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Why aren't more bartenders up on their game?

nickls May 4, 2010 12:18 PM

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. MC Slim JB RE: nickls May 4, 2010 12:21 PM

    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
      katidyd RE: MC Slim JB May 4, 2010 12:28 PM

      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
        DoubleMan RE: katidyd May 4, 2010 12:47 PM

        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
          MC Slim JB RE: DoubleMan May 4, 2010 03:35 PM

          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
            okra RE: DoubleMan Jan 11, 2011 06:39 AM

            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
              ponyboy RE: okra Jan 11, 2011 06:51 AM

              a little shake is somewhat common.

              1. re: ponyboy
                kimfair1 RE: ponyboy Jan 11, 2011 11:30 AM

                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
                  ponyboy RE: kimfair1 Jan 11, 2011 11:44 AM

                  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
                    yarm RE: ponyboy Jan 12, 2011 03:57 PM

                    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
                      postemotional1 RE: yarm Feb 1, 2011 10:05 PM

                      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
                      kimfair1 RE: ponyboy Jan 13, 2011 08:44 AM

                      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
                      cannedmilkandfruitypebbles RE: kimfair1 Jan 13, 2011 10:40 AM

                      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
                  postemotional1 RE: DoubleMan Feb 1, 2011 10:02 PM

                  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
                    JMF RE: DoubleMan Feb 3, 2011 11:01 AM

                    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
                      invinotheresverde RE: JMF Feb 3, 2011 12:15 PM

                      I believe it. Bar schools are a joke.

              2. t
                TheWizard RE: nickls May 4, 2010 12:38 PM

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

                1 Reply
                1. re: TheWizard
                  nickls RE: TheWizard May 4, 2010 12:48 PM

                  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. rlh RE: nickls May 4, 2010 04:17 PM

                  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
                    MC Slim JB RE: rlh May 4, 2010 05:41 PM

                    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
                      robwat36 RE: MC Slim JB May 5, 2010 09:39 AM

                      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
                        rlh RE: robwat36 May 5, 2010 02:11 PM

                        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
                          MC Slim JB RE: rlh May 5, 2010 02:17 PM

                          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
                      tdaaa RE: rlh Jan 11, 2011 11:56 AM

                      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
                        Small Plates RE: tdaaa Jan 13, 2011 08:36 AM

                        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
                          tdaaa RE: Small Plates Jan 13, 2011 01:20 PM

                          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
                            rlh RE: Small Plates Jan 13, 2011 05:53 PM

                            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. yumyum RE: nickls May 5, 2010 10:25 AM

                        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
                          katzzz RE: yumyum May 6, 2010 06:45 AM

                          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
                            yumyum RE: katzzz May 6, 2010 07:08 AM

                            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!

                          2. re: yumyum
                            yarm RE: yumyum May 6, 2010 10:41 AM

                            Probably the Cable Car.


                            1. re: yarm
                              yumyum RE: yarm May 6, 2010 10:56 AM

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

                              1. re: yumyum
                                barleywino RE: yumyum May 6, 2010 01:15 PM

                                yy, if your friend enjoyed the Cable Car, have her try this one next http://cocktailvirgin.blogspot.com/20...

                          3. h
                            hargau RE: nickls May 6, 2010 02:04 AM

                            Generally speaking...I think there are certain patrons who enjoy trying to stump the bartender and somehow think they are impressing either their friends with them or the bartender with their incredible drink knowledge. So the more up on their game the bartenders are, than the more obscure the drinks the clients will search the web for to try and stump them.

                            4 Replies
                            1. re: hargau
                              MC Slim JB RE: hargau May 6, 2010 05:23 AM

                              I have to say I don't see patrons playing Stump the Bartender very often. Besides, few drinks outside of craft cocktails and authentic Tiki drinks have more than three or four ingredients, or any very obscure ones. You'd have to be daffy to try to order one of these outside the handful of places -- perhaps ten in Boston right now -- that are clearly in that business. (And watch out: some places have the trappings of craft cocktail bars but not the craft, like Post 390.)

