This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in August 2015.
"I was a little worried, 'cause you were this moppy-haired kid from NYU," Tim Cooper tells me. "…and had this deer-in-the-headlights look."
That's just my face, alright?
In 2004, after covering a few shifts in the Meatpacking District, I got my first real bar job downtown. I'd already lived in New York for five years and I'd worked through all of it, but always as an afterthought, as my income was supplemented by student loans and saintly parents. My tendency toward late nights, an aversion to fluorescent lighting, and a still-breathing dream of writing for a living led me to the life of a barback.
These days Tim is the hospitable proprietor of Sweetwater Social and a brand representative of 86 Co, but back then he was whirling dervish. My job was to cut his garnishes, stock his booze, and soak in his wisdom.
"I probably yelled at you a bunch and told you to get the fuck out of my way," he remembers.
The barback sweats through the shift, suffering blisters and cuts, scraping labels off old bottles, sometimes being abused by egomaniacs.
Those of us today who care about bars and cocktails and restaurant reviews take for granted the mild celebrity a bartender can achieve. Every one of them that still does the job has someone who is slicing his fruit, marrying his well, passing him bottles, and trying desperately to stay the fuck out of the way.
"The service industry is a fucking brutal industry. One of the things I have a problem with is people glamorizing it," Tim says. "A barback has to move efficiently, quickly, have a strong work ethic. Being a great barback, the number one thing is anticipation. Knowing what the bartender is going to need before he does."
That can be hard, considering bartenders can be impatient, drunken jerks at their worst. Some can be sadistic. The barback sweats through the shift, suffering blisters and cuts, scraping labels off old bottles, sometimes being abused by egomaniacs. They suffer through the indignity and hazing silently, making possible the entire business with no thanks in sight. Sometimes its just for the cash (there are worse jobs) but about half of the time, it's because they want to learn.
One of the greatest moments in my bar career came the day Tim made an angry gesture towards the other two barbacks at a staff meeting and muttered at me, "These two, they're fucking lazy." I was glowing. Somehow I knew it: I'd be stepping in at service station, trusted to pour highballs. It never occurred to me that Tim would like to be able to take a piss once in awhile.
Tim eventually taught me how to make drinks. Because of him, I knew in 2004 that a Manhattan was stirred. Once he taught me about the Brooklyn.
"It's got different vermouth and this particular bitter spirit and a little bit of cherry liqueur," Tim told me then. "But don't worry cause you'll never have to fucking make that."
He was wrong.
"The thing that's changed between now and then is you have so much knowledge and education to facilitate you into bartending so much quicker. Back in the day, it was trial and error and a lot of grinding. You hoped to build a rapport with a bartender willing to share secrets and tricks of the trade," Tim says. "With the internet now, you can skip a lot of steps. Part of the beauty of being a bartender is there's some unwritten codes. Some of that is going through some bullshit. I have thought having to deal with some of the bullshit I did made me a better bartender. And I feel that some of the kids coming up today maybe haven't necessarily had to deal with that to the same capacity."
The job can vary a lot from bar to bar. When I worked with Tim, I was responsible for cleaning his station at the end of the night and carrying dripping glassware through a crowded dance floor. Later, my barbacks at the Franklin Mortgage and Investment Co in Philadelphia were exponentially more integral, acting like silent managers, making fresh syrups, rotating stock, tracking hundreds of bottles of obscure spirits. And still being told to get the fuck out of the way.
"It is equal parts having your liver destroyed and looking out for whoever you're bartending for. You're taking care of each other," Colin O'Neill says. "It's a weird relationship."
'Having to deal with some of the bullshit I did made me a better bartender. And I feel that some of the kids coming up today maybe haven't necessarily had to deal with that to the same capacity.'
When Colin started barbacking at the Franklin in 2011, I didn't know that one day this barely 23-year-old art school graduate was going to serve as a groomsman at my wedding. He'd just barbacked for a few years at Sisters, Philly's legendary lesbian bar; but like almost all of our hires, he had no practical experience in cocktail bars. By the time we promoted him to bartender, he could have bottles lined for me on the backbar, with speed-pourers faced, in the order he knew I'd need them, and all for tickets I hadn't even read yet.
"It's funny the number of conversations I've heard where people have no idea I'm there," Colin says. "I remember one time you were trying to cut a guy off who was belligerent. You picked up his drink, which was just melted ice at that point, and he was giving you a hard time. I listened while the entire thing happened … you being nervous about having to tell the guy to fuck off and him getting drunker. You fought for a minute, but in the end he shook your hand. It was a really cool vantage point."
"That caretaking set me up for the kind of bartender I am now," he tells me. "Seeing other people barback poorly—not being a good dance partner—has sped me up on how to work well with other people."
Barbacking remains the most dependable way to get a foothold in the industry, which can present a special challenge for women looking to break in.
Not every barback is destined to be a great bartender. Some of them are just passing the time till the next audition, while others could already be better bartenders than the guys working over them if English wasn't their latest language. Sometimes a terrific barback ends up a poor bartender, or a lazy, entitled barback grows up to have a great career. Some of my favorite bartenders have never barbacked a day in their life.
It still remains the most dependable way to get a foothold in the industry, which can present a special challenge for women looking to break in. While we tried to hire as many women as we could at the Franklin, at a lot of bars it is very difficult to get a barback gig if you're not a dude.
"Sometimes people think of barbacks as meatheads. I think now, especially in craft bars, there's an opportunity for finesse behind the bar, and the job description has changed." Colin says. "I think, as bartenders, if we want to continue to teach good habits, we need to change how we think about barbacking. It opens up new ideas about body types and gender."
The reason we call it craft bartending is because you can't go to school for it, and it is hard to apprentice with no teacher. You need to suffer through the earliest stops and starts and learn the character that comes with it. The better part of craft is diligence, but it's a hard lesson to learn with no example.
"Bartenders who have not had that kind of experience, they're missing out on a stage of information and really great working relationships with someone. Those formative years of being someone's barback teaches you how to respect people behind the bar," Colin says.
Next time you are in a fancy bar, confused why the kid in all black can't take your order and lurks in a corner looking terrified, remember: that kid might be your bartender one day. If you're lucky.