With the rise of what is now considered the second "Golden Cocktail" era in full effect, many bars and restaurants are stepping up their game with their drink programs and the talent they boast behind their bars. Bartenders are ditching their titles for more complex statuses of Mixologist or Bar/Liquid Chefs and bringing forth an immense amount of passion, creativity and pizzazz to their cocktail creations and profession. These individuals are the catalyst for the reemergence of the career bartender and similar to any job, the genuine commitment of these individuals to their craft is profound and even inspiring. I sit at many cocktail bars throughout the boroughs and am in awe of the dedication of these bartenders to the world of spirits and alcohol. Their depth of knowledge exceeds the basic recipe of an Old Fashioned and extends to the historical context of the bourbon they so carefully pour and the exact composition of roots, botanicals and fruits in that bottle of London Dry Gin.
One evening while waiting for my usual Negroni, I couldn’t help but overhear a conversation lingering in my left ear from a few patrons sitting at the bar. One person opted to order an original concoction from the "Craft Cocktail List" and the other merely desired a vodka Soda.
"Don’t get your usual vodka soda," the customer said. "Ask the bartender to make you something more interesting."
The patron, slightly embarrassed, inquired with the bartender about options similar to a vodka soda, "I just really want a vodka soda, but apparently I shouldn’t order that at a bar like this."
To which the bartender replied, "Yeah, we can make you a better drink than that."
I was in shock by this response and frankly, angered.
I am proud to be a part of this incredible industry, but there are moments like this instance that make me wonder how the hubris of elements combined into a glass overrules the ultimate driver for our occupation: customer service. Case and point – the vodka soda. I have always believed that this drink is the preeminent litmus test for a bartender’s ability to please his or her guests. There is nothing inherently wrong with ordering this drink. It’s crisp, clean, refreshing and simple. Some argue that it lacks ingenuity and it may not be the cocktail that reinvents the wheel, however it remains constant and a backbone for many clienteles drinking preferences. The true indicator of a terrific bartender is the ability to make the ordering of a vodka soda on par with the excitement of making a craft cocktail. There should be care and consideration of selecting the right vodka for the customer, amount of ice, soda or seltzer water, garnish and glassware to construct the perfect vodka soda. And when presenting the drink to the patron, it should be offered with as much satisfaction as any other shaken or stirred mixture that is produced behind the bar.
I’m usually not one to rant and please excuse my exploitation of this weekly column to vent, but this is an area of the industry where I see an opportunity for growth. Strip away the fancy titles, homemade bitters and syrups, elaborate glassware and eight different types of ice, and there is merely a bar and an individual who works behind it to provide a service for anyone who walks through the front door. Without the customer, the bartender is rendered useless. I don’t know anyone who wants to sit at a fancy bar with ten ingredient cocktails served by a bartender who fails to say hello, crack a smile or attempt to foster some type of rapport with the customer. The choice to drink at a bar (as opposed to home) is to escape to a place that facilitates a comfortable and inviting atmosphere. And the allure of some of NYC’s top venues is not necessarily the drinks that are served, but the enticing ambiance and personalities behind the bar. Drinking establishments have a long history has social centers for cities and towns and it is important to recognize the need to uphold the integrity of that idea. Bars are fun. They are meant to be engaging, interactive, and sometimes a brief diversion from the outside world. If we (bartenders) are unable to generate that type of impression for our customers, then we have truly failed at our job. Because in the end, as delicious and innovative as a bartender’s drink may be, if they lack in customer service then no one will even come by to order a round. This is why every drink needs to be given the same respect and treatment from the classics to the cosmos. Beverage orders are preferences of the customer and to say “we can make you a better/more creative drink than that” is a slight insult to the preference of the patron.
I will defend bartenders in one area; that being education. Part of the role of a bartender is to help teach customers about new products and flavors to incorporate into their favorite drinks. With more spirits hitting the market by the month (if not weeks), bartenders have the ability to share some of their favorite new liquors with those who visit their bar. Nevertheless, bartenders must still be aware that while they like to don the "mixologist" role, they need to be careful to not overstep boundaries and avoid unintentional insult because of personal drink preferences.
So when you’re out this weekend and hankering for that vodka soda even though you’re visiting a high-end cocktail lounge, order it up. Drinking is a personal expression of taste and only you know the exact beverage that will quench your thirst. To be honest, I’m often times a gin and soda gal and have no qualms about it. The cocktail culture has its time and place, but customer service is steadfast.