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May 4, 2010 12:18 PM

Why aren't more bartenders up on their game?

I enjoy making and drinking cocktails and have been surprised recently by the lack of knowledge of some bartenders around town.

I was at the Marliave for a party this weekend, and given their cocktail menu which contains a number of classics, was amazed when the bartender had to admit that he didn't know how to make either a mint julep (it was derby day) or an Aviation. I saw him send out a couple of juleps as tall drinks which made me shudder. Later, another bartender came up for a while to handle the crowd and she made some reportedly good Red Hooks for some friends, and was obviously much better than the guy we were stuck with most of the night.

A few days before that I was at Alibi for a work outing. I ordered one of their house Manhattans, and it had obviously been shaken as it arrived with an unattractive foam on top. Considering that they went to the trouble of specifying Black Maple Hill Bourbon, Dolin Sweet Vermouth, and Fee's Whiskey Barrel Bitters, I was surprised by this gaffe. The drinks were also huge and I was feeling rather intoxicated after two drinks.

On Friday I got a laugh at Bambara as I had to meet someone at the Hotel Marlowe. I asked the bartender if she knew how to make an Americano. She said yes, and I was thinking "nice". Then she comes back a couple minutes later and asks if I want milk or cream in that.

An easy mix-up, but I still thought it was hilarious. Anyway, once I specified the ingredients she made me a very nice Americano of the type I was expecting.

I realize some places are trying to cash in on the recent cocktail revival without backing it up with talented bartenders, but somehow I thought the bench would be deeper. I guess this is further evidence to stick with bartenders you know or the few places that are fully committed to a top bar program.

Personally, I will probably be sticking mostly to making cocktails at home.

Bambara Restaurant
25 Edwin H Land Blvd., Cambridge, MA 02141

10 Bosworth Street, Boston, MA 02108

Hotel Marlowe Restaurant
25 Edwin H Land Blvd, Cambridge, MA 02141

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  1. I was just noting this with a friend on Twitter. Many Boston bars have this problem: a great bar manager who is an extraordinary talent, but no lieutenants worth a damn. If you go and the good one isn't working, you might as well turn on your heel and exit.

    Apparently, the great bartenders aren't all great teachers. Our top-flight bars (like Green Street, Drink, Eastern Standard, No. 9, and Deep Ellum) have great training cultures, not just one or two studs.

    Eastern Standard
    528 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, MA 02215

    Deep Ellum Bar
    477 Cambridge St, Allston, MA 02134

    14 Replies
    1. re: MC Slim JB

      I whole heartedly agree. I enjoy cocktails at home. Most often when I am out - I tend to stick with Wine, Champagne or Beer...few bartenders can mess those up (but a few have been successful). I've had too many disappointing experiences to count.

      1. re: katidyd

        I also agree.

        I would have thought that the number of great bars would have created enough critical mass to raise the average quality of bartending in the city. I don't think it has.

        Instead we just have a handful of really good bars (Drink, Craigie, ES, No. 9), a handful of bars with decent menus without the skill to execute (Marliave, Lord Hobo, many hotel bars, and I'd also put Deep Ellum here), and the great swath of shit bars that don't know how to make an old-fashioned, and if they say they know how, they actually don't and the drink will end up with some crazy ingredient, like Sprite.

        The area bartending "schools" with their culture of no measuring and use of sour mix probably aren't helping things much either.

        1. re: DoubleMan

          I don't think any of our best bartenders attended one of those schools. They learned on the job, usually starting as bar backs, and in some cases coming into the role with no prior industry experience at all.

          While it's clear that many, many things go into being a great bartender, I would settle in most instances merely for solid technical chops and mastery of classic recipes. That base level is sadly absent at a lot of places that charge $11 and $12 for cocktails.

          1. re: DoubleMan

            Anecdotal evidence, but I recently had an Old Fashioned @ Deep Ellum that was shaken - I was taught that all it needs is a good stir...

            Deep Ellum Bar
            477 Cambridge St, Allston, MA 02134

            1. re: okra

              a little shake is somewhat common.

