The Bartender Knows All: Sex, Tips, and Mixes

You’ve asked and she’s answered, martini in hand.

Tender or Mixologist: What’s in a Name?

This question comes from Lynn:

What is the difference between a bartender and a “mixologist”? Is there schooling involved, or is it like calling yourself a chef?

I’m sorry, but there is no difference to those terms. And yet, like the phrase “customer service representative,” the word “mixologist” comes off like a little patch for the ego, methinks, and it annoys the hell out of me.

We find the words that describe us somehow inadequate, wanting our nouns to sound more…important. So we string nouns together in a forest-for-the-trees sort of tactic, or make up new words in the hope that maybe no one will notice we’re just a clerk, or a secretary, or, yes, a bartender.

If you work behind a counter with a bunch of bottles of liquor, you are a bartender. You tend bar. Why this is dissatisfying to some, I haven’t got a clue. It’s a lovely word, actually. “Tend” means to care for and provide. I love this word for the emphasis it places on the customer, because that is by far the most skillful, demanding, and rewarding part of the job. A gardener tends a garden, a shepherd his flock. Bartenders who refuse to call themselves such seem to be placing themselves above the word and therefore above the customer—and that I can’t abide. I understand the concept, like denoting the difference between a cook and a chef, but I’m not buying it.

Mixologist describes one who mixes things, with the -ologist implying a reference to some sort of science. Zzzzzzzzz. The word puts the emphasis on the clinical and leaves out the human, making it about the person behind the bar: one who studies mixology. Well, good for him or her. I’d rather have someone more interested in watering a thirsty me.

And “master mixologist”? Unless Yoda runs some bar somewhere I don’t know about…I tended bars for 17 years, and I can tell you I wouldn’t have the audacity to say that I mastered a goddamn thing. I’m constantly finding new recipes, techniques, and stories, and people still surprise the hell out of me on a daily basis. Master? In other professions, that implies an especially accomplished member of the profession, but oh, brother, I’d feel like a jackass just letting the word out of my mouth. I guess I was just brought up with the idea that you either show that you can walk the walk, or you don’t.

Whatever helps them sleep at night, I guess. As for judging a bartender’s level of expertise, Lynn, you know an amazing ballet dancer or basketball player when you see one, or an adept musician when you hear one, right? A great bartender is like that. They have grace in their movements and demeanor. They will make you feel engaged and welcome. They make you want to glue yourself to the stool for the rest of the night. That’s how it’s obvious who’s a master and who is not.

Are Coffee Drinks Uncool?

This question comes from John:

I watched a bartender make two coffee nudges for an older couple. He lit the sugar on the rim of the glass on fire and everything. They looked amazing, but I couldn’t bring myself to order one. Are coffee drinks cheesy? Are there coffee drinks that are OK to order, like an Irish coffee?

Coffee drinks are all right with me. Coffee is good. Booze is good. And two rights can’t make a wrong, John. Besides, what the hell do you think bartenders drink half the time? The Irish coffee is the butchest of the coffee drinks, certainly, but ask how your bartender makes it.

The traditional Irish coffee is just Irish whiskey (some bars add Baileys), a little sugar, coffee, and a float of lightly whipped cream. This is the sign of a good bar to me: The whipping cream should settle on top of the coffee drink, like the head on a beer. Beware of bars that use whipped-cream canisters, as fully whipped cream makes it difficult to get at your spiked coffee and looks ridiculous.

The minute a coffee drink starts looking like a frappuccino or an ice-cream sundae, it’s not OK. It’s not OK because some drinks are just stupid, you’re an adult, and we suffer from enough arrested development in this country that we don’t need to let it seep into our adult beverages. The Spanish coffee (Tia Maria and brandy) and coffee nudge (brandy, Kahlua, crème de cacao) walk the line with their fired sugar rims, but stop far short of silly. The presentation is the drink. If a bartender gives off a momentary flash of disappointment or exasperation when you ask for one, it’s more likely he’s just expressing his frustration about having to stop everything to do the magic trick that is your drink (not acceptable). However, many bartenders, including me, love dropping everything and making cocktail waitresses and customers wait while we get to light stuff on fire.

