Bartending is the classic ‘work hard play hard’ industry. But, says Laura Foster, if you’re serious about making it your career you might need to go easy on the laybacks
It’s often said that those dedicated to taking care of others forget to take care of themselves. And it could be argued that this truism goes beyond doctors, nurses and psychologists, and extends into the on-trade, too.
Hospitality is a career that usually requires its workers to ingest unhealthy amounts of alcohol, has strange shift patterns that disrupt usual sleeping hours and is physically demanding. It’s a fun environment to work in, but there are unspoken pressures at every turn, from the practices of laybacks through to the open sharing of cocaine.
‘For most people in the hospitality industry, you’re young and naive when you start and it’s all sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, and all your peers are doing it. It’s very hard to say no,’ says Stuart McCluskey, owner of The Bon Vivant, El Cartel and Devil’s Advocate in Edinburgh.
As increasing numbers of people see this industry as a lifetime career, we wanted to ask the question: what can be done to ensure you’re in good enough physical condition to last the distance and don’t burn out as an exhausted booze-and-coke raddled mess at the age of 35?
Know your limit
Aah booze, that wonderful legal drug that oils our entire industry. When you work in the on-trade, it’s almost impossible to avoid. From product tastings and shots with your peers to that post-shift, wind-down beer, it’s very easy to lose track of how much you’re ingesting over a day, let alone a week. So how do you ensure you’re sticking to safe limits? And come to think of it, what are those limits anyway?
The Chief Medical Officer’s guidelines on alcohol intake currently state that we shouldn’t drink more than 14 units (the equivalent of six pints of beer, six glasses of wine or 14 shots at 40% abv) a week. But as Claire Smith-Warner, Moët Hennessy’s director of spirits education, says, ‘The problem with the guidelines is they’re very conservative, so we dismiss them because we’re professionals and don’t think they apply to us.’
The organisation Alcohol in Moderation (AIM), which counts medical experts including Professor R Curtis Ellison and Dr Erik Skovenborg among its number, reckons the safe limit is slightly higher than that, stating that light and moderate drinkers (classed as two to three units a day for women and three to four units for men) actually live longer than those who abstain or who are heavy drinkers.
But, as AIM says, the key is little and often, not binge and abstain, with days off booked in. Roughly speaking – everyone is different, after all – your body is able to process a unit an hour, so drink slowly. It’s also crucial to eat before drinking.
During work, avoid non-essential ingestion of alcohol – use spittoons at tasting events (if they’re not provided, ask for one) – and avoid doing shots.
As for testing cocktails: ‘I disagree with the view that you need to taste every single cocktail you make,’ says Happiness Forgets and Original Sin owner Alastair Burgess. ‘If you make a stirred drink, you might test a Martini twice, but if you’re working off a menu and you’ve made those drinks countless times and you jigger that drink, you know how it’s going to come out.
‘In Happiness Forgets on a Saturday night we’ll make around 350 cocktails. If we had two bartenders on, each bartender would be testing 5ml of 150+ drinks, which is three or four drinks a night. That’s quite a lot.’
Recently, there have been a lot of articles in which bartenders, such as The Dead Rabbit’s Jack McGarry, have announced they have a problem with alcohol. It’s illuminating to see such high fliers admit this – working with alcohol doesn’t mean you’re immune to its allure.
It’s really important to keep tabs on your alcohol consumption (there are any number of apps out there to help you). Don’t cheat, and do it over a period of months to get an accurate measure. You’ll almost certainly be drinking more than you think. AlM recommends having an alcohol-free day a week – if you find that difficult, it’s a worrying sign.
‘Only 4% of adults drink 50 units or more a week for men, or 35 or more for women – if you’re drinking at this level then you are an at-risk drinker and defined medically as dependent,’ explains AIM’s Helena Conibear.
Issues with alcohol can fall under two categories – tolerance and addiction. The former is when you need increasing amounts of alcohol to achieve the same effect (those drinkers described by Conibear), while those who are addicted feel sick and experience withdrawal symptoms (shivering, nausea and vomiting) without alcohol.
If you think you have a problem there are numerous organisations that you can turn to, including Addaction, and Drinkline (see box).
Alcohol isn’t the only drug frequently used in the industry – cocaine has a strong hold on it, too.
Before we discuss the issue, it’s important to point out that cocaine is an illegal, class A drug, and possession can land you seven years in prison.
However, we have to acknowledge the fact this drug is widely used by bartenders. One figure in the industry who owns a number of bars outside London spoke to us anonymously: ‘I think I’ve only ever met 10 bartenders who don’t do coke,’ he said. ‘There’s a massive problem with it.
Addaction Provides treatment, help and advice for alcohol and drugs. addaction.org.uk,
The Benevolent The drinks industry charity can put you in touch with relevant organisations to help support you, and can provide financial support if you’re off work or facing hardship. thebenevolent.org.uk, 020 7089 3888
Drinkline Helpline for people worried about their own or someone else’s drinking. 0800 917 8282
Drinking and You ‘A consumer site about sensible drinking, Government guidelines and your health.’ drinkingandyou.com
Frank Provides friendly, confidential drugs advice. talktofrank.com, 0300 123 6600
Mind Gives information and support to those suffering from mental health issues. mind.org.uk, 0300 123 3393
‘In this industry, cocaine is a tool used to make you work faster and help you have a good time. If you’re starting in the industry at a young age, it’s thrust upon you. Your peers are doing it and it becomes the norm.
