Thomas Mathe

Behind The Bar Branding

Jack was a Vietnam vet. He had scraggly long, grey hair that draped over his thick-rimmed Coke-bottle glasses, and he always wore his Army jacket. His back was hunched, his fingers were gnarled, and his patchy grey beard seemed like it would be impossible to shave off of his sagging face. He drank well booze with cola, often to excess, didn’t tip anybody well, and made a fuss over anyone else being in his seat. He was, by all accounts, a curmudgeon. He was also my first-ever bar regular.

He read Stephen King novels fervently, and had himself inspired an actual character in a real published novel by a writer who had once lived in town. The character based on Jack was a regular at a bar based on the bar that Jack had been a regular at for 30 years, on and off. The irregularity of Jack’s status as a regular had nothing to do with Jack; the bar had gone through several owners, closing and reopening every couple of years. Jack was the constant.

At one point in all of this I started working there. I became his bartender. Jack would tell me all about the history that I’d missed over the hard-fought games of chess we would play when the bar was otherwise empty.restaurant bar staff pouring beer

Jack liked the playlists I made for my shifts, and he liked that I was a writer. We talked about Stephen King, yes, but also Jorge Borges, Alice Munro, and Nabokov. “Read The Defense,” Jack would say. “Read Bolaño,” I’d reply. We took each other up on these things and would check back in from time to time.

He listened, seemingly unimpressed, as I told him the story about how I’d almost accidentally killed a jaywalking John Updike a year before the writer’s eventual death from lung cancer on my way to work one morning, and Jack said, “Shoulda done it. Better than dying of cancer,” before going outside for a cigarette.

Jack didn’t mind that I was timid about over-pouring his drinks even though everybody knew to do it, but he would snap at anybody else who only poured him a normal amount of alcohol. Perhaps there was a thought that he could once again inspire a character in a book if he made a good impression on me, or maybe he just liked that I listened to him when he talked, or maybe we were just buds and so he overlooked my deficiency.

Roy introduced himself as Roy Rogers to a server’s boyfriend one time, and for a while everybody thought that was his name. Roy was a storyteller. According to Roy he’d been taught the game of chess as a child by Ernest Hemingway (his parents and grandparents were in publishing), he’d managed a world tour for Peter Gabriel, and had Brain Eno’s contact information. He’d also been a groomsman in a famous restaurateur’s wedding. I never questioned any of it, not just because it could have been true – some people live extraordinary lives – but because it didn’t matter if it was or not. Roy told a good story, he was kind, he was friendly, and he was loyal.Bartender preparing a drink using tricks

He would typically drink straight liquor, but he knew I was picking the beers on tap, so he would always buy a small pour of whatever I was passionate about so he could hear me describe it to him. He wanted to know my stories, and he wanted to tell me his.

Roy was the first person to get it into my head that I should move to New York. “It’s the best city in the world,” he’d say, having lived in Manhattan for a few decades, “and somebody with your skill, your intelligence, you’d do better for yourself there than you ever could here.” It was deeply flattering, but I kept telling myself how much I enjoyed New England, and how far I was from being a New York bartender, which I imagined meant knowing everything and being the absolute best. (With all due respect, it doesn’t mean that, no matter how much I want it to.) I was also far from having enough money saved to make that sort of leap, so when he would bring it up I would profess my appreciation for his respect, then table the thought and eventually change the subject to something that would provide more fruitful conversation.

I went over to his house one night after my shift, even though my apartment was about an hour away from his home and my work. This was and is not a common practice for me, but Roy and I had spent a lot of time together, and he had become my friend. We shared a touch of whiskey and he played me some Catherine Wheel and raved about Robert Fripp. He showed me a Peter Gabriel live DVD and taught me about Steve Biko. I played him some music my friends’ band had recorded, and he got really emotional. “You know these guys?” he said. “Yeah,” I said. “I need to send this to Brian,” he said.

I didn’t need any of that out of him. I didn’t need the stories to like him, but I did like that he told them well. As a fiction writer, I can’t discredit the man if some of his claims were potentially untrue. (Especially since some of these composites of regulars might get a little fuzzy with the facts to protect the anonymity of patrons.) As his bartender, I can attest to the exuberance of his character and his natural default position of finding a way to praise, which is something all bartenders should aspire to.

“Bar regulars are like family to us bartenders. Mostly we love them so much we can’t stand it, but sometimes they upset us in ways that it’s only harmful to acknowledge out loud.” -Thomas Máthé

 

Elaine had short curly brown hair, glasses, and the demeanor of your mother’s naughty best friend. She would come in frequently, sometimes alone, sometimes with her niece, and sometimes with a friend to catch up on girl talk over food and drinks.

The first time I made her a Manhattan, she gasped. “It’s perfect!” she cried. “Now how did you do this?”

I showed her the bottles and told her about what made them fit the bill for the type of Manhattan she’d said she wanted. I had asked her a few questions before putting the drink together because she wanted me to pick which whiskey to use, and I made my decision based on her answers. (She’d settled on the descriptors stiff, caramel, and bitter.)

“But it’s you,” she said. “You know.”

Library of Distilled Spirits_cocktailIt wasn’t just me. I mean, part of it was. It was certainly me talking with Elaine and putting her drink together, but I wouldn’t have had access to those ingredients if it weren’t for my boss picking them out so well, and I wouldn’t have had the language to describe the whiskeys or translate their flavor profiles in such a way if the bar staff hadn’t gotten together every so often for blind tastings. Also, you know, a lot of work went into making each of those bottles, and into resurrecting and then keeping alive a cocktail culture, but I obviously didn’t say any of this out loud to Elaine. What I said was, “You’re sweet,” and we shared a laugh. She winked at me. She was a winker.