                              It isn't really isn't hard to figure out what a place is aiming for: looking at the specialty cocktail list is usually a strong clue. If you're in a shot-and-a-beer kind of place, or a stupid-flavored-vodka-cocktails bar, you generally know. In my experience, most people have the good sense to scale their orders to a bar's style, range of spirits, and how busy the place is. In my circle, at least, getting this wrong in either direction opens you up to mockery. Nobody wants to be the guy ordering the Sazerac at Sully's, or the Bud Lite at Drink.


                              1. re: MC Slim JB
                                jgg13 RE: MC Slim JB May 6, 2010 07:32 AM

                                Drink is a place where I come closest to (non-maliciously) playing "stump the bartender", provided they're not crowded. That's the place where I feel ok saying, "So I saw this drink on cocktailvirgin ... I think they called it a Foo and it was from Bar ... I don't quite remember what was in it *exactly* but it had X, Y & Z" and let them do their thang. Perhaps they think me a dick for doing that, but in my mind that's exactly the sort of thing that they purport to do so I feel comfortable in doing that.

                                1. re: MC Slim JB
                                  rlh RE: MC Slim JB May 6, 2010 12:39 PM

                                  Also in addition to the cocktail roster or menu, if the liquor is proudly displayed and lighted as it is in SO many bars, scan it for cues as to how to gauge your order and expectations - I take the presence of items like Peychaud's bitters, orange bitters, Old Monk rum, three or more ryes, multiple styles of gin, maraschino, and choices for sweet vermouth beyond M&R as positive signs anywhere. Good ice, muddlers, and well-chilled glassware are other. Lineups of multiple flavored vodkas and rums are NOT promising.

                                  Finally, I appreciate any employee or craftsperson who takes pride in what they do, is eager to learn, and wants to do the very best they are capable of every time - I don't mind at all being asked: "what's in that?" following a (somewhat sheepish but genuine based on seeing the single village mezcal on the bar) request for something like a Oaxacan Old Fashioned - I listed my preferred ingredients and the bartender at Eastern Standard happily made me one of the finer cocktails I've had in quite a while - we both win. Not sure how likely this would be at Marliave or Woodward, unfortunately....

                                  Eastern Standard
                                  528 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, MA 02215

                                  10 Bosworth Street, Boston, MA 02108

                                2. re: hargau
                                  jgg13 RE: hargau May 6, 2010 07:30 AM

                                  I've stumped many a bartender, but never intentionally. That's just lame ... if anything, I feel like a dick when they don't know what I'm talking about, except in the few cases where they actually seem to appreciate learning a new drink.

                                  It isn't like I go up to a bartender and ask for something crazy, rather I take stock of what sort of place it is and gear my request accordingly. To the OPs point, if I was at the Marliave, a place the purports to be doing the craft/classic cocktails, I wouldn't feel weird at all asking for a relatively common concoction like the red hook, and would think poorly of the staff if they didn't know wtf I was talking about. OTOH I wouldn't go to a random beer-and-highball place around the corner and expect them to know the drink whatsoever (I *would* expect them to know how to make a jack & coke, and how to open a bottle of american light lager)

                                  10 Bosworth Street, Boston, MA 02108

                                3. hotoynoodle RE: nickls May 6, 2010 08:35 AM

                                  it's summer and my negroni conundrum once again raises its ugly head. grrrrr. 3 ingredients. equal parts. what could be simpler? yet, most often it's either wrong (hello, marliave) or i am met with a blank stare (here's looking at you, scampo.)

                                  the talent pool in boston is simply too small. most employed in the restaurant business are not lifers, nor have any intention of pursuing hospitality as a career. they are students or in some other profession that doesn;'t quite yet pay their bills. your jaw would drop if you knew how many people i have interviewed for bartending jobs who cannot name any single malt whisky or more than one kind of gin. these are people applying to high-end restaurants mind you, having worked elsewhere. supposedly. sigh.

                                  recently at the ritz, i ordered an "absolut citron, straight up, no vermouth". i had to nearly jump over the bar to stop the guy from adding sour mix, simple syrup, triple sec and/or cranberry juice to the shaker. what the what? how hard is it to chill a big ol' glass of vodka? i don't want to drink an ed hardy version of anything.

