Before they were bartenders

Imbibe Editorial

Imbibe Editorial

21 March 2017

The most underappreciated position in a bar is all too often that of the humble and hardworking barback. Not any more, if Tincup Whiskey has anything to say about it

Every member of a good bar team is indispensable, and yet the crucial role of barback is seldom appreciated.
Without them, both prep and service would be decidedly different – and not for the better. While the limelight often shines on bartenders and bar managers, the time has come for these quiet heroes of the industry to be recognised.

Tincup Whiskey, named after an old Colorado mining town, honours the pioneering, hardscrabble miners of the 19th Century who sought their fortunes in the state’s gold rush. Tincup salutes this heritage by championing hard-working and industrious people.

In that same spirit, Tincup is declaring 2017 the year of the barback, conducting a nationwide search for this year’s Barback Hero. We spoke to some top names in the UK bar industry about their early days as barbacks, and about their perception of this crucial role in their bars today.

Elliot Ball, The Cocktail Trading Co

‘I started out as a potwasher, and then started pulling bar shifts,’ Ball remembers of his early days in a pub in the countryside. ‘Pubs don’t really have barbacks – you are your own barback. When I went to uni and worked in better, more high-volume bars, I did a fair amount of barbacking before they’d let me pour drinks. Eventually I ended up being bar manager.’

What’s involved in the progression from barback to bar manager, according to Ball? ‘Just grafting through, really, which I think should be the only kind of progression within the industry.

I think the best managers are those who’ve gone the whole way through,’ he says.

Ball considers the role to be so important that often it’s one of the directors of The Cocktail Trading Co that will take the position of barback during service. ‘The whole operation runs so smoothly – it’s like having a great bassist in a band. Everything just goes super-well. And it’s a shame, because there should be more recognition of that,’ he explains.

‘A barback is as valuable as a bartender, in the same way that a point bartender is as valuable as a dispense bartender… and they’re both screwed without the barback,’ Ball concludes.

Ryan Chetiyawardana, Mr Lyan (Dandelyan, White Lyan)

Although nowadays he’s no stranger to international success, Chetiyawardana has done his share of the tough and underappreciated hospitality jobs – starting out as a kitchen porter, working his way up to chef, and then starting again as a barback.

‘I didn’t see the role of barback as the next step in my career, but rather thought, “What can I learn in this position?” I don’t talk about myself as a bartender. I describe myself as a kickass barback,’ he says.

When it comes to his venues, Chetiyawardana explains that the corner controls the bar. At White Lyan in particular, this role requires some experience. ‘The barbacks are usually bartenders, and they do bits of everything. They have to understand the whole operation before they can do the corner,’ he says.

Davide Segat, Punch Room, The London Edition

Segat changed his career entirely when he first arrived in London from Italy, and he started at the bottom. ‘I didn’t speak any English, so I was barbacking, and I started to learn about the industry. I didn’t realise at the time that I was learning to be a bartender.’

But the drive to interact with others and serve guests motivated Segat to move to the bar. ‘I really wanted to speak to people, so I was going to English school in the day – that was the main drive,’ he explains.

At Punch Room there’s plenty for the team of barbacks to learn. ‘They do all the prep – all the clarification, the fat-washing – we teach them all of those techniques.’

And it pays off. ‘Every year since we’ve opened, one barback has become a bartender. This year it was two,’ says Segat. ‘And for those that leave, they’ll go somewhere else and know a lot more than most people.’

Segat stresses that the barback role is even more crucial during service. ‘If the pantry area isn’t working, the whole thing collapses.’ And ultimately, if there was still any doubt about the importance of the barbacks at Punch Room, Segat points out that they’re the ones that make the bar’s internationally renowned Milk Punch, not the bartenders.

Tincup is searching for the 2017 ‘Barback Hero’. Bar managers will be encouraged to nominate their barback heroes when the competition opens in May. Read the May/June issue of Imbibe for full details of how to enter. #herothebarback #barbackhero

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