              1. re: ponyboy

                It may be common, but not right. Any drink that has just liquor should be stirred, a drink that adds citrus should be shaken. Simple rule to remember. Tom Slesinger-Guidelli taught me that at his cocktail course at Craigie.

                1. re: kimfair1

                  1) Old Fashioned with fruit - In your opinion, is this ok to shake?

                  2) w/o fruit - I don't mind the small shake as it gets rid of the sugar sludge on the bottom of the glass.

                  1. re: ponyboy

                    If the bartender doesn't have the time to dissolve the sugar properly with a splash of water, they should just use simple syrup.

                    And I do believe that DeepEllum muddles the orange slice and cherry (the New Fashioned Old Fashioned) unless you ask for it otherwise. In that case, it is correct to shake.


                    1. re: yarm

                      Yes, simple syrup is a smoother drink.

                      I serve an old Fashioned maybe twice a year but always muddle it and then box it by pouring from glass to canister and back.

                    2. re: ponyboy

                      I'd muddle the fruit and then stir, though shaking should be okay as well.
                      Unless the recipe specifies sugar cube (like a Sazerac), I use simple syrup to avoid the sugar sludge problem.

                    3. re: kimfair1

                      Craigie is one of those places in which the training of bartenders trickles from the top down. I've found all of their bartenders knowledgable and genuinely interested in the craft.

                2. re: DoubleMan

                  I was an instructor at Boston Bartenders School.

                  The course is very good.

                  The best quality of the school is that you get to pour a lot and master mechanics.

                  Stop watch tests are an invaluable tool in developing efficiency. When I was trained as a bartender back in '82 just about everyone had stopwatch tests.

                  Now they are a rarity as they were thought to be "too traumatic".


                  What ticks me off more than anything is seeing any bartender "fist" a bottle rather than using a "penholder' grip.

                  A lot of bartenders overpour by accident because they have no mechanical skill at all.

                  Furthermore, back in the good old, bad old days there was an intiation similiar to the one depicted in the 80's gang movie COLORS.

                  For all of the talk of craft bartending I still see bartenders let an oz. or 2 go from the tap before putting a glass under it.

                  The correct method is to have the glass/mug at about a 20 degree angle and then slowly straighten it.

                  I don't care if someone knows all of the ingredients in a Sazerac or what type of wheat goes in Hoegaarden.

                  Just pour a drink and I will be happy.

                  1. re: DoubleMan

                    Chiming in late, I was event bartending at a nightclub and bar show last year. I was working with Junior Merino, The Liquid Chef, and we were shaking to order. I made well over 1,000 cocktails that afternoon/evening. The President/Owner of a regional bar school came over and was perplexed and amazed that we were squeezing fresh citrus and using fresh ingredients. He didn't understand how we were doing it, and wondered if the cocktails were any good. He wouldn't even try them. True Story!

                    1. re: JMF

                      I believe it. Bar schools are a joke.

              2. A "huge" Manhattan is not necessarily a bad thing...

                1 Reply
                1. re: TheWizard

                  The way that bartender at Alibi poured their take on the French 75 (uses Bols Genever for the gin), it was as about as potent as an artillery cannon. It does make it seem like you are getting a better value for your $12, I will give you that.

                2. I had that shaken Manhattan nightmare in 2nd floor bar at the Liberty but upon request they cheerfully remade it stirred and even huger (is that a word?), so I think I came out OK on that - I am amazed by how many "bartenders" are just clueless about really, really basic stuff (chill the glasses, know when to stir v. shake or just ask, have at least Angostura bitters - or equivalent given reported shortage - don't rely on flavored vodka to add interest to the drinks, etc.).

                  Every place doesn't need to be at the level of Drink, ES, Green St, etc., but any self-respecting venue should be able to put together a solid martini, manhattan, negroni, dark and stormy, etc. - and every bar should have at least a basic rye if not a few choices (this one's for you, Grill 23!!). Cocktails priced at more than $10 should at least come close to what I can do at home!

