I’ve been in the service industry for a long time, and in that time I’ve seen bartending turn into something that is a complete microculture all its own. This is a microculture that thrives, in particular, within the borders of San Francisco, New York, and a few other select cities. More and more, we at SF Mixology are hearing some rumbling from the public about what this transformation means. For example:

“Why can’t you just call it bartending?”

“Why does every bar have to have a drink list that’s longer than WAR AND PEACE?”

“What happened to just having a simple whiskey sour!?”

I’ve seen countless interns be indoctrinated into the existing bar system, and it’s left me with a lot of thoughts about how bartending is perceived, how bartenders work within the current bar environment, and how the conversation about cocktails — how they’re created and marketed — is becoming more heated every day.

Here’s what I’ve noticed:

  • It doesn’t take a lot of know-how and time to make a good cocktail. Period. A few fundamental concepts and ingredients under your belt, and you’re golden.
  • Although the press and certain big companies would have you believe otherwise, rule 1 holds true 99% of the time.
  • Although there is a lot of hype about mixology as an elevated concept, about unique cocktails being absurdly complex or time-consuming or expensive, and about a concept of bartending that isn’t your ‘good ole-fashioned drink slingin’, it’s important to remember that, amidst these trends, the market’s “invisible hand” does not bear much in the way of fruit for the bartender, or, for the most part, his bar.
  • There are very few bartenders who can keep the focus on the customer while doing high volume specialty cocktails, and chances are — they aren’t bartending. Why? It doesn’t pay enough.
  • In order to succeed in the current cocktail environment, bartenders often have an ‘endgame’ that involves becoming a brand ambassador, a consultant, or participating in a bar-related field (but not necessarily a bar).
  • In order to get into the higher-paying roles, bartenders must distinguish themselves with their unique, delicious, and modern cocktail creations.
  • This situation leads to a carrot-and-stick methodology that flies in the face of common sense — bartenders elevate their craft to a point of complete mystery to the common bar patron so that they might chase a reward that is, most times, out of reach.
  • This all works out really well for liquor companies. Bartenders create a mysterious environment of mixology and craft in which brands can flourish. However, the bar patron is the one that suffers — a misunderstanding of the economics and history involved leads the way to articles lamenting the death of the neighborhood bar, the easily ordered and easily consumed gin & tonic of yesterday, and the days when bartenders would just make the damned drinks and not strive to be anything but bartenders — articles just like this one. {link here: http://www.sfgate.com/entertainment/article/A-bar-where-everybody-knows-your-name-3884568.php?cmpid=twitter ]

In San Francisco (as well as other cocktail cities), there is an undeniable movement that pushes bartenders to compete against each other in all things cocktail. Every bar worth its salt is compelled to have a unique cocktail list expressing the talents of its bartenders through a cocktail menagerie, bartenders are quietly expected to be representatives for their bars in newspapers and magazines around the nation, and cocktail competitions that in actuality simply promote a liquor brand hold out the promise of industry success to all those who compete and win.

In this time and place, there is an undeniable asymmetry in the economic power construct at play. The ones who ultimately benefit from the fierce competition on the bar floor are the liquor companies. Everyone else is chasing a pipe dream — all one has to do is look at a bartender’s economic power to know there is something awry. The bartender is caught in this trap, which gives the benefit of his hard work to the liquor company sponsoring his efforts, and erodes customer service at the same time. At the end of the day, whose fault is this oft-times uncomfortable change in the landscape of the bar counter? Well just read that article and you’ll know – 9 out of 10 times, the bartender gets the blame.

At SFMixology, we think the way to move the industry toward economic and power symmetry is to de-mystify the cocktail and the bar.  As we all know, the concept of creating an academic setting in which to learn bartending has historically had a rather large stigma against it. While this is partly justified by a landscape of ineffectual money-chasing schools that are often simply wrong in their instruction, the general idea that learning bartending is impossible in an academic setting is, in our opinion, nonsensical. Food science has taught the world that human tastes are by and large evolved similarly, and that certain combinations of flavors, or balancing acts of acidity can create a memorable drink for almost any bar patron.

We believe that if there is a greater overall understanding of what a bartender does, fewer people would pursue bartending on a whim, fewer scheister schools would be able to pawn off their disreputable classes as legitimate, and fewer inexperienced bartenders would make up for their lack of wisdom with unnecessarily complex and esoteric drink combinations. At the same time, there would be more understanding of true ability and craft, more respect for and knowledge about the bar world, and, ideally, more support for academic pursuits within the bartending world. More knowledge about cocktails means raising the overall value of being a bartender, and in so doing, increasing his market power, as well.

Admittedly, some of the points I’ve made are conjecture, but those are my two cents.  At SFMixology, we’re happy to show the bar world to the public, and happy to let anyone and everyone get behind it for fun and to learn the simple precepts of cocktail making. But we also think that we are helping an industry that has gotten too self-reflective to see the creators of drinks as valuable, to see true ability as a function of talent, knowledge, and hard work (rather than a subterfuge of drink complexity), and to see that the brands are, indeed, producing an asymmetry that will have to right itself eventually.

Shawn Refoua