Wayne Curtis' column in the current issue of The Atlantic chronicles all the strange goings-on at Grant Achatz' The Aviary, where molecular mixologists are futzing with vanilla-infused ice cubes and reverse osmosis tanks. But the Chicago bar's most radical experiment may be the sequestering of its bartenders behind mesh screens.
Americans have traditionally expected two things from their bartenders: A stiff drink and a sympathetic ear. But as craft cocktailing has become a more rigorous discipline, barkeeps have been forced to spend more time juicing oranges and less time solving their patrons' problems. It can be difficult for a bartender to maintain the concentration needed to gently smoke birch bark when he's perched behind a bar - where his fancy equipment doesn't comfortably fit anyhow.
"I tend to run my bar like a kitchen," says Trellis' John Ueding, president of the Eastside Bartenders' Association, comparing his work to what chefs do behind the scenes. "I come to work with a full roll-up bag."
Ueding likes "being able to talk to guests and put them in cocktails," but says he might prefer a more private workspace "depending on the degree of difficulty."
While customers rarely assume they have the right to approach the chef preparing their meals, many drinkers are accustomed to dealing directly with their bartenders. Eliminating personal contact has the potential to grate, as I discovered while drinking at Clive's Classic Lounge in Victoria earlier this summer.
I was at the cocktail den with my husband, who usually confines his drinking to soda and tea. But he was in an imbibing mood, so I approached the bar to request a liquor drink appropriate for a cocktail skeptic. I was told to return to my table and order from a server, as the bartender didn't speak with customers. As instructed, I explained the situation to a server - who came back with a Shirley Temple.
Asking a bartender to master the cocktail canon, control a sometimes rowdy room and engage with drinkers is perhaps asking too much. Mixing a Manhattan and enduring a customer's complaints about his wife are two very different skills. But I hope that before bartenders forever disappear behind closed doors, they'll make sure they aren't taking the bar's collective cocktail knowledge with them.