Film review: ‘Hey Bartender’ makes craft cocktail trend official

Employees Only staffer Steve Schneider is one of the subjects in the documentary "Hey Bartender." Credit: 4th Row Films
Employees Only staffer Steve Schneider is one of the subjects in the documentary “Hey Bartender.”
Credit: 4th Row Films

‘Hey Bartender’
Director: Douglas Tirola
Genre: Documentary
Rating: NR
3 (out of 5) Globes

A trend isn’t a trend until it’s been made into a niche documentary that does little but acknowledge its existence. With the entertaining if thin “Hey Bartender,” the craft cocktail craze that’s been sweeping major cities — and the living rooms of “Mad Men” devotees — finally becomes official, and good for it. Booze, as the filmmakers briefly acknowledge, has had a hell of a time. Prohibition killed the country’s respect for the social lubricant. It recovered, slightly, in the ‘50s and ‘60s, only for terrible beer to dominate sales, and bars to be re-centered on DJs. Only semi-recently have people come back to respecting the bartender as an artist (or, as per the irksome term, “mixologist”), able to sling both the classics and new, tastier inventions.

“Hey Bartender” spends most of its time in Manhattan, and much of that time at Employees Only, an oaky, upscale West Village haunt where the staff, many of them fond of wax mustaches, treat the job with the seriousness of ruthless businessmen. A niche documentary needs a token lead to root for, and so we follow Steve Schneider, an ex-military type whose only career goal is to move from apprentice to head bartender. It also requires a competition, so there’s one of those as well.

Both aspects are pleasant if hardly earth-shaking, and the film fills itself out by engagingly exposing the city’s swelling cocktail scene, hanging with its pioneers and learning of its growing notoriety. It’s a big deal when the James Beard Foundation belatedly acknowledges the cocktail as an epicurean art.

What’s not acknowledged is much outside of this cloistered world. We hear talk of how bars, in the Golden Age of cocktails during the 1880s, were for the working man. But there’s no admission that today’s cocktails are for the thoughtlessly wealthy, who can spend what many blue collar types make in two hours on a single drink. This pricey scene has cropped up in a downturn economy, and yet the only ones getting the good stuff are those who don’t have to worry about the next paycheck.

As contrast, “Hey Bartender” occasionally swings by Dunville’s, a longtime bar in Westport, Conn., where the owner ekes by on regulars but dreams bigger. Not enough time is spent here, and not enough connections are made between the outrageously successful Employees Only and this scrappier joint. “America’s getting its palate back,” cries one guest. That may be so, but there’s a long way before that applies to all of America.


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