Should Bartenders Only Drink Cocktails

A comment by Sasha Petraske in an interview recently got readers all riled up, when he suggested cocktail bartenders that order beer when they’re not working were hypocrites. Perfect fodder for a heated debate, we thought, so we asked two opinionated folk to come down on each side of the fence.



No, says Alec Dyson

First of all, I should state that I have enormous respect for Sasha and what he has achieved in the industry. But to say a cocktail bartender should only drink cocktails is ludicrous, akin to saying a butcher should only ever eat meat or a fishmonger only fish. It really is that narrow-minded.

I encourage my staff to try different cocktails, in particular to try cocktails they wouldn’t normally like/go for on a menu. After all, you can’t really sell a customer a drink if you don’t understand how its flavours combine and balance. However, to say cocktail bartenders should only drink cocktails totally dismisses the skilful arts of oenology, brewing and distilling, along with the flavours and experiences they can offer you, and – this is the key point of my argument – how those flavours and experiences could ultimately manifest themselves in cocktails. How can a bartender advance their knowledge and technique if they don’t expose themselves to a palate of raw ingredients or to other gastronomic and drinks trends?

Cocktails are wonderful things, truly wonderful. There is a cocktail for every occasion, every time of day and every day of the year. But there are also a wealth of other fantastic libations out there, and to drink them does not mean you “probably make bad cocktails”. On the contrary, it probably means that you make better ones, that your palate has experienced more tastes, flavours and textures, and to me that can only improve you as a bartender.

There’s nothing more I love after a shift, or in a pub with friends, than to drink a pint of ice-cold lager. And just a simple session lager, mind – nothing fancy. But that does not mean I make bad cocktails. To my mind, it is not a case of preferring cocktails over beer or wine, it is a case of enjoying them when you want them: there’s a drink for every person at every time, and that is the beauty of alcohol.

Bartenders should take pride in everything they make, from a French Martini to a pint of lager as well as everything in between. To dismiss the ‘simple’ drinks is disastrous and leads to a blinkered, snobbish attitude. And that definitely makes you a bad bartender.

Alec manages Booly Mardy’s in Glasgow

Yes, says Jacob Briars

Sasha has become famous and influential by having a clear vision for his bars and bartenders. It’s his rigorous dedication to preserving and maintaining the cocktail tradition that has made his bars so impactful. To that end, I agree cocktail bartenders should drink cocktails whenever appropriate and as often as possible.

At last year’s Tales of the Cocktail I participated in a hilarious debate moderated by the wonderful Claire Smith, the topic of which was ‘I Love/I Hate Cocktails’. I was a little shocked that the topic even came up. Who hates cocktails? And which masochists go to a festival that celebrates the cocktail, only to complain about them? Amazingly, many of the younger bartenders among us seemed to take pride in being ‘over’ cocktails before they have barely begun to drink them.

This might be understandable if they were out drinking fine wines and Calvados and single malt whisky. But they’re not. They’re drinking ironically crappy beers with a shot on the side. (Ironically, they’re probably just the sort who invented those rye+amaro+mescal with an Islay float drinks that you read so much about, but no one actually orders). To my mind, if you’re drinking beer in a bar like PDT, you’re taking up a seat that rightly belongs to a cocktail lover.

I go to bars to see craftsmen at work – people schooled in the art of controlling a room and reading the mood of guests, and crafting a drink perfectly tailored to fit them. Wine can be good and beer has its place, even highballs can be tasty, but you can drink them at home easily enough. Nothing can hit the spot like a well-made cocktail because nothing else is as perfectly tuned to that season, hour, bar and guest. My colleague Ian McLaren is fond of saying ‘asking a great bartender for a beer is like asking Gordon Ramsay for a microwave dinner’. (On that note, you don’t hear chefs denigrating their craft.)

Fundamentally, I think what Sasha was saying was that a good cocktail bartender respects and loves their craft. By going out and drinking each others’ cocktails it supports our peers and helps spread an appreciation of decent cocktails. And that makes us better bartenders.

Jacob is Bacardi’s Director of Trade Advocacy.

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