Don’t get wrapped up in coffee drinks with names—drink what you like with your coffee. You can tell the bartender you just want a simple coffee drink. You can just ask for brandy and coffee or dark rum and coffee with a float of cream. Done. In short, drink like an adult, not a child. There should be no question that the glass in front of you contains booze. Ever.

Accepting Free Drinks

Lori asks:

A girlfriend and I were arguing over whether it’s OK to accept a free drink from someone at a bar. It’s been a long time since I’ve been single, but I say not if you’re not interested in him. She seems to think one or two drinks are harmless. Who’s right, and what’s the right thing to do?

Get a glass of wine, turn off the Sex and the City DVD, and put on Nina Simone’s “Laziest Girl in Town.” That’s better. Now, let’s unpack this and address the typical scenarios. Assume we’re talking about strangers, and you’re not drunk already.

Scenario 1. A guy brings you a drink. Only a complete dumb-ass accepts. Remember, Ted Bundy was a really charming guy, and Rohypnol is odorless and tasteless. Seriously: For you older single ladies who quite frankly act like twice the idiots your younger counterparts do, roofies are real—and once you start to “feel kinda funny,” you have mere minutes…

Scenario 2. The bartender brings you a drink on behalf of some guy. First, the bartender is crap, full of crap, or he thinks you’re, well…easy. A good bartender always asks a lady if she’ll accept a free drink before pouring it, because it’s proper training and the right thing to do. Also, he won’t want to waste a good drink. If otherwise, reconsider your watering hole of choice, or take a good look at yourself.

Scenario 3. A guy asks if he can buy you a drink. Are you interested in him? At all? Quick: Yes or no? If no, then no, you don’t accept. Sorry, ladies, but don’t kid yourselves. A free drink comes with strings, even if just a one-to-five-minute conversation because he’s already right in front of you. If the guy’s pushy, a free drink can come with at least a string and a can of worms, too. What’s your time worth? A hell of a lot more than a $10 cocktail, I hope, so you should buy your own. A class act does not accept a drink from a guy who does not interest her. That was college.

Scenario 4. You accept one free drink from a guy, now what? Those are your worms to put back in the can, Flirty McFlirterson. Call me old-fashioned, but I just think this is a do-the-right-thing situation, and you should know the answer (again, assuming you’re not otherwise impaired). I’ve witnessed, and facilitated, thousands of these encounters. I’ve seen as many guys get a girl to go home with him because she didn’t know how to say “No, thank you” as I’ve seen guys utterly humiliated. You can bow out, sneak out, be blunt, or double down, but now you’ve got to do something. What kind of person are you? Just remember, you accepted the drink, ergo you’ve given him some vague hope of a toe in the door. So don’t be a bitch.

One drink not a big deal? On one of the only occasions I’ve ever accepted a free drink, it came from someone who is now one of my best friends. On the flip side, one of the other times I accepted a drink from someone I didn’t know—though he was a friend of a friend—it was laced. (I made it home OK, barely.) So all rules aside, anything can happen from one drink, and a bar is just a bar. You should behave in it as you would in life. My mama taught me never to take candy from strangers.

What’s With This Ice?

Paul inquires:

Is there a reason some bars use different ice in their drinks? I was recently at a bar that had cracked ice, which I found a little disgusting, and I’ve also seen crushed ice. What are the advantages of the different kinds?

As with most components of a bar, there’s a reason for using different kinds of ice, and then there’s just plain affectation. A larger frozen mass of ice leaves something frozen in your drink longer, while smaller ice cubes—shaved ice, especially—have more surface area exposed to the warmer liquid and melt more quickly. Crushed ice works best in the summer, in smaller drinks with mostly spirits and little or no mixer:an Old Fashioned, a mint julep, even a daiquiri. The shards of ice make an instant adult slushie—and water down an 80-proof spirit to a more palatable alcohol percentage.