                                  sadly, i don't see this changing ever in boston.

                                  7 Replies
                                  1. re: hotoynoodle
                                    Alcachofa RE: hotoynoodle May 6, 2010 08:53 AM

                                    Scampo, which is considered an Italian restaurant, didn't know a Negroni? That's ridiculous.

                                    But in answer to the original question, "the talent pool in boston is simply too small" is not the right answer. It is not hard to get a few basics right.

                                    The correct (and sad) answer is "most people simply don't care." And that goes to the people on BOTH sides of the stick. 95% of customers order vodka "martinis" so where is the incentive for 95% of the bartenders to improve?

                                    1. re: Alcachofa
                                      hotoynoodle RE: Alcachofa May 6, 2010 09:19 AM

                                      viewing your bartending gig as a way station to your chosen profession leads many to think how they perform, or what they know and can execute, doesn't matter much., so yeah, many simply don't care. how taking pride in what you do got in the backseat i don't know. they also don't seem to realize that it's the difference between a standard tip and a big fat one.

                                      last night i watched a bartender turn a wine bottle upside down, insert the corkscrew and open it nearly all the way before righting the bottle. did he think that looked cool? thank god it wasn't my order.

                                      1. re: hotoynoodle
                                        offaly_tasty RE: hotoynoodle May 14, 2010 06:59 AM

                                        As a part-time professional, part-time bartender myself (at a long established south end restaurant), I have a couple inputs on why Boston lacks established, full time bartenders. First, unlike Manhattan, where I formerly worked, the bar schedule is fairly slim, meaning, aside from 6pm-1am, few people in this city drink at the bar. In Manhattan, the drinking schedule is more along the lines of noon-4am, which gives rise to much more earning opportunities. As such, there simply aren't enough shifts to go around to make one's living behind the bar. As such, each established cocktail bar has 1-2 full time bartenders who make it their craft, and a couple fill-ins. Hopefully, you hire fill-ins that love the craft, and try to make it work. That often does not happen. Secondly, the restaurant industry in Boston, due to the cost of liquor licenses, leads to restaurant "groups" dominating the scene. As a result, there are little to few opportunities for bartenders to receiver equity shares in new restaurants, again leading to their inability to make bartending a full time position, and the inevitable reduction of the quality. Finally, some of the best bartenders I know have realized that the real money to be made is by ripping open bud light bottles by the case at Remy's, Game On, or the Harp, and have taken their underutilized skills over to the Fenway.

                                        Game On
                                        100 Terminal St, Charlestown, MA 02129

                                        1. re: offaly_tasty
                                          MC Slim JB RE: offaly_tasty May 15, 2010 09:10 AM

                                          Very interesting, useful perspective, offaly: thanks!


                                          1. re: offaly_tasty
                                            hotoynoodle RE: offaly_tasty Sep 6, 2010 09:49 AM

                                            i was a bartender for many years here in boston and made a very fine living without an equity share. many of my friends still tend various bars and do extremely well. it's their career, they love what they do and the personal liberty that kind of job gives them in their off-work hours.

                                            over the last decade, as a beverage director and sommelier in fine dining, i have had the onus of trying to hire qualified, or at least trainable, prospects. i can't count how many applicants can't name a single malt scotch or tell me what goes into a manhattan. these are people currently employed as bartenders. it's a very shallow and disheartening pool of prospects.

                                      2. re: hotoynoodle
                                        MC Slim JB RE: hotoynoodle May 6, 2010 09:03 AM

                                        Haven't been back to the bar at Scampo lately, but early on, their bar staff made a great Negroni. Baffling how this simple drink is baffling to so many.


                                        215 Charles Street, Boston, MA 02114

                                        1. re: MC Slim JB
                                          postemotional1 RE: MC Slim JB Jan 10, 2011 02:22 PM

                                          I agree.

                                          The Negroni is a simple classic cocktail.

