I started as a door guy—I wasn't even bar-backing at first. There was a sense of being entrenched, where you have to earn your stars. You check IDs and learn how to deal with people, how to calm down angry drunks and occasionally put someone in a headlock if shit gets real. But mostly, you learn how to treat people right and how to make the night go smoothly, which makes it better for everyone. Then they'll put you on backing up your bartender, and then it's just busting your ass for hours on end. It's cool because the amount of money you make is directly proportional to how hard you work, which is not true of most industries.
The Knockout is where I got my start. I spent almost four years bar-backing before they let me pour a drink. The thing I learned from bar-backing for so long which I think about now, as a bartender at a restaurant, is to have empathy for the kitchen and how they're busting their ass. The kitchen gets paid shit compared to front of house. It's humbling.
Bar-backing is also a cool job for an introvert because you don't have to talk to people. All you're doing is washing dishes and changing kegs and running around like mad. I'm a shy person, or at least I was before I had this job. Before the combination of alcohol and necessity allowed me talk to strangers about anything, I was a shut-in.
So then, at some point, they decide to put a bottle in your hand. My first bartending gig was at a dive bar. My boss was like, "You're working door, but it's slow enough, so come back behind the bar and learn." He showed me, "this is what two ounces is," "this is how to make a vodka soda." And that was it. I didn't make a mixed drink on my own for at least a year or so. I eventually had to learn what was in a Manhattan and a martini, but no one really ordered those. The other bartender would go across the street and leave me at the bar, go eat at Blue Plate, and then come back and we'd split the tips. I would be the door guy, the bartender, and the bar-back all at once. It was slow enough that there wasn't that much I could fuck up.
Actual bartending, though, started at Blackbird for me. I started as the door guy again, and it had a hierarchy, but I expressed an interest and they sort of fast-tracked me because I was eager to learn. I could geek out about everything. I read The Joy of Mixology, and as much as I hate that word, that was a really awesome lead-in to just a relatively unpretentious way of learning how to make drinks and what's important about the job.
The bar manager at Blackbird, Brent Butler, taught us everything. He was like a fucking encyclopedia. The idea—and it's in The Joy of Mixology—is to classify these drinks into categories, more of an archetype of a drink than any particular drink, and then you just kind of branch off from there. The best example is how a margarita, a Cosmopolitan, and a sidecar are essentially the same drink; it's just about proportions. It's a base spirit, a sweetener, a citrus juice, and a liqueur. In those cases it's a triple sec. It's building blocks. And from there, proportion and flavor.
Then, when you work in a restaurant bar with a kitchen, you learn more about ingredients and flavors. The first place I worked where I had one of my cocktails on the menu was at Mission Chinese. The one that I was super into was the Reanimator, which was basically just a Corpse Reviver #2—a classic cocktail. The modern recipe for a Corpse Reviver typically has Lillet Blanc, but Lillet doesn't taste like it did when that original Corpse Reviver recipe was concocted, back in the day. They changed the recipe of Lillet Blanc in the 50s so it had less of a quinine edge to it. And the triple sec that people use now—the standard ones like Grand Marnier—don't necessarily taste like they used to. So you use an orange liqueur that tastes how Triple Sec used to, and you use Cocchi Americano, which tastes like how Lillet used to. I added little drops of parsley oil and that was the thing that set it off. That was my first restaurant job and I had never realized how cool it was to utilize kitchen ingredients, to have so much cool stuff within reach.
When I started at The Pines, I was nervous as shit even though I've been doing this forever, but ultimately I feel like when showed up I knew at least a little bit about what I was talking about. As soon as I got comfortable, it was a lot easier to ask questions and make suggestions, do stuff that was interesting rather than just what I was told. But I never had that many cocktails on the menu at Pines. They already had amazing cocktails on the menu long before I was there, and who am I to switch it up?
Working at Willow now, it's not about the building blocks—it's about what works. Yes, you still need these basics, how to make classic cocktails, but then you can branch off forever using whatever crazy shit comes out of the kitchen. When the chef—John Poiarkoff—comes to me and says, "I have this seasonal ingredient that we need to get rid of," I can just riff on it. I'll mix something up and taste it and he'll be like, "Nope, it needs more citrus." Working with a chef whose only goal is flavor, you don't get bogged down.
Right now I'm using yogurt whey in a drink. The reason we have yogurt whey as a cocktail ingredient is because we make yogurt in the kitchen, and they have to strain it. It adds a cool mouthfeel and does all sorts of interesting things. The chefs also use mint oil, which is just mint mixed with a neutral oil or olive oil and strained superfine. They use that to add a little herbal flavor to dishes, but I can add a few droplets to a cocktail. I've got it in a rum drink, and without it that rum drink might be pretty unremarkable.
With Willow, there's an opportunity to do something else. You know, it's not truly from scratch—all cocktails are stolen from other people. A monkey could really do this job; it's like assembling building blocks. The hard work has already been done. They've already figured out what kinds of flavors work together—it's just tweaking. Ultimately, it just becomes fun. I guess that's why people become bartenders, right?
The cocktail menu at Willow is all mine. (Even that is kind of misleading because it's a million ideas that get passed around the kitchen and front-of-house.) My favorite cocktail on the menu is called the Crybaby. It's a really stupid name because I couldn't think of a name, but it has a bunch of different sour components: sour beer, yogurt whey, lemon. And it's also got rosemary syrup, and it comes out like a cross between a gin fizz and a sour. We're using this oaked gin. There are a bazillion different kinds of gins right now, and oaked gins almost have whiskey characteristics to them. In that sense, this drink is almost closer to an extremely herbal whiskey sour.
MAKE IT: The Crybaby
I was recently at a bar in San Francisco, and my friends who work there were complaining about how the new bar-backs don't know their shit. But all the best restaurants I've worked at have a really good back-of-house/front-of-house relationship. When you work in a smaller establishment, there's an empathy between the two sides. That's why they call it family meal. Everyone sits down and eats together—the calm before the storm.
Different bartenders have different levels of confidence, or arrogance—a "vision" or whatever. But when I first started in dive bars, it was all about sneering at the customers who didn't know how to order, who would order a Long Island Iced Tea. But if someone orders a Long Island Iced Tea, you should know how to make it. You might internally be like, motherfucker!, but you should be able to put one together. Part of this job is gauging what a customer wants.
Balance is always there—you should have something for everyone, even the occasional people who are annoying. If someone orders a vodka martini extra dry, what they really want is a big bowl of ice-cold booze.
And you know what? That's fine. If someone in their 60s comes in and orders that, and they know that's what they want, who am I to tell them otherwise?