My Experience as a Bartender

Has it really been three weeks since I posted last? I’m sorry dear internet.

Life has been hectic. In addition to my day job, I’m spinning off a division to do a hardware cooking project, and I’ve been bartending two nights a week at the tavern by my house. I’ll stick to the alcohol-related aspect since this blog isn’t called cookwaregeni.us.

I’m proud to say I’ve been able to make a bit of a difference at the bar. It was in really good shape before I got there, so I’m far from claiming it’s succeeding because of me. It’s doing well because Todd, the owner, is awesome. It already had one of the better liquor selections in the area before I even got there. The owner has a whole half of the bar dedicated to whiskey. It’s what I’d call an upscale neighborhood bar, and it’s probably got 50 scotches/bourbons/miscellaneous whiskeys. Todd’s a beer guy, so it has a great craft beer selection too.

There were a few glaring omissions. It didn’t have the really good cheap whiskies. No Old Grand-Dad 100, no Old Overholt. No Four Roses Yellow. The only ryes were Bulleit and Michters, both of which are mediocre and not worth the money in my opinion. (To be fair, the state of Ohio is liquor controlled and has a pretty shitty rye selection. Rittenhouse isn’t even available here!) It was using Maker’s Mark as the default whiskey for things like Old Fashioneds and Manhattans. Maker’s Mark is definitely not a bad bourbon, it’s just a waste of money from a bar’s perspective because it costs more than better ones. That’s death to a bar’s margin. An Old Overholt Manhattan is better and costs much less, so you can either charge a higher markup or sell it for less, or split the difference and do a little of both. I think my default bourbon would be something like Four Roses Yellow or Buffalo Trace, both of which are cheaper and better than Maker’s, and then I’d tack on a small upcharge for those who want the more expensive stuff.

Here’s some math fo yo asses:

Maker’s Mark (cost per fl. oz., wholesale): $0.89

Buffalo Trace: (cost per fl. oz., wholesale): $0.73

Old Overholt: $0.47

Now let’s say we use 2.5 oz whiskey and 1 oz. Carpano Antica (which is 88 cents an oz.) Here are our pour costs:

Maker’s: $0.89 * 2.5 + $0.88 = $3.11

Buffalo Trace: $0.73 * 2.5 + $0.88 = $2.71

Old Overholt: $0.47 * 2.5 + $0.88 = $2.06

Now let’s say we’re aiming for a 25% pour cost. We get a sale price of:

Maker’s: $12.44

Buffalo Trace: $10.84

Overholt: $8.24

See the difference? You can’t sell Manhattans for $12 here. You end up selling them for $9 and getting a pour cost of 35%! And it’d be worth doing if the Maker’s was better, but it’s actually inferior. (You could skimp on the vermouth, but I wouldn’t because your product will just suffer too much from it. I’d rather have a cheap whiskey and good vermouth than the other way around.)

Todd was already using great sweet vermouth before I got there (Carpano Antica makes me smile) and had already ordered Luxardo cherries too. They came in right after I started, and I’ve only ever used the neon corn syrup ones for people who order a pineapple upside down cake or a “martini” and just want something sweet and fruity.

My contribution has been mostly to the cocktail side. I’ve stocked us with a few sorely needed mixers, like Campari and Chartreuse. I added a number of cocktails to the menu, some of which people seem to love. Boulevardiers are especially popular. I’ve been making people Gold Rushes and Penicillins and they seem to love them so they’ll be on there next. I make a lot of people a proper Manhattan (our old one was anything but) and they come back for them. A Manhattan is one of those drinks that a large number of people just go ape shit for if they’re done well. I won’t lie, I’ve ordered 1,000 of them myself. The other bartenders there just don’t make them right, though I’ve gotten a couple to switch. The default Manhattan is on the rocks with a float of Luxardo. Once, before I worked there, he even dumped some of the corn syrup juice from the neon cherries on top. I honestly almost never went back, and when I did I just drank straight whiskey or beer because of that.

I got Todd to get a few of the better cheap liquors to use. We now have Beefeater Gin (better than Tanqueray and much cheaper), Old Overholt, and Old Grand-Dad 100. We use Tito’s Vodka, which is twice the price of Sobieski and of basically equal quality, but Tito’s has better marketing, and people who drink vodka are suckers for that. I’d bet anything they couldn’t tell the difference in a blind taste test, but they all think Tito’s is better, so that one might actually be worth it.

I’ve also gotten a couple high-end products in there that I’m proud of. Chartreuse, Benedictine, and Plymouth Gin, for instance. Plymouth gin has made our French 75’s so popular. I even got him to upgrade his dry vermouth too, so I can make a killer martini.