                  I do have to add a shout out for Keith and Marsha at Il Casale in Belmont - their range is limited but what they serve, they do very well and their drink menu is creative in a good way. I look forward to return visits there.

                  8 Replies
                  1. re: rlh

                    Right on!

                    The great Angostura Bitters Drought of 2009 appears to be over. (Privately, I suspected it might be a hoax.)

                    Grill 23 had only one American straight rye when I was in recently, but it was a good one, the baby Saz.


                    Grill 23 & Bar
                    161 Berkeley Street, Boston, MA 02116

                    1. re: MC Slim JB

                      I've encountered a complete lack of rye at some shocking places recently - Stella and the bar at the W. I had to laugh because the W served my bourbon Manhattan in an old-school 4 oz. glass with a Luxardo cherry, so somebody in charge is paying attention to certain details...and then not stocking rye.

                      1. re: robwat36

                        Didn't I read that Sasha Petraske set up the cocktail program at the W? - would he really miss including a staple base liquor like that (though I am glad to hear Grill 23 is mending their inexplicably errant ways!)?

                        Grill 23 & Bar
                        161 Berkeley Street, Boston, MA 02116

                        1. re: rlh

                          Petraske has nothing to do with the W Lounge or whatever they're calling the lobby bar. He's overseeing the cocktail program at Descent, the downstairs speakeasy/craft cocktail bar they're supposed to be opening sometime later this year (Jan '10 was the original projected opening, but I haven't heard a peep about it lately.)


                    2. re: rlh

                      Agree with the Il Casale comment - was there recently and my wife asked for a belini - they didn't have peaches and offered her a "blood orange belini-like drink" instead that was clearly made with fresh juice and was quite good, albeit not at all a belini.

                      1. re: tdaaa

                        I had the most delicious meal ever at il Casale, but the service at the bar was probably the worst I have ever experienced, and it colors the wonderful food experience to the extent that I often bristle at the thought of going back.

                        il Casale
                        50 Leonard Street, Belmont, MA 02478

                        1. re: Small Plates

                          I have not sat at the bar, only for dinner. I was slightly dissapointed in their selection of after-dinner drinks, but managed to find something to drink anyway. In general, I find the wait-staff to be very well managed and the (table) service impeccable. I think the food is very good, but somewhat overpriced.

                          I have been ~6 times, in different company most times, yet one of the waiters has consistently recognized and greeted me every time, with clear memory of who I am. Don't ask me what HIS name is, 'cause I don't have that kind of memory. No-one would ever be recognized as a regular at my restaurant.

                          1. re: Small Plates

                            Interesting - I like the food but have found it inconsistent, and I always try to sit at the bar where the service and mixology have been solid to excellent every time (probably 7-8 visits over the course of a year) - the one time a high top in the bar area was available instead, we wished we had waited as the waitress was average at best. The hostess stand makes no impression, neither warm/welcoming or offputting (like Sorellina...).

                            1 Huntington Ave, Boston, MA 02116

                      2. The original comment has been removed
                        1. Ned, our bartender at Hungry Mother last night, whipped up a great "bartender's choice" for my friend. She wanted something citrusy, rum-based, and festive. He came up with a Club Car, which is a cousin of the side car but with rum and other things. Friend was in love and asked if she ordered it elsewhere would the bartenders typically know it. He said maybe and maybe not but that there is no excuse for bartender winging these days .. just look it up on the google..

                          Hungry Mother
                          Cambridge, MA, Cambridge, MA

                          5 Replies
                          1. re: yumyum

                            Club car sounds good, but googling it turns up no results for a drink by that name. I'm guessing it's something the bartender invented or dubbed it himself.

                            1. re: katzzz

                              By George you're right! Well, that's just silly then. The next person to sit at Ned's bar needs to torture him until we find out what he *really* served my friend!

                              1. re: yarm

                                Exactly. See what happens when I have more than one cocktail? Thanks yarm.

                                1. re: yumyum

                                  yy, if your friend enjoyed the Cable Car, have her try this one next