Thoughts on the Bartending Craft for First-Timers

Twice a month, legendary bartender/chef/restaurant insider Dave Mau pops by Stick A Fork In It to chime in about a random OC food or drink musing of his choice. Enjoy!!

It’s been the better part of three decades behind the bartending stick and I proudly wouldn’t take a moment of it back. Its chaotic sonnet had me hooked from day one and I’ve come back again and again, powerless against its wiles. Being a proper barkeep has always been a point of pride, somehow defining me in a strange way and definitely instructing me on all sides of human nature. Even when enjoying other professions I always spent at least a night or two slinging drinks to make a few under the table bucks.

Herman Mau (Courtesy Dave Mau)

My grandpa, Herman Mau, passed away when I was very, very young and the few people that remember him say I inherited his lopsided smile, sense of humor, and love of “pulling a cork,” as it were. There are a few vague but cherished memories of him. The scent of the leather chair he always sat in, the pipe tobacco constantly on hand, and his broad-shouldered clumsy walk which I am slowly slipping into as well. I also remember a few of his statesman-like sayings. Herman didn’t speak much but when he did it was good stuff, always delivered with a sly, arid Alcatian wit. One was “You speak German to your horse and French to your mistress.” (He was hardly a womanizer but did enjoy a bounty of harmless flirtation.) The line I remember most was “You find three guys and never change them up: a good lawyer, a good barber, and a good bartender.” He had great esteem for the chaps pouring him drinks at his favorite San Francisco watering holes and I think that’s where I got the bug. To him, it was a gentleman’s profession. I still consider it as such and have learned as much over the years from a lot of grizzled veterans.

So, for what it’s worth, here’s my two cents for first timers to the craft.

1. It’s better for people to think you you are a hardass and find out you are really a pushover than the other way around.
This an old-school aesthetic I learned early on from the likes of Ed Scott and his bartending kin. Let’s face it, nearly anyone can pour a drink and it’s pretty easy to become skilled at it. To be top notch takes some more work but it is doable. The real skill to working behind the rail is managing people and you should become as adept at it as the most well-heeled  hrink. It’s akin to holding some sort of high ground, setting the bar then judging whether someone is going to be a problem or not. If you work at TGIFridays you are obligated to smear on that fake smile but it will increase your chances of jumping off a bridge at some point. The idea here is to keep people at arms’ length and size them up. It certainly doesn’t give you carte blanche to act  like a jerk but keep your wits about you when a newbie sidles up for a beverage.

2. Don’t drink behind the bar. I’ve been both good and bad about this over the years but I do think it’s a key component in the gentleman bartender spectrum. Nobody wants a drunkass behind the bar that can’t do his job and, that being said, it also makes your job even tougher, albeit more entertaining. If something went wrong while I was inebriated I’d feel like an idiot if my own condition contributed to or made the situation worse. You are responsible for providing a safe and enjoyable experience and that is hampered If you can’t pull your head out of your ass. Clumsiness is sure to ensue after imbibing and for sure you don’t need to break a glass into the ice in your well. Again.

3. Always be doing two things at once. The OODA loop, as it is known, is a powerful yet obscure strategy for decision making and execution fathered by John Boyd, a super brainiac Air Force Colonel who could peer into the future like some sort of fucking Nostradamus/Von Clauswitz hybrid. It’s basically a strategy for thinking used by corporate hotshots, gung-ho military types and a slew of others. It stands for “observe, orient, decide, act” which is basically a fancy way of saying one should always be thinking one step ahead of yourself and everyone around you. It might be a stretch to apply the semantics of this to the gritty rigors of bartending but there are some parallels. If you are really good at your craft, you are not only thinking about the next task at hand (or drink to sling) but preparing for it as well. Staying focused on the one thing while not preparing for the next will render you dead in the water if you get buried. A perfect example of this is the rookie behind the bar with a mile-long string of tickets for beers and glasses of wine spewing out of the printer while they take eight minutes to make that perfect “crafted libation.” Get the easy stuff out of the way while you attend to the more complex aspects of our art.

4. Always remember-it’s the guests’ table but it’s your bar. Being a server is a much different beast than being a bartender. Period. As a server you are expected to give the full dog and pony show to your esteemed guests and attend to their every need. As a bartender you should be equal parts referee, bouncer and chattel, relying on one’s instinct to effectively keep the shit from royally hitting the fan. The chemistry at your bar should be as important to you as even the finest details of drinkmaking and, if you are oblivious, it will inevitably end in trouble. Eyes up – always. It’s called situational awareness.

5. Keep yourself in decent shape. A twelve hour stint doing what we do is basically the equivalent of running a marathon except at the end of it you’ll be covered with Jameson and stale beer instead of sweat and Gatorade. The physicality of bartending is potent and three long shifts in a row will render even the most hardy of us jiggling, shell-shocked piles of goo. We all see the oldsters teetering around behind the bar during a day shift somewhere but it’s hardly pleasant to watch sometimes. You’re probably working nights which means you should have at least enough time before your shift to hit the gym, surf or even (gasp!) do some yoga. Pertaining to the latter, balance is as important as strength or endurance doing what we do. Just ask any NFL player. But remember, this is proactive not reactive. Start down the path to tending to your body like your bar before it’s too late.

6. Always face your bills. This one sounds gratuitous but it’s not. If at the end of your shift (or even the next day) your drawer comes up short it’s your reputation on the line. One sure fire way to tell if someone has been jacking around with it is by seeing if all the bills are properly faced. There are all sorts of shenanigans going on behind the bar, some innocent, others not so much. Very few people treat their currency with the proper respect and it can save your ass or job depending on the circumstances. Anyone engaged in any financial malfeasance that plans on pinning on you will most likely have neither the character nor insight to notice something this simple. If confronted by an angry GM you can always pull out the wild card and show them you are not the thief they think you are.

If you choose to jump into this side of The Biz, be ready for both the best and worst of times. Good news is the money is decent and you’ll probably have a lot of fun depending on where you sling. Bad news is that the hours can be brutal and you are, in fact, setting yourself up for dealing with the wildest of wild cards. Be prepared? HA! Batten down the hatches pal, it’s gonna be a wild ride.

Follow @ocweeklyfood on Instagram! And check out Dave’s podcasts: Memphis Mondays and Fat Drunk And Happy!

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