The expertise that has helped bar culture blossom may also prove to be its downfall. Nick ‘Obi Wan’ Wykes issues a warning
The bartender is an egomaniac. And the world is generally a better place for it. Referring to ourselves in the third person, calling our job a ‘gig’, proclaiming our abiding passion for long-forgotten spirits… It’s really all just part of our charm.
But when does our bartenderly penchant for the esoteric become a hindrance? When should we subjugate our artistic principles to
the base commercial imperatives of the humble guest?
In every facet of our trade we are encouraged to ‘feel the quality’. Cheap-suited brand ambassadors assail us with explanations of the beauty of whatever they are punting this month.
Menus will reassure guests that every product in their cocktail is of the highest quality, locally sourced. Bartenders will proclaim some obscure artisan spirit is their tipple du jour, as if to reassure themselves of their good taste.
But at what point does the commitment to curiosities limit the guests’ experience? When does popularity or value signal a lack of quality? And when did it become acceptable to ignore what people drink?
Many moons ago, I had a regular guest who insisted on drinking Macallan 10 Year Old and coke. Despite proffering alternatives I considered more appropriate the order stood, so I dutifully agreed. But my senior bartender point-blank refused, his bartender’s ego, knowledge, insight (call it what you will) impacting not only my guest’s experience but also my sales.
Bar culture is now involved
in a sort of ethnic
cleanse of the lowbrow
Just as invidious are the vast cocktail lists, written more as an exercise in demonstrating how many cocktails we can make than to assist the guest in choosing. The same goes for bars that deliberately overlook popular brands as if they are tarred by association with the proles.
‘Pouring brand vodka? No, no, my dear uneducated guest, we only deal with quality here. For I, the oracle, know better than you.’
Who’s most important here: the bar owner, the bar, the bartender? There is a creeping sense that where once the UK cocktail scene had to be inclusive to reinvigorate a moribund culture, now it is involved in a sort of ethnic cleanse of the lowbrow.
As we become more exclusive we lose the most important element of our craft, that frisson of creativity when we react to guests’ tastes. You can’t take your guest on a journey if you don’t understand where they want to go.
It feels rather like the end of Star Wars, with bartending’s Darth Vader proclaiming to the public’s Obi Wan: ‘The circle is now complete. Now I am the master’. We all know how that ended: a load of Ewoks blowing shit up!
The London bar scene took off when bars focused on guests and their need for quality and value. When we forget why we’re here – to serve great drinks to people, and lots of them – we start
to disappear up our own backsides.
It’s high time bartenders checked their egos and had a word with their customers. Because when we lose that connection with our guests, by assuming we’re too clever for them, we are sunk. Egotism is usually a case of mistaken nonentity.
Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine – September / October 2009