200 bill, or even (God Forbid) an OUT-OF-STOCK notice on Yamazaki 12year old, and thank my lucky stars. Every. Single. Time.