                                      3. r
                                        RoyRon RE: nickls May 14, 2010 01:24 PM

                                        In my opinion if a bar doesn't have a well stocked selction of whiskeys you are not going to get well made cocktails. At Eastern Standard for example, they have at least 4 or 5 different rye whiskeys and probably twice that many bourbons. Some places I have been don't stock any rye whiskeys and have no idea of what you are askingt for when you order a drink made with it. I usually judge a place on well they make an Old Fashion or a Manhatten. Both are realatively simple to make but it's amazing how many places can screw it up.

                                        Eastern Standard
                                        528 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, MA 02215

                                        3 Replies
                                        1. re: RoyRon
                                          hotoynoodle RE: RoyRon Sep 6, 2010 10:01 AM

                                          at the boston harbor hotel last night, being happily catered to by tim, one of boston's most amiable bartenders, a woman sat next to me and started asking him for all sorts of specialty ingredients and simply would not accept the cocktails he offered to devise with what he actually did have on-hand. after several go-rounds of suggestions she finally agreed to something and loved what he made. (btw, she would not accept my suggestion of a drink made with unicorn tears and leprechaun dreams.)

                                          she then blah-blahed about how disappointed she was in the offerings and why don't they have this, that and the other thing.. i tried to explain that it was a single-malt and cognac kind of bar, not a place for flirtinis and peanut butter and jelly shooters. she just got huffy and went on to tell me about the places she does frequent. happily, i doubt i'll see her again at the bhh! lol.

                                          1. re: hotoynoodle
                                            Bob Dobalina RE: hotoynoodle Sep 7, 2010 09:09 AM

                                            Well, now we're all curious...where does she frequent?

                                            1. re: Bob Dobalina
                                              robwat36 RE: Bob Dobalina Sep 7, 2010 04:04 PM

                                              Quick, somebody tell her about the peanut butter martini at Noche!

                                        2. k
                                          katzzz RE: nickls May 15, 2010 07:19 AM

                                          Several weeks ago the Improper Bostonian ran their annual Boston's Best Bartenders issue. What was telling were these "best'' bartenders' response when asked to name their personal favorite. Nine out of ten named something that would make any halfway serious cocktailian shudder. Don't get me wrong. If someone, even a bartender, says they love a Bloody Mary or a PBR, that's their prerogative; everyone's entitled to their own taste. But it's kinda like hearing a chef tell you that their favorite food on earth is a Big Mac. It does make you wonder. What was clear from the Improper feature was that most bartenders have little knowledge or interest in cocktail craft.

                                          9 Replies
                                          1. re: katzzz
                                            MC Slim JB RE: katzzz May 15, 2010 09:13 AM

                                            I've historically loathed that Improper "Best Bartenders" issue, which always seemed to feature cute female bartenders in WonderBras and their male equivalents extolling the virtues of their signature Flirtinis, but the honorees included some real talents this year. DrinkBoston.com summed it up for me: "Trina Sturm of Trina’s Starlite Lounge, Scott Marshall of Drink, Corey Bunnewith of Coppa (actually now ex-Coppa) and Ned Greene of Hungry Mother." Not your typical bar bimbo/himbo types.


                                            Hungry Mother
                                            Cambridge, MA, Cambridge, MA

                                            253 Shawmut Ave, Boston, MA 02118

                                            1. re: MC Slim JB
                                              hotoynoodle RE: MC Slim JB Sep 6, 2010 09:41 AM

                                              most often, it's a "stuff-the-ballot-box" situation and has little to do with technical chops.

                                              1. re: hotoynoodle
                                                MC Slim JB RE: hotoynoodle Sep 6, 2010 12:23 PM

                                                As I understand it, The Improper's best-of winners are selected by a panel of staffers and local industry figures; it's not a reader poll. I think they are starting to respond to the popular take that it's entirely graft-driven.


                                            2. re: katzzz
                                              yarm RE: katzzz May 18, 2010 11:26 AM

                                              I somewhat agree with this, although many times their drinks come after making a long day at work so a beer is an easy compromise.

                                              I think that their evil pranks on customers section put them in a darker light.