‘No manager wants to see their staff taking it, but if someone’s doing a 16-hour shift then a blind eye is often turned. Having said that, if you see any employees taking drugs, then you have to sack them. It’s a horrible drug and it ruins people’s lives if they don’t deal with it.’
Taking cocaine is playing with fire. ‘The way cocaine works in the brain is by increasing the amount of the chemical dopamine, which is the brain’s way of saying something is good – it’s also released when we have sex or eat tasty food – so this means cocaine can be intensely pleasurable,’ explains Celia Morgan, professor of psychopharmacology at the University of Exeter.
‘As cocaine has such a strong effect on dopamine, by this measure it would be highly addictive. Cocaine can also get a user into an addicted pattern because over time it hijacks the brain’s natural reward system and means that it becomes harder for the user to get pleasure out of normal things, leading someone into a more compulsive pattern of drug use.’
She adds the caveat that certain people are more vulnerable to addiction – those who’ve experienced stressful events, who may have had difficult upbringings or who struggle with mental health issues.
The bartender’s lifestyle of regular alcohol intake, disrupted sleep patterns and potential cocaine use is a dangerous cocktail for anyone’s state of mind.
When it comes to alcohol’s impact on mental health, Professor Morgan says: ‘We can say from studies, that around 30% of people who “abuse” alcohol, ie frequently drinking more than you want to over a longer period of time and developing tolerance – the way that many people drink – also have an anxiety disorder.
‘This figure jumps to 40% with alcohol dependence. By dependence we mean your body coming to rely on alcohol and alcohol interfering with your functioning in life, like your relationships or work. Depression rates are around 12% in alcohol abuse, 30% in alcohol dependence.’
If you feel yourself slipping into the abyss, then heed McCluskey’s advice: ‘They need to talk about it. I used to keep stuff in my head and deal with it alone. We’ve got to talk about the taboos and open up about how we’re feeling. Especially men.’
But fear not, dear readers, we’re not here to tell you to stop doing everything. ‘We don’t need to turn into an industry of mormons,’ says McCluskey. ‘It’s a cool industry, we don’t have to turn our backs entirely on that stuff. It’s about picking and choosing. If it becomes something you rely on, then it’s difficult to get back out of it. It’s having the discipline to recognise that.’
So what are the keys to success? The main thing everyone stresses is how important it is to have other interests away from work.
‘There is this view that you have to be out every single night; people think they’ve got to be visible and go to certain bars and keep in with everybody,’ says Burgess. ‘I don’t think that’s the case – your personal life can’t be your work life as well.’
Elliott Skehel, the GM of Lab 22 in Cardiff, has had plenty of experience with depression in the past, yet has found working in the on-trade to be a positive thing with the right approach.
‘I started bartending to get away from stress,’ he recalls. ‘When I was in my second year at university I was depressed. I lost my hair to stress-related alopecia and was seeing counsellors. I thought bartending could help, as well as help me earn some money, and after a while my hair grew back.
‘It’s important to separate your work and your social life. If you go out for a drink then it’s a lot like your work, isn’t it? If you have to do seven days a week, that’s bad, not because it’s physically exhausting, but more importantly, it’s emotionally draining. I like to run, go to the gym and cook. Maybe one bender a month to blow off steam is also a good idea.’
No mormons here, then. Instead, it’s about awareness, finding the balance, and taking the time out to look after number one. Here’s to a happy, healthy new year to all our readers.
Claire Smith-Warner’s bartender wellness guide
Moët Hennessy’s director of spirits education founded Drink Eat Live, a movement sharing wellbeing tips with bartenders, when she was head of spirit creation and mixology for Belvedere. ‘I was burnt out and feeling as though I needed to find a strategy to cope with the job,’ she says. ‘I soon realised it could help bartenders to deal with the demands of their jobs and give them tools and strategies to help them cope.’
You are what you eat
Carolina Brooks at Anthrobotanica (anthrobotanica.com) is a nutritionist, herbalist and naturopath who counts a number of people in the on-trade among her clients. Here are her tips to help fuel your body and ameliorate alcohol’s effects.
– Eat liver-friendly foods such as bitter vegetables (lettuce and most greens, endive, artichoke), cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower and kale) and sulphurous foods (eggs, onions and garlic). Increase your phytonutrient intake by eating brightly coloured fruit and veg.
– Avoid processed foods and refined carbs.
– When hungover, balance blood sugar by always pairing fat with protein or carbs (so if you grab a piece of fruit, have it with a few nuts). Eat something small every couple of hours.
– Another hangover tip: drink lots of water and replace electrolytes, so maybe drink some coconut water, too.
– Make sure you are getting enough omega three in the form of oily fish and seeds.
– Use milk thistle every morning and evening to protect your liver. There’s a big quality issue here most supplements are crap, so go and see a registered qualified herbalist.
– Be prepared – if you have a hangover you are less likely to want to cook, so have easy-to-grab, healthy foods at home in the fridge.