When service ramped up and I had to start flying through cocktails, Elaine was entranced. When I shook two shakers at once to the beat of the house’s music, she started whooping and clapping. She was a firecracker. She’d sing “Shake it, Tom,” in a way that was both embarrassing and endearing. There is something showy about making cocktails, but I wanted it to be theater and Elaine made it feel like pro wrestling. It caught me off guard and made me laugh.

She was always watching. When I made a bespoke cocktail for a guest, Elaine looked on. “Now, you’re just making this up on the spot?” she asked.

“Yep,” I said.

“And how do you know if it’s going to taste good?”

This time I answered in detail. She seemed like she genuinely wanted to know.

“It’s mostly ratios and knowing my ingredients. I also ask a lot of questions. Like do you want smoky, floral, fruity? Do you want it strong? Do you have a base spirit of preference? Any aversions? Then I try to make a balanced drink. Something that fits the bill for what they’ve described based on what I have stocked. I straw-taste it along the way to make sure it’s coming along how I want it to, or to see if there’s anything that needs fixing to make sure that I’m giving them the drink we agreed on.”

“Do me next.”

Elaine liked to quote When Harry Met Sally. “I’ll have what she’s having” was the line she wanted everyone to say about her when she was drinking her cocktail. In fact, when she finally settled on the bespoke cocktail of her dreams after a few months of trying us all out, and it became her drink, she insisted that it be named that. Last I heard, it’s still in the house’s recipe guide so any bartender there can make it for her. Yes, at that bar, quoting that line from When Harry Met Sally is actually a drink order.

Bar regulars are like family to us bartenders. Mostly we love them so much we can’t stand it, but sometimes they upset us in ways that it’s only harmful to acknowledge out loud. Whether they come back out of a respect for what we do or out of their own convenience, they are usually equipped to call us out, as any regular with senses is able to partake in the experience consistently over time and witness trends. They become a part of the bar’s culture, and like the strings of bacteria that share the same name, a bar’s culture can create new and refreshing elements off of its foundation, or it can cause the whole place to stink. Part of a bartender’s job is similar to that of a brewer; we’re there to make sure the culture shifts the whole into something better, not something poisonous and flat.

That there are avenues to vent frustrations about a bar without developing a relationship with the staff is one of the egregious oversights of the phone-clad masses, and though amateur reviewing sites may have been used in a positive manner in some alternate universe to simply commend good bars and discredit bad ones, it has mostly allowed us to be more hasty and vindictive with our judgments, which is the antithesis of a good culture.

For example, I remember going to a new cocktail bar near my apartment and getting what I considered to be a bad Sazerac. Once I had my first taste of a good one, it became my litmus test, fair or not, of a good cocktail bar. (In my opinion, no litmus test cocktail is fair if there isn’t a conversation about it beforehand, as there is too much history and too many tastes for anyone to get everything right all the time. In retrospect, I’d advise entirely against the idea of having a litmus test cocktail.) The first time I went to this bar I ordered it myself off of the menu, and the second time it was made for me in a bespoke manner by the bartender. Both times I failed to enjoy it. I thought it was overly diluted and too sweet for my taste. The second time I actually got it replaced because the bartender was attentive and noticed I didn’t like it. I didn’t post online about my experience, but I told my friends and colleagues in confidence that I had this specific issue because it’s important to share thoughts and opinions with people you care about and who care about you (which is not an accurate description of what happens on the internet). I wound up going back to the place because in conversation I found out that it was beloved by my friends. It was also close by. The more I went, the more I realized that I had tried to pigeonhole the place, and that they not only nailed all aspects of good service, but offered a whole slew of delicious drinks that I did enjoy. Like any good culture, it grew on me over time.

From the other end, it might be easy for a burnt out or inept bartender to look at certain bar regulars and find flawed, irritating people, just as I’m sure early, perhaps funkier renditions of yogurt and beer that are now sought after were tossed for having “spoiled.” As bartenders, we need to be as understanding with our guests as we’d want them to be with us before reviewing us online. This doesn’t always happen. I’ve witnessed more than my fair share of bartenders lamenting the arrival of a certain guest, sometimes even openly. Not only is that bad for the show that guests pay to come be a part of, it’s bad for the soul of the bartender, who probably needs to be doing something with their lives that involves less direct human interaction.

When I think back on some of my favorite regulars, a few of whom are no longer with us, I occasionally remember how there was a turning point where the softer, quieter version of myself might’ve lost the plot. “That guy looks pissed,” or “These people are loud,” or “They really like to talk,” definitely fell away quickly in my mind and in my heart. “These are my people,” replaced it. I hope that in telling you their stories I have been able to convey the love my guests have been able to fill me with, whether I was ready for them or not.

And, for those who will have what she’s having, here’s the recipe for the first Manhattan I made for Elaine:

2.5 oz. Rowan’s Creek Bourbon

3/4.75 oz. Alessio Vermouth di Torino Rosso

4 dashes Angostura bitters

Stir, strain into chilled coupe, garnish with a Luxardo cherry.

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Thomas Máthé is a writer and bartender. He lives in Brooklyn with his partner, the painter Beatrice Modisett.