                                              1. re: katzzz
                                                JMF RE: katzzz Feb 3, 2011 11:14 AM

                                                Many top bartenders spend all their time experimenting and learning new recipes. So on their time off they want the opposite. When we are out letting our hair down, many of these bartenders, and I'm talking about the folks who work at top places in NYC like PDT, Death & Co. Mayahuel, Dram, 1534, Flatiron, Employees Only, Clover Club, Pegu Club, and when folks from Drink, Eastern Standard, Craigie on Main, come down to NYC, they order Picklebacks (shot of whiskey, usually Jameson's and a pickle juice shooter to follow), PBR's, and shots of Fernet Branca. (Personally I don't like shots or light beer) And if you saw the mayhem during Tales of the Cocktail...

                                                1. re: JMF
                                                  MC Slim JB RE: JMF Feb 3, 2011 11:19 AM

                                                  I'm all for that kind of no-fuss drinking some of the time, but the Pickleback is a vile invention. Crummy whiskey, terrible combination.


                                                  1. re: MC Slim JB
                                                    purple bot RE: MC Slim JB Feb 3, 2011 11:42 AM

                                                    Agree 100%. Blech!

                                                    (but, to each his own, I suppose...)

                                                    1. re: MC Slim JB
                                                      Canadian Tuxedo RE: MC Slim JB Feb 3, 2011 12:04 PM

                                                      Agree about the pickle aspect, but wouldn't call Jameson a crummy whiskey. Certainly not the most complex or interesting, but I think it has positive attributes.

                                                      But to each his own...

                                                      1. re: MC Slim JB
                                                        JMF RE: MC Slim JB Feb 4, 2011 05:29 AM

                                                        Jameson isn't a crummy whiskey, not the worlds best, but it's drinkable. The juice in a pickleback is from high quality picklemakers and it's actually pretty good. It's an aquired taste. I really hate the thought of shots and don't do them often, so when I do I usually I sip the whiskey, and the picklejuice chaser. It's a very broad spectrum of flavors.

                                                  2. n
                                                    Nonmouse RE: nickls Sep 12, 2010 05:56 AM

                                                    Personally, I'm currently looking to get back behind the bar after a few years' absence. I'm not a lifer, obviously (chemistry's my other gig), but I am passionate about cocktails and liquors. One issue I've seen, that I believe negatively affects the talent pool in Boston, is that the majority of restaurants aren't willing to actually _pay_ bartenders. When I lived (and bartended) in Denver- over ten years ago- $4-$5/hour (plus tips, of course) was the low end- $7-$10 was more common (a quick peek at denver.craigslist.org shows this to still be the case).

                                                    $2.63 seems to be the going rate around town. The few places I've seen that advertise a higher base wage are way the hell and gone in the boonies or/and are at a bar with "lots of locals" and a Keno machine. Also, both looking at the ads, and based upon the questions I've fielded, many managers/owners are more concerned with whether or not one has a TIPS certificate (which, FFS, takes an hour and $40 to get online- it's a seriously low hurdle) and a car than about any kind of liquor knowledge. And, of course, how attractive the applicant is (at least from the number of ads asking for a photo with the resume). The few times I've been quizzed about actual _bar_ knowledge, it's been very, very basic wine knowledge, or, of course, syrupy "martinis".

                                                    Boston restaurateurs have, at least to an extent, caused the shortage of skilled bartenders themselves. (Of course, the abysmally low overall standard of service in Boston restaurants probably has something to do with it as well...)

                                                    11 Replies
                                                    1. re: Nonmouse
                                                      robwat36 RE: Nonmouse Sep 13, 2010 04:05 PM

                                                      Not to take us off topic, but the "abysmally low overall standard" thing is one of those things that I hear someone say and wonder if they're only eating at, like, Thomas Keller restaurants when they travel. It's certainly true in some cases, but also really not fair to plenty of places around town. Maybe I'm just careful about where I eat.

                                                      1. re: robwat36
                                                        MC Slim JB RE: robwat36 Sep 13, 2010 06:47 PM

                                                        Hmm, I experience the occasional bout of bad service here, but mostly I find it's adequate to pretty good, and some places are consistently excellent. (I think Barbara Lynch's restaurants are terrific on this score, whatever else you think about them.)