Hand-cracked ice is disgusting, you’re right, unless you’re doing it at home for your friends. Believe me, at certain times of the evening, a bartender’s hands are two of the dang dirtiest things in a bar (that’s another column). As for further rumination on the shape of ice, this is one of those loaded questions. It’s cool if you think it’s cool. I just think it’s another reason some high-end cocktail lounges bore me, especially when it means I get my drink in a less-timely fashion. I know a bar in Chicago that prides itself on how many different kinds of ice it serves, including a long rectangle that fits in the Collins glasses. I thought this was cool for all of 10 seconds, mostly because I was sitting in a purple velvet chair with a sexy, 6-foot-high back. That chilly ice brick was mighty annoying when I tried to sip the last third of my drink. With ice, as with most things, form should follow function. The cubes that come from the remedial ice machine you see in most establishments are perfectly fine.

Dirty Martinis?

Jen wants to know:

I tried making a dirty martini at home and loved the light, salty flavor; it seemed to make the vodka taste smoother. My friend says it’s uncouth to order these in a bar. Also, does it make a difference what vodka I use?

I love the word “uncouth,” and your friend is partially right. Order whatever the hell you want at the bar, but most bartenders see the dirty martini as the mark of a drinker who can’t handle straight vodka. Dirty-martini drinkers get an immediate “person of interest” mental file from me, as they carry a better-than-average probability of becoming bad drunks, but who cares what the bartender thinks? You could just as easily say that an Old Fashioned is another way to make bourbon more palatable.

To answer the second part of your question: No. The salty brine kills any and all nuance, so go cheap. Dirty martinis make a fine way to drink hard at happy hour, when well drinks are cheapest. Just watch where you order one of these things. Bar olives usually come from a giant jar that lives in the fridge for weeks. Having grown up watching the world’s ugliest bartender dig her grimy mitts into the jar while filling the condiment tray, I never touch the stuff.

Any Etiquette to Bathroom Sex?

Ben wonders:

My girlfriend and I were finishing dinner the other night when we started to talk about sneaking off to the restroom for a quickie. We were too chicken. My question is, do people really do this, and does anyone really notice?

Sex in a restaurant bathroom, like sex on a beach (uh, sand? Ouch…) or a Guy Ritchie movie, seems pretty hot when it’s rolling through your mind, all fast cuts and good parts. But the reality is awkward, and…OK, I won’t even pretend to know why people want sexy times in the crapper. I’ve lost track of how many I’ve interrupted, and that’s not even counting co-workers. The one thing I’ve always thought?

You all really need to tip more.

I’d like to be the one to say “To each their own.” It’s so accepting, and I really want to be that person. But come on. In this case, the phrase “And it harm none” seems to supersede. I don’t get the allure. Elevators? Sure. Stairwells? Hell, yes. Toilettes? Not so much. I don’t even eat in the bathroom—my own, meticulously clean bathroom. And I can tell you that we waiters and bartenders can spot these couples 20 minutes into a meal, and we’re not turned on. OK, unless you’re really hot, but that’s long odds. Mostly we’re rochambeauing for the bathroom check after. So people, please: If you must, keep it quick and keep it clean.

Another hint: Pick a stealthy bathroom. I used to work at a now-completely razed Belltown restaurant where the women’s bathroom was cleverly around the corner and down the hall from the dining room. It had a fainting couch and a record player. The space was asking for it. Accordingly, the restaurant attracted some very savvy couples. By savvy, I mean that they ate, paid, and then made their way to their tryst as if perchance looking for a supplemental means of egress. I never, ever touched that couch.

What was the question? Right. Go with the moment if you must, but know that nobody really pays any attention, and those who are on to you aren’t turned on by you. We’re just counting the minutes. (Hint: You might want to rev it up a little first.) Gloves and sanitizer in hand.

Do Wine Glasses Really Matter?

