Over the last 15 years, Sean Kenyon has been flown to dozens of cities, states and countries. In one instance, he was even paid by a brand to crisscross Russia, guest-bartending in 16 different cities.
“My father always said, ‘Nobody ever paid me to walk across the street,’” says Kenyon, who comes from a family of bartenders and owns Williams & Graham in Denver. His father owned a bar in New Jersey, as did his father before him. “Back then,” he continues, “guest bartending was helping your friend out because they couldn’t find a bartender for that night.”
Bartending has changed. Where once bartenders were stationary, working one bar day in and day out, they are now peripatetic, flying from conference to distillery to pop-up. They are no longer anonymous grunts, unknown to all but their regulars, but are the subjects of near-constant press coverage. Some even tend bar so infrequently that the title “bartender” seems almost naïve, a misnomer. (To be clear, we’re talking about a specialized community in major markets here. For the vast majority of rank-and-file bartenders, working the dive bars and sports bars and pubs, bartending has changed very little.)
This all sounds good from one point of view. A one-dimensional job has become one offering numerous avenues of opportunity. What’s not to like? And indeed, most of the industry seems pretty happy about these shifts. “The modern bartender is no longer confined by the bar,” said Jim Meehan back in 2016 in a talk at P(our), a symposium focused on beverage culture. “You can be a bartender and not stand behind the bar all the time.”
He went on to discuss the many opportunities now afforded the successful bartender, including consulting jobs, liquor brand work, marketing, spirits production and writing. “I think it’s important as we think about the future to stop being so specific about who is a bartender and who isn’t a bartender,” he said.
One tenet of Meehan’s thesis is undeniable. The job is not the same: no argument. But is the job actually still the job? Can it be, after all these years, that the trusty old post of bartender—one of the last fail-safes of society’s square pegs—has taken up a lane in the rat race? And are these bartenders who clock in those chockablock schedules actually still bartenders? Or are they something else?
Opinions vary. For such a supposedly humble profession, the concept of what a bartender is has become a matter of some controversy.
“That word now is somehow loaded,” says Eben Freeman, who has worked behind dozens of bars, and run several celebrated programs, including those at Tailor and Genuine Liquorette. “There are people now who have moved on to be brand ambassadors and bar owners and don’t spend any time behind the bar. And yet there are some of them who want to hold on to the title ‘bartender.’ It’s sort of this blue-collar aristocrat thing.”
Charles Joly, onetime bartender at Chicago institutions like the Drawing Room and The Aviary, now spends half the year on the road judging cocktail competitions, delivering seminars on media training and serving drinks to Oscar and Emmy nominees. He has no difficulty calling himself a bartender. “Just because a musician isn’t on tour and they’re teaching music lessons, they don’t cease to be a musician,” he argues.
Others understand how the work has evolved and have changed their self-definition accordingly. Pamela Wiznitzer, who made her name at The Dead Rabbit, has worn as many hats as a bartender can. She gets why her old handle has become a hot potato. “I’ve shifted,” she says. “I used to say ‘bartender.’ I say ‘beverage consultant’ now. People resent that you use that term when you’re not actively doing that job. I’ll always be a bartender deep down inside. But as your position changes, so should the way you address yourself.”
These whither-the-bartender questions are worth considering, and not just from within the industry bubble. The public has a legitimate stake in the matter. The bartender has always been a community figure of some prominence. You could count on seeing them when you visited their place of business. And if they were also businesspeople, their chief business was in taking care of you. This they did without trouble because, for centuries, bartender was one of the most straightforward jobs out there, its occupational contours etched as clearly as that of blacksmith or cooper. True, in the 18th and 19th centuries a bartender could become a local leader, act as an impromptu banker and maybe segue into politics, as taverns were natural political meccas in early America. But if you didn’t see them behind their bar, chances are they were at home, not doing a guest shift at a pop-up a couple time zones away.
In one way, the altered nature of bar work is easily explained. It has simply followed the trajectory of the kitchen after the Food Network got its mitts on cooks and created what we now know as the celebrity chef. Wiznitzer recalled, in 2009, working in a Murray Hill bar and reading an issue of Time Out New York dedicated to what the magazine deemed were the city’s star bartenders. In that instant, she decided that her job could be a career, not just a job. She has pursued it as such ever since. “It’s 100 percent media,” says Wiznitzer. “They were able to elevate bartenders to rock-star status. It would never have happened otherwise.”
“Eighty percent of the people who work for me now want to make it a career,” says Kenyon. “That’s crazy. We used to call them lifers. Now we call them career bartenders.”
In 2000, as Kenyon saw it, his job involved showing up, putting in his shift and making people happy. That was basically it. Today, the job is often more about what happens outside the bar than behind it: tastings, meetings with distillers, seminars, conference calls, cocktail competitions, guest-bartending shifts and distillery tours. This is all done willingly and with enthusiasm. Wiznitzer remembers, early in her career, waking up every day thinking, “What can I attend? Who can I talk to? What can I read?”
Even if a young bartender just entering the business wished to hold on to their free time and not saddle themselves with outside-the-bar obligations, that may no longer be a possibility. As bartenders have fashioned themselves as multidisciplinary entrepreneurs, employers have likewise come to expect more from applicants. New restaurants and bars look for their head bartender to be media trained, connected and a presence on Instagram, all before they pour the first drink in the new joint. These broad new parameters can stigmatize those who simply want to tend bar.
“I feel it’s an awful lot of responsibility and pressure that goes on these people now,” says Freeman. “They do have those expectations or, worse, they feel others have those expectations of them. There are signifiers, that if you are not working for a brand or have a side hustle, if you are not opening up your own bar in five years, that you’re lazy or you’re just not good enough at what you do.”
For the ambitious bartender, or even the bartender who just wants to hold onto a good job, it’s true that the days of being carefree and cavalier are gone. Slackers needn’t apply. But as Joly points out, the job still attracts a certain kind of nonconformist personality. “The stage has always been there; the frame was always there,” he says. “The theater is a little different now, the play is different, but I think the characters are very much the same.”
Certainly, the play is better financed. As the song goes, money changes everything. It’s easy, from a journalist’s (and a barfly’s) point of view, to complain about the negatives that the bartending boom has brought about, from the rampant influence of corporate cash to not being able to get served by my favorite bartender because they’re on a brand trip to Oaxaca. But it would be churlish to begrudge these professionals the numerous new opportunities and securities they enjoy. Money, travel, recognition, respect—these are not bad things.
Some young bartenders are beginning to learn to not to let the industry consume their calendar and energy. Alex Jump, who used to bartender in Chattanooga and now runs the bar program at Death & Co. in Denver, has taken a few steps back, making time for things outside of the mixology mill. She believes it’s still possible to simply bartend and make a name for yourself, reasoning that if 19th-century American celebrity bartenders like Cato Alexander and Tom Bullock could swing it, so can today’s lot. “Nobody was competing for Bartender of the Year in the 1800s,” she quips.
Perhaps the best thing by far to come of this sea change for bartenders—better than the write-ups and the trips—is the least tangible: the public’s fresh perception of the job. Many bartenders still remember the sting of just a few years back of having relatives cock their head quizzically to the side when they told them there were pursuing bartending as a career. Today, that reaction has changed to excited grins and eager questions about the best bars to go to in any given city or what bourbon they should be splurging for.
Now, says Joly, “at cocktail competitions, people’s parents show up—that’s cool.”