Cocktails

A Bar Team Is Born

October 20, 2020

Story: Robert Simonson

Art: Eugene Lee

It wasn't all that long ago that bartending evolved from a highly individualistic line of work into a calling embodied by tight-knit collectives.

Over the course of his decades-long career, bartending icon Dale DeGroff has witnessed the industry change in every imaginable way.

His professional tenure began when bartending was a workaday, fairly unglamorous occupation, but he’s gone on to see the dawning and blossoming of the cocktail revolution—a revival he helped spawn during his trailblazing tenure at New York’s Rainbow Room in the 1980s and ’90s. But when a journalist recently asked the author of The Craft of the Cocktail—republished last month in an updated and expanded edition—what had been the biggest game-changer in modern bartending, he didn’t hesitate: “Bar teams.”

Today, the term is ubiquitous. The press regularly lauds the “teams” behind noteworthy restaurants and bars; since 2014, the Tales of the Cocktail convention has handed out annual awards honoring the world’s best bar teams. It makes it easy to forget that, not too long ago, the concept hardly existed. Bars had bartenders. Sometimes they worked well together, sometimes they didn’t. Bartending was viewed as an individualistic line of work, not a holistic enterprise. It was Clint Eastwood’s character “the Man with No Name,” not the cast of The Magnificent Seven. “Crowds came to see a certain bartender,” says DeGroff. “Each guy was an independent contractor.”

So, what happened? What transformed the people who worked behind any given bar from a cluster of staffers who happened to pull a paycheck from the same boss into a proud, tight-knit collective bound together by a unified vision?

In a word: everything.

Throughout most of the 20th century, bartending jobs were just that: jobs. Bartending was not, in most cases, a calling or passion. It was a means to earn a living. You typically learned your trade on the floor and not beforehand, and often worked alone. If you didn’t know how to make many drinks, you could count on a copy of Mr. Boston behind the bar. Chances are, however, you didn’t have to consult it often; customers, set in their ways and accustomed to a lack of choice, stuck to a limited number of orders. If you didn’t know what a Singapore Sling was or how to make it, no sweat. If you didn’t know one thing about the gin you put in that Sling, well, who did?

Back in the day, you didn’t need a barback unless your ass was buried. You were a one-person show, a multitasking son of a bitch. There were many a shift like that. No chance to develop a team spirit.

That all changed with the arrival of the idealistic vision and shift-by-shift reengineering of the early gurus of the cocktail revival—DeGroff and Sasha Petraske in New York; Dick Bradsell and Jonathan Downey in London; Tony Abou-Ganim in San Francisco; Murray Stenson in Seattle. Together, they instilled in everyone around them a shared curiosity about cocktail history and craft, scouring with zeal every historic cocktail manual they could lay their hands on, and doggedly pursuing consistency of product, quality of service and a more-perfect shake, stir and serve. They stubbornly dragged the rest of the industry, inch by inch, drink by drink, toward a brighter brass rail they glimpsed on the horizon.

Though many of them recall working as part of a team in the early years of their careers, the meaning of that unity evolved. “Wherever we worked, we worked as a team, but we never necessarily called it a team,” says Doug Quinn, owner of Hudson Malone in Manhattan and a bartender with more than 30 years’ experience. “There’s always been an unwritten camaraderie behind the bar.” But that camaraderie had its limits. Bartenders worked their side of the bar, had their own register, kept their own tips and curried their own regulars.

“Back in the day, you didn’t need a barback unless your ass was buried,” recalls Liz Pounds, who has worked various bars in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Los Angeles over the past 40 years. “You were a one-person show, a multitasking son of a bitch. There were many a shift like that. No chance to develop a team spirit.”

Tony Abou-Ganim got a glimpse of what a bar team might be like when he worked under manager David O’Malley at Harry Denton’s in San Francisco in the early 1990s. O’Malley picked his workers carefully and wasn’t shy about imparting trade wisdom. “It was the first time I worked with a group where it felt bigger than me just going to work and doing my shift,” says Abou-Ganim.