Stan queries:

We were at dinner the other night, and ordered a bottle of wine. Our server poured it into the glasses already on the table (red-wine glasses). The couple next to us must have ordered the “right wine,” because the glasses on their table were whisked away and replaced with fancier ones far bigger than ours. Is this common? And if glasses make a difference, then why not just serve all wine with better glasses?

Oh, Stan, it’s amazing how many of the questions I get have a lot to do with restaurant practices and feeling awkward, and little to do with any desire for knowledge. The ritual you describe I find equal parts annoying, ridiculous, and shitty…

It is said that Charlie Trotter, arguably one of the greatest chefs in America, never fawns over a table of VIPs or celebrities without compensating other tables within earshot. I have witnessed this. The philosophy behind that very classy move: Never make one guest feel special at the expense of another. That just seems like common sense, no?

Welcome to the restaurant business. Many restaurants have three kinds of glasses, for sparkling, red, and white wines. Some restaurants drop cash on special bulbous “fuck you” glasses to make the people who order $300 bottles of Barolo feel maximum smugness about their purchase. Such is life. Do these glasses make a difference? Perhaps to a very small group of uptight snobs with no life. I’m not too shy to say that I’ve got a wicked smart palate, and I think not.

At home, I use Spieglau pinot noir glasses for everything ($8 each on sale). Although if I break a few more, I’m going to downshift back to snifters from Goodwill. It’s not the kind of glass that matters, just the size and shape. Glassware companies push all manner of shapes for every grape and wine imaginable, but it really just comes down to one shape for most wines.

The pinot noir glass (like a brandy snifter on stilts) makes every wine taste better—or, more accurately, brings out the flavors of every wine—because the shape of the glass collects the wine’s aromas. For some cheap wines, this isn’t an issue. Think about it: Fine cognac goes into a snifter, Old Crow a shot glass. All you need is a glass big enough and cupped enough to collect those aromas, period. Sommeliers will spin all sorts of b.s. to the contrary, but their job is to sell you stuff, including “the experience” of paying 400% more for a bottle of wine in a restaurant.

I say if you can’t afford a nice glass for everyone, than tough shit. And really, in these trying times, that restaurant should be lucky to have you as a customer. Don’t you ever, ever let anyone make you feel bad about spending your hard-earned money. Ever.

Next time, Stan, do what I do: Put on your best innocent eyes and ask the manager why you didn’t get those big glasses with your wine. Because it’s fun to watch people squirm.

Can Tap Beer Make You Sick?

Duke is curious:

The last few times I’ve had tap beer, I got sick. Someone told me it’s the lines leading from the keg—some bars don’t change them.

This is a tricky topic, just as if someone gets sick after eating out, they always blame the mussels. I know many people who won’t drink tap beer, and unfortunately there’s a certain logic to that some of the time. The problem is, the only way to know how often a bar changes their lines is to ask. So that tags you as a real winner right there. In any restaurant or bar, you can’t judge the keg system’s cleanliness by the prices on the menu. You also can’t judge it by the beer selection.

How does tap beer make you sick? Kegs are usually stored in a keg fridge, either under the counter or in the establishment’s walk-in. So sometimes when a bartender pulls a tap, the beer can be as much as 50 feet away. That’s 50 feet of tubing that needs changing on a regular basis, because tiny flotsam and jetsam can build up in the line and grow.

More than just making you sick, unclean lines affect a beer’s taste. That’s why brewpubs in our city are great about changing their lines—they want to show their product in the best light. Some restaurants, however, treat these conduits like plumbing, only paying attention to the lines when something is not right (usually a bacteria-laden clog).

My rule: If I feel a place doesn’t care about their beer or go through it very fast, I don’t drink from the tap. Regardless of a place’s image. When in doubt, I ask. And I am very wary if the bartender or manager can’t give me an immediate answer.

My wish: Beer distributors should care about their products enough to monitor and spot-check bars that carry their kegs, and I think tap lines should be part of any health inspection.

The Bartender Knows All: Sex, Tips, and Mixes