By Alan Scherstuhl
By Amy Nicholson
By Charles Taylor
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Brian Feinzimer
By CAROLINA DEL BUSTO
By AMY NICHOLSON
By Amy Nicholson
By weaving together the stories behind New York City cocktail lair Employees Only and Westport, Connecticut, corner bar Dunvilles, director Douglas Tirola takes on the changing world of bartending and the rise of craft mixology in his recently released documentary Hey Bartender. And while the film focuses on a pair of tenders with rich backstories, it also features insight from some of the most celebrated people in the industry, including Dale DeGroff, PDT's Jim Meehan, Milk & Honey's Sasha Petraske, and Clover Club's Julie Reiner, who give anecdotal detail on how bartending became a celebrated profession and not just a plan B pursuit.
As the movie heads into wide release, we chatted with Tirola about why he opted to tell the story of this community, what he was trying to capture, and how making a movie about bartending changed the way he drinks.
OC WEEKLY: Why did you choose to focus on this subject?
DOUGLAS TIROLA: When I was a teenager and through the beginning of college, I was a bartender for a number of years at this place called the Backstage. It was the classic story of starting out as a dishwasher, and then the barback doesn't show up one night, and they ask me to step in and they keep me as that. A year and a half later, a bartender doesn't show up, so they try me as that. They said, "Do you think you can do that?" and I said yes, and then they asked me if I could make a Long Island Ice Tea and a Madras and a Sea Breeze. That was my exam. I passed, so they said, "Go home and get a collared shirt and a tie and come back and start." I was 17. That was a positive experience for me.
I became a longtime regular of a place called the Spring Lounge. There was a bartender there for a long time named Aldo Dean, and he was one of the best bartenders I've ever known. He ended up meeting someone and moving to Memphis to open a bar down there, so I was sort of bar-less for awhile. So I started trying places out. That led me to Employees Only, which is about two blocks away from my apartment. Walking into Employees Only was like walking onto a movie set. It looked different, the bartenders bartended like I'd never seen, and it had a speakeasy feel, but like a movie version. I met Steve Schneider over the bar and then Dushan Zaric of Employees Only, Jim Meehan of PDT, Julie Reiner of Clover Club/Flatiron Lounge, and eventually Sasha Petraske of Milk & Honey, and I got a very in-depth education on what was happening in the cocktail renaissance and rise of mixology. I just knew immediately that this was a story that I wanted to tell. I specifically liked the idea that people were starting to pursue bartending as a career and not just as something to do if something else didn't work out.
Beyond that, from a movie point of view, what this community was doing with cocktails was following the path of wine and, more recently, food in the U.S. I go out to eat a lot. I was an only child, and I came from a family that would stay in on special occasions. Otherwise, we'd go out. I have a great appreciation for food, but I especially appreciate dining out. I felt that way but didn't specifically know this story, and I realized there's this whole thing happening that outsiders of this world didn't know about.
And finally, how bartenders are perceived says something about our culture. Just because you're outside of the norm doesn't say anything about how intelligent you are or how much money you make, and being able to tell my version of that story was appealing to me.
How long were you shooting this movie?
The first shots were probably done in late 2009 or early 2010, which is really when we were still exploring whether this could really be a movie. The last shot was January 2013. We made other movies during that time, so it's not as if we went to the bar for 1,200 straight nights. It gave our characters time to sort of evolve and change.
You took on a very dynamic and rapidly changing subject. How did you see the cocktail world evolve in that time?
A year into filming, we were sort of at the height of the cocktail geek movement. That was when you'd go into a bar and order a vodka and a bartender might look down upon you. By the time we were finishing, you began to see more people describing themselves as bartenders rather than mixologists. They were acknowledging that how we treat our guests is also important. Saying you're a bartender is a way to say that you care about the customer-service side and not solely about making a great drink.
You've also seen more of a community of bartenders grow. While we were filming, we filmed the first Manhattan Cocktail Classic, which is a highly successful, highly attended event that follows the success of Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans. But the Manhattan Cocktail Classic didn't even exist when we started filming. Then we started to see the rise of these other cocktail weeks around the country; they were sprouting up the way film festivals did in the early '90s. What's significant about that is that bartenders have become their own communities. You don't necessarily think of bartenders getting together like people do for books or cars or an insurance seminar or a digital convention. I wouldn't describe these as conventions, but they're gatherings for people in the trade. When a lot of us think of bartending, we think of a solitary profession. Part of that is because bartenders get out so late that they sleep for part of the day, and the part of the day they're not working, they're out doing the sorts of things people do. But because of these gatherings, bartenders know each other across the country. We've gone to shoot in other cities. One of the bartenders in New York City may say, "You're going to Denver? Look up Sean [Kenyon] in Denver."
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