Nate Brown: Bartenders need to step up their product knowledge

Nate Brown

01 July 2019

In an era of unparalleled choice, says Nate Brown, the one thing that’s unforgivable in a bartender is ignorance


What a time to be alive! We’re blessed with an increasing number of wild and wonderful new products every week, each one clamouring for the bartender’s attention. We’re inundated with category-denying concoctions, higher-proof expressions, no-abv re-imaginings, new stuff from old guys, old stuff from new guys (bizarrely) and the rest.

The right bar can make Willy Wonka’s factory look like a paper mill – so much so that visiting a bar can become a voyage of discovery.

And, as in the story of every great journey, we have the mythical gatekeeper. For us, the bartender is the Ferryman – cross their palm with silver and you shall be delivered wisely.

For this exchange to work, however, it is important that the Ferryman knows where they are going. Shamefully, bartenders can be less ‘Charon the Ferryman’ and more ‘Uber driver without a sat nav’.

Take this recent visit to a ‘Rum Bar’.

Me: ‘Oh look, they have the new Velier behind the bar – I’ll have that please.’

Bartender: ‘The what?’

Me: ‘The Velier. There.’

Bartender: (Keeps leaning in but looks over his shoulder.)

Me: ‘Velier. There. That one. (Sigh.) Next to the Doorly’s. No, other side. Yep. That.’

I mean, you wouldn’t buy a dog from someone who thought it was a horse, so what is happening here?

Just try to imagine the absurdity of this situation. Try to picture all the events, major and minor, throughout history that have resulted in this particular bottle of spirit, crafted in its own unique way, ending up in this bar with the guest. And then for the final link in the chain, the bartender, to shrug indifferently at the last hurdle!

A basic knowledge of the products on offer is a fundamental part of the contract between the paying guest and the bartender. The responsibility to understand the difference between the bottles on the back bar, the beers in the lines and the wines in the fridge lies with the bar, not the guest.

At the core of a bartender’s understanding, there should be two bedfellows: fermentation and distillation. And what makes a bartender’s ignorance all the more infuriating here is just how readily available this knowledge is.

As a nation, we have so many distilleries right on our doorstep. Hell, fermentation is around us every day in a variety of forms. How is it that there are still industry professionals struggling to comprehend the process and its importance?

And then there’s the delight of visiting a distillery. There, you learn about more than just chemical reactions; you can get all that from textbooks. There are insights to be gained that can’t be found outside of the location the spirit is made. There are smells that will forever transport you back to that moment, when you rediscover them within the layers of the final spirit. There are stories that aid understanding. There is context come to life.

To handle botanicals shipped from the four corners of the globe, all coming together under an arch in Haggerston or Manchester, is to handle a piece of the world we live in and all its wonderful, cruel history. To smell a wooden cask, young or old, or to taste the fermenting wort in a whisky distillery: these are experiences to be cherished. They nourish our understanding and allow us to deliver products in a way that both the spirits, and the paying guest, deserve.

Perhaps visiting a distillery should be a basic requirement for those working in the trade. The abundance of distilleries in our country rubbishes any excuse not to.

What’s more, producers actually want to host bartenders. There’s a reason a distillery visit is the prize for every cocktail comp, you guys. So really, what’s the excuse for ignorance?

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