What Does Mise en Place Mean in Cocktail Bars?

Increasingly complicated cocktails require increasingly complicated preparation behind the bar. Carey Jones takes a look at how bartenders have borrowed the concept of mise en place from chefs and clubs to speed things up—and keep them in place.

mise en place negronis

It’s a principle that has long governed the workings of restaurant kitchens, treated with respect bordering on reverence: mise en place. Translated as “put in place,” it refers to a kitchen’s setup—laying out ingredients and tools for service, consistently arranged. A cook should know that the chopped garlic is next to the ginger, and should be able to reach for either without looking.

So too behind the bar, where orders come in just as quickly and precision is just as key. But the physical aspect is only half the story. Notions of structure and consistency are equally as important in a bartender’s mindset—or mental mise en place. In other words, mixing intricate drinks at top speed is part of it; projecting a sense of control, chatting with two regulars and keeping an eye on that lush in the corner is another.

Every bar, whether serving Jack and Cokes or $16 cocktails, has structure to its setup. In fact, the very concept of a well is a nod to mise en place: Stash your most-used bottles where they’re easiest to grab. But as cocktails get more elaborate, so does the setup behind the bar—from 20 garnish options to to keeping 40 cocktail recipes, or more, straight. And as running a craft cocktail bar increasingly depends on these elaborate systems of organization, bartenders have come to revere discipline as not only a sign of true professionalism, but cultural capital in the bar world.

Mise en place, as practiced behind today’s bar, has two clear influences. Increasingly, craft cocktail bars take inspiration from the kitchen, in methods of preparing and organizing innumerable ingredients and even—in the case of Chicago’s Aviary—hiring an expeditor. But the structure and layout required for knocking out drink after drink predates the craft cocktail renaissance.

A common complaint in the industry today is that complex drinks can take an inordinate amount of time to make, enough to frustrate a guest at the bar and dissuade her from returning. But as the craft cocktail movement continues to come into its own, bars are thinking critically about how to speed up the process. Having a successful bar, by today’s standards, isn’t just about making good drinks.

TJ Lynch, of Mother’s Ruin in New York, got his start at underground house music clubs in Baltimore. And while his drinks today are more sophisticated, the fundamentals of bartending, he says, haven’t changed. “Swapping out ingredients to make a more intricate drink—that’s the easy part. The mechanics are the same. It’s about efficiency of movement and prioritizing.”

Efficient movement requires literal mise en place, trusting that all things are in place and work can proceed as fluidly as possible—whether that means color-coding juices with electrical tape, storing beers label-out or alphabetizing your bitters. This is inextricably linked to a sense of mental mise en place; only when the environment is under control can a bartender maintain internal calm and clarity. So, how does one develop mental mise en place in an environment that’s inherently chaotic?

For Erick Castro of Boilermaker in New York City and Polite Provisions in San Diego, it’s about having the discipline to never deviate from your workflow. If a ticket with multiple drinks comes in, he lines up shakers in a consistent order and pours ingredients in the same order: juices, syrups, cordials, spirits. “So if someone’s waving at me, Hey Erick, I can’t find my credit card, I can deal with that situation and know where I am when I come back.”

The more ironclad each routine, the more a bartender can interact with guests. “You need to have the discipline to build those habits when it’s slow,” he says, not when it’s busy. “Too many guys get sloppy when it’s slow, and think It doesn’t matter, I’ll do everything right when it picks up. But then you don’t have the muscle memory, and you can’t get in the right frame of mind.”

A common complaint in the industry today is that complex drinks can take an inordinate amount of time to make, enough to frustrate a guest at the bar and dissuade her from returning. But as the craft cocktail movement continues to come into its own, bars are thinking critically about how to speed up the process. Having a successful bar, by today’s standards, isn’t just about making good drinks.

There’s no clearer example of this than the Dead Rabbit in Manhattan, which has more than 72 drinks on its list at any given time and devotes a great deal of energy to bar setup. “The way the bar tools hang, the lineup of bottles—everything has a place,” says Pam Wiznitzer, one of Dead Rabbit’s original bartenders. “For one bartender, there are 180 or 190 bottles you can touch. But it doesn’t seem like that many because it’s done with such a smart method.” Tinctures and modifiers are arranged in alphabetical order; tool placement is standardized down to the angle each barspoon tilts in its jar. While many bars would find this overkill, the Dead Rabbit wears its anal retentiveness as a badge of honor.

Perhaps the only bar in the country that rivals Dead Rabbit in the complexity of its mise en place is Aviary in Chicago, from Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas, also behind acclaimed restaurants Alinea and Next. “We have five stations set up, like stations in a kitchen, and everything you need is right there: all your mixers, any ice, herbs, garnishes you need,” says Aviary’s head bartender, Charles Joly. Aviary also employs an expeditor, someone who, in a kitchen, is charged with calling out orders, keeping the workflow running smoothly and helping pull together the final product—a common role in a restaurant that’s all but unheard of in a bar.

Like its four-star sister venue restaurants, Aviary clearly aspires to be a four-star bar: exacting in its standards, imaginative in its cocktails, limited in its volume. The notion of a four-star bar, and the notion of a truly high-volume sophisticated cocktail bar, like Dead Rabbit, are still relatively new ones. But while they’re superficially dissimilar, in both cases mise en place enables them to achieve these goals.

What’s more, the craftsmanship of today’s cocktails—the cheflike aspect of what bartenders do—has helped outsiders see the bar world as a professional place. And though the term “mixologist” makes some cringe, its purpose is clear: to distinguish accomplished career bartenders from amateur drink-slingers. But equally important is a tightly run ship that succeeds in hospitality as much as in mixology, building on the legacy of well-run bars that predate the cocktail boom. “Being a good bartender today is about being well-rounded,” says Lynch. “The mixology world and, well, the normal bartending world are finally coming together.”

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  • josh

    Mise en place has been practiced in every bar ever. Cocktail or not.