There’s nothing quite like live performance art, and more and more I’m

There’s nothing quite like live performance art, and more and more I’m coming to realize that one of our city’s great venues is the cocktail bar. Their continued growth and popularity is one of the most exciting aspects of our civic renaissance, and the vibe in a busy cocktail bar is a singular joy. The very air carries a slight static charge: Individual voices pop against the deep thrum of conversation. Pockets of light illuminate faces: happy, furrowed in concentration, or relaxed in the way that only a sip of a long-desired and perfectly made cocktail can elicit.

There’s the moment of delight when that decision to try something new and unfamiliar pays off, the wave of unexpected flavors setting off some sort of chemical reaction that I can’t explain: I’m a drink columnist, not a neurologist, after all.

Even more than the thrill of being in a great bar, though, my real joy is in getting to observe exceptional bartenders at work. While each has a unique style, there are some commonalities in the ways they approach their task: serving hundreds of complex and challenging cocktails in as little time as possible while acting as tour guide, resident expert, and conversational companion. Watching one in the middle of a rush is like watching a painter, a tightrope walker, and a lion tamer. Except booze is involved. OK, so maybe it’s exactly the same.

At those moments of utmost chaos, a great bartender has an element of a magician at work, or maybe an apothecary: conjuring strange and mysterious ingredients, combining them in unexpected and novel ways, and maintaining a constant patter leavened with just the right amount of flair. Bottles may not be flipped in the air Tom Cruise-style, but shaken drinks have an appealing percussive beat, drinks are stirred with just-perceptible panache, and ingredients are dabbed, dripped, and decanted with precision. Each movement has a purpose, as each wasted second multiplied over an entire evening is another cocktail not made.

Classic drinks from a bygone era are recalled in an instant and either rendered with exactitude or elaborated upon with clever touches, while modern inventions are proffered to those who wish to take a voyage of discovery in a glass. Obscure bottles are placed in front of inquiring guests, thoughtful samples are offered, and each drink comes garnished with a bit of history, lore, or chemistry.

It’s a ballet in black, performed nightly for an audience whose demands are unceasing and occasionally contradictory. It’s a job that at the highest level requires years of training and a continual passion for growth and learning, and when I get to see that effort and time translated into the drink in front of me, sometimes it’s difficult no to applaud. Maybe I should.