One of my main frustrations with the bar at this point is that it’s just not well-designed for doing cocktails in volume. We don’t juice citrus ahead of time (though I’ve got a couple of the other bartenders doing it on weekends) so hand-juicing every Moscow Mule (still our most popular drink) to order slows us down greatly. We don’t have a speed rail. The bitters for some reason are perplexingly far from where we make the cocktails, as are the dump sink and coupes, so every drink requires a ton of walking. I realize it’s not really a cocktail bar, so it’s not of dire importance. I’d say more people order a beer than anything else. So unless it’s a busy night it rarely matters. But when you do get slammed and you get a few cocktail orders wait times get much longer than they should be and I really hate that. I’ve heard customers complain, and have thought that myself when I was just a customer.

Outside of cocktails though, Todd, does a really great job with the place. He’s really a great bar owner. My experience with bar owners is that most of them are either idiots or alcoholics, and a lot of them are both. Todd is neither. He’s a really smart guy. His day job is teaching math at a local community college, so he’s to this day the only bar owner in the area who could actually answer when I asked him what his pour cost was. (He has a spreadsheet very much like mine with everything in it.) You’d be shocked how many bar owners have answered me with “I’d like to know but I don’t know how to figure that out.” Seriously, they just price their drinks based on what they think is competitive with other bars and hope they make enough off of it.

Todd’s also great at the soft skills. Far better than me actually. It’s something I’m trying to learn from him. He’s put together a team of good bartenders and is very trusting. He’s great with the customers. He comes in and shakes hands and everyone knows and likes him. He’s a beer guy, and has a good selection of 30 or so craft beers. And like I said, maybe the best whiskey selection in town.

He had a bunch of wine when I got there but was already in the process of paring it down. The bar had previously been a wine bar, so when he bought it 2.5 years ago people would still come in and ask for it. But as time went on and the crowd changed, it became just inventory that sat around. He’d originally had a number sold by the glass, but waste made him cut that down quickly. He greatly reduced the list to just a few by-the-glass selections and a dozen or so bottles. It’s just enough that someone in a wine mood can find something, especially if they are willing to get a whole bottle, but not enough that he’s got a bunch of money tied up and sitting on a shelf. I think that for a bar, wine has to be a major focus or something you have very little of, anything in between is just a money sink. 

Another thing I’ve learned from Todd is it’s just as important what you don’t have. There’s a very ghetto bar in the same plaza as ours. Our crowd is very much a 40’s and 50’s professional one, despite the crowd next door being the opposite. Just last weekend I saw six girls kicking the shit out of one outside their bar, followed by two police cruisers and ambulances.

We don’t have that problem at all and it’s because everything Todd has done to get a certain type of person in and keep a certain type of person out. (And that isn’t code for something racist, by the way, we have a crowd that I’d say is roughly as diverse as the city.)  Everything from what’s on TV to what cheap beers we don’t have (Corona, PBR, etc.), what the cheap beers we do have cost ($1 more than next door for a Bud Light), the decor, the lack of cheap brandies, the lack of Red Bull (to keep out the douchey 20 somethings who just want to get blitzed), the music, the nice clean bathrooms, etc. It’s all calculated for a target audience and done very well.

Crowd control is entirely atmosphere .Todd’s a smart guy (which for a bar owner makes him fucking Einstein) and every detail is thought through. I’ve learned a lot from working there that’ll apply when I open my bar. Which might be soon. I’m going to start looking for spaces this week. It’s time. I’m so tired of staring at a computer all day.

One neat thing about our bar: I’ve met a lot of other current and former bar owners. It’s been interesting. Some of the former bar owners tell me I can’t make any real money at it, which is what Peter Drucker would call a limiting belief. I’ve met people who make 7 figures in the bar game. Actually I’m pretty sure Todd is going to get to making six figures off of ours eventually. And he’ll probably expand. In a few years’ time he’ll be making a really good living I think, and he’ll have earned it.

There’s a bar in Cleveland that charges $18/drink and has a line out the door every weekend (and many a weekday) night. Seriously, Cleveland, Ohio has a bar that charges $18 and can’t accommodate everyone. Aviary doesn’t charge that. Death and Co doesn’t charge that, and neither does PDT. Booker and Dax doesn’t get $18 a drink and theirs went through a centrifuge. When someone tells you “you can’t make money at [x]” what they really mean is “I can’t make money at [x].” If there’s one thing I’ve historically been good at it’s making money.

So anyway, that’s been my experience so far. I hope to keep improving. I’m not yet what I would call a great bartender. I know the proper way to make a drink, which is shockingly rare given how easy it is and how much information is available. Read a few books and troll /r/cocktails for a bit and you’re there. I’ve got a library of classic cocktails and originals I’ve come up with over the year that kick ass. But I’ve still got much to learn about making cocktails at scale. I’ve got a lot to learn about the soft skills (but at least I have a great mentor there). I’ve gotten to see the many decisions Todd has made, most good, a few bad. If I can be even close to as good as him, plus with my knowledge of cocktails, I’ll do kill.

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