                                                        Anecdotally speaking, let me go over the last few fine-dining dinners I've been to most recently: very good, if a little excessively detailed; off to a terribly slow start (I had to go fetch someone to take care of us after being ignored for about 15 minutes, likely a coverage error) but then fine; excellent; solid; excellent; excellent; extraordinary; good.

                                                        I guess I'm not feeling the "abysmal" thing, either.


                                                        1. re: MC Slim JB
                                                          Nonmouse RE: MC Slim JB Sep 14, 2010 10:30 PM

                                                          IM(NS)HO and experience, Boston _does_ have terrible service, overall. There are certainly exceptions to this, but the average is way, way down from LA, Denver, New York or even San Diego or Portland, Maine. It actually most reminds me of Boulder, Colorado- an excessively casual attitude, often paired with "stand and model" servers, to the point where actually serving the customer gets lost in the shuffle.

                                                          Again, in my experience, very few restaurants have staffs that are alert and proactive, or even reactive. I can't count the number of times I've sat with an empty drink glass or completed course plates before a server or busser finally noticed and refreshed or removed them. Higher end restaurants do not seem to do any better- if anything, I'd say that they are somewhat worse than moderately priced joints.

                                                          Seriously, the service is just _bad_ in Boston- _on average_. Just about anyone that's traveled much will admit to this. There are certainly exceptions to this- but the point is that they_are_ exceptions. One _does_ have to be "careful about where [one] eat[s]".

                                                          1. re: Nonmouse
                                                            Alcachofa RE: Nonmouse Sep 15, 2010 04:31 AM

                                                            Wow. Sucks to be you, I guess.

                                                            1. re: Nonmouse
                                                              MC Slim JB RE: Nonmouse Sep 15, 2010 05:00 AM

                                                              I travel pretty steadily for my job, mostly around the US these days. I'd agree that I tend to get better service in NY, but I'd call it the best restaurant town in the country, and despite that, I've had some pretty comically bad service experiences there.

                                                              The service culture in LA , Denver, and San Diego, for instance, has not struck me as extraordinary. LA certainly has plenty of places staffed by "stand and model" servers. (I'm not that enamored of it for fine dining, period, think it's much more interesting on the low end.)

                                                              Portland, ME is an interesting example, a great little restaurant town, but the sample size is awfully small there: what, maybe a tenth of Boston? Are there 20 restaurants where you could spend much more than $50/head on dinner?

                                                              In any event, I know that finding and training good FoH staff is a major challenge for GMs here, and so I'll concede that there is an issue with our having less of a professional class of servers here than elsewhere, the kind of seasoned pros that staff the top two tiers of places in cities like NY, SF and Chicago. There are probably more folks here who get in and out for a couple of years, late undergrads and grad student types, and that's not long enough to develop real polish nor reflect any commitment to the craft of serving.

                                                              Regardless, my anecdotal experience here is not as dire as yours.


                                                              1. re: Nonmouse
                                                                Bob Dobalina RE: Nonmouse Sep 15, 2010 08:02 AM

                                                                Maybe my view is skewed by going much more often to Cambridge/Somerville places, but the serving seems pretty good to me, with the clueless grad student type rarely sprinkled in here or there. I have recently dined at Pescatore, Highland Kitchen, Posto, Pomodoro (Brookline) - all seemed perfectly fine to me.

                                                                Would really be curious to know which places you have sampled, Nonmouse, not because I doubt your experience, but to better understand it.

                                                                1. re: Nonmouse
                                                                  robwat36 RE: Nonmouse Sep 15, 2010 09:57 AM

                                                                  Conversations like this are pretty useless without specifics. I tend to frequent mid-range places, and I would say that my service experiences during my most recent New York trip (Momofuku Ssam Bar, Pulino's, Prime Meats) weren't above anything I've had recently at the Gallows or Hungry Mother or Sportello.

                                                                  And isn't being careful about where you eat kind of the point of Chowhound?

                                                                  Hungry Mother
                                                                  Cambridge, MA, Cambridge, MA

                                                                  348 Congress Street, Boston, MA 02110

                                                                  1. re: robwat36
                                                                    cambridgedoctpr RE: robwat36 Sep 15, 2010 10:29 AM

                                                                    i recently at at Daniel and Corton in NYC and Craigie and Rialto here in Cambridge. I thought that the service was just fine in all of these places. But then again, i thought that the service was fine at Golden Garden and Sichuan Gourmet. If the food is good and served when it is ready, I rarely have much to complain about.