Will Elliott at Maison Premiere | Photo: Lizzie Munro

Still, even then, any idea of teamwork was limited to service—how to treat the customer and work a POS system, for example. There was no in-depth training on the provenance of spirits, no bible of cocktail recipes to adhere to, no overarching philosophy. In most cases, the recipe the bartender made was the one the customer specified. Beyond that, it was the era of free-pouring, not jiggers, with nary a dedicated house spec in sight.

When Abou-Ganim moved on to the Bellagio hotel and casino in Las Vegas in 1998, he was put in charge of 300 union bartenders and 25 bars. He immediately understood that the old lawless model would be a nonstarter. “We had bartenders saying, ‘This is my end of the bar, these are my machines. Don’t come over here, stay at your end of the bar,’” he says. “This wasn’t going to work. We had to have a consistent Bloody Mary recipe.” He put together a uniform drink manual, instituted a fresh juice program, and brought in experts to hold staff tastings and seminars about spirits. Each step moved the bartenders closer toward professional kinship.

Toby Maloney, whose career began in San Francisco and Chicago and then glided into legendary New York cocktail bars like Milk & Honey and Pegu Club, recalled a liminal communal spirit brewing when he worked at Grange Hall, a Greenwich Village restaurant that had an elevated cocktail program, at least by 1990s standards. “We had fresh juice and we had ideas,” he says. “I think it was a blossoming team. I don’t think we thought about it that way, but at the very least we tried to have the same quality of drink going out.”

However, it wasn’t until he was hired in 2001 by Sasha Petraske—the man whom many credit with cementing the modern concept of the bar team—that he was ever handed a list of cocktail specs. “Actual recipes!” Maloney marveled at the time. “Where drinks tasted the same—always.”

He took that experience with him when he opened Chicago’s The Violet Hour in 2007. Since there were few craft cocktail bartenders in the city at the time, he culled his opening staff based on their flair for customer service and willingness to learn a new paradigm. Maloney’s band of outsiders underwent two weeks of training before serving their first customer. “Everyone was sitting at the bar in a school-like atmosphere,” he remembers. “That helps coalesce a team.” It was a model that many other bars would follow for years to come.

In fact, by the late aughts, bar teams had become so codified in the cocktail world that easily identifiable factions quickly emerged. Maxwell Britten, who put together the admired team at the New Orleans-inspired Brooklyn bar Maison Premiere, recalled New York being divided into camps: the foundational Sasha Petraske camp; the Julie Reiner and Audrey Saunders camp; and the bartender-oriented Death & Co. camp. To these already-dedicated visions, Britten layered further concerns that extended beyond a shared drink-making philosophy. “We were resolved to make every aspect of the experience a highlight,” Britten recalls. “Everything from the décor to the hospitality, quality of wine, beer and spirits curation, raw bar, dinner menu, music and, of course, style.”

The top bars were brands now, and the bartenders were brand ambassadors. They were expected to embody all aspects of that brand “every single day,” says Britten. It’s a mentality that persists at just about every cocktail bar worth its salt, from the high-polish NoMad Hotel to the elevated Irish bar concept of Dead Rabbit to Nitecap’s haven of familial inclusivity to the carefree exuberance of the Broken Shaker.

“People who want to make it in a major city at the best bar—it’s not possible to be a part of these bars without being part of a team culture,” says bartender Jack Schramm. Schramm, 29, has known nothing but tight bar teams in his career, which has taken him from New York’s Booker and Dax to NoMad to Existing Conditions, a recent nominee of the Spirited Award for Best American Bar Team. “I think that they still exist,” he says of the egoistic gunslingers of old, “but they’ve moved onto Instagram.”

But some in the industry believe that nothing, not even a shared bar ethos, will ever completely tamp down the innate independence of the average bartender, and people-person quality that the job requires.

“Your ability to connect over those three feet of mahogany, that’s gotta be inside you already,” says DeGroff. “No bar team can teach you that.”

Lead image: Richard Boccato and Eric Alperin at Bar Clacson in Downtown LA.

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