                                                                    Sichuan Gourmet
                                                                    1004 Beacon St, Brookline, MA 02446

                                                                    Golden Garden
                                                                    63 Concord Ave, Belmont, MA 02478

                                                                2. re: MC Slim JB
                                                                  postemotional1 RE: MC Slim JB Jan 10, 2011 02:26 PM

                                                                  Service is as good as it needs to be.

                                                                  Most guests tip on a percentage.

                                                                  The effect of this is to enable less than stellar service on the higher price points.

                                                                  Sometimes lower price points compel servers to hustle harder for their dollar in an attempt to raise the % on a relatively low check.

                                                                  1. re: postemotional1
                                                                    hotoynoodle RE: postemotional1 Jan 11, 2011 05:00 AM

                                                                    "The effect of this is to enable less than stellar service on the higher price points."


                                                                    sorry, but at nearly every pre-meal what gets pounded into staff's heads is, "at this price point, everything better be perfect." at over $100 pp, diners do not tolerate dropped balls very well. nor should they. managers hear about it directly during service, via e-mail or phone after the fact and on the comments section of opentable. as well as boards like this.

                                                                    i can't imagine your perception that higher checks allow for slacking.

                                                                    1. re: hotoynoodle
                                                                      postemotional1 RE: hotoynoodle Jan 18, 2011 11:54 PM

                                                                      I have heard many and given a few pre-meals.

                                                                      I have heard many, many times at lower-priced places the phrase "with our prices we have to hustle to improve the perception of us as low quality by hustling even more."

                                                                      Slacking is not "allowed" but it is enabled.

                                                                      Venues at lower price points do not have the means or the inclination to foster slacking.

                                                                      My perception is one of a 52 year old who started out as dishwaher's helper and tends bar right now.

                                                                      I have worked for 3 companies in hospitality spotting.

                                                                      I enjoyed your post.

                                                                      I stand by my remarks.

                                                            2. s
                                                              stircrazy RE: nickls Jan 11, 2011 11:56 AM

                                                              It's true, and frustrating. But, I agree there are some great places and excellent bartenders around town. For me, knowing how to make a classic proper cocktail is key; knowing how to invent something perfectly blended and balanced on the spot is even more interesting. Beyond the usual suspects, go see Matt at Aquitaine. He's there most nights and is one of the of the best I've seen ever, anywhere, probably because he really understands food and flavor. Union is also pretty reliable on most nights.

                                                              1 Reply
                                                              1. re: stircrazy
                                                                yarm RE: stircrazy Jan 12, 2011 03:58 PM

                                                                I know Lauren Clarke of DrinkBoston speaks highly of Matt. I haven't made it down that way yet...

                                                              2. hotoynoodle RE: nickls Jan 13, 2011 11:31 AM

                                                                the seaport area will have 4 giant restaurants opening around april. all of which will be over 200 seats. that means several dozen bartenders.

                                                                will be curious to see how many bad pennies that i have fired will turn up? cuz i know they will. i've seen them at towne and back bay social club, lol, and most of them washed out of those places after a short stint.

                                                                1 Reply
                                                                1. re: hotoynoodle
                                                                  postemotional1 RE: hotoynoodle Jan 18, 2011 11:56 PM

                                                                  On this point I agree.

                                                                  I will offer that sometimes it just isn't a good fit.

                                                                  Horses for courses...antipasto?

                                                                2. JMF RE: nickls Feb 5, 2011 11:07 AM

                                                                  I would expect things to get better over the next few years. The US Bartenders Guild is picking up speed with its Boston chapter. Once they start recruiting and setting up a mentor program, quality bartending should spread rapidly.

                                                                  Here in the NY chapter we are working very hard on setting up several educational events a month. I'll probably be chair of the educational committee and am working with the membership/recruitment committee to set up a rock solid mentoring program with bartenders who want to pick up their game, and also to expose bartenders from lower level bars to the high level bartending.

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