Tales of the Cocktail Foundation presents The Great Bar Race sponsored by GREY GOOSE® celebrates the often unrecognized acts of service and the industry professionals who execute them in a competition that puts their skills and teamwork to the test. For more information on how to enter and to attend a live event, see the Great Bar Race site.
Bartenders today are crafting a contemporary definition of hospitality, combining the mixological advances of the last two decades with a timeless emphasis on warm, genuine, human interaction. Bars that can nail this balance—technically innovative, yet intimate—are poised to establish a new golden era of nightlife.
It’s an endeavor that comes with a novel set of challenges: Modern bartenders are tasked with serving often-complex drinks at top speed to a Yelp-savvy, Instagram-obsessed clientele. The array of palates to satisfy is wider, from tiki boozehounds to sober customers seeking inventive zero-ABV drinks. And there’s no shortage of teamwork—one of the key elements of the Great Bar Race—required to ensure a seamless guest experience. Learning how to reinterpret the lessons of great service for the new landscape of craft cocktails becomes an art in and of itself.
Talking to top bartenders from across the country, it’s clear that the basics of hospitality haven’t changed much: Fundamentally, the industry is about being able to forge a connection with whomever happens to walk through the door. But the basics have evolved. The more bartenders we talked to, the clearer it became: In 2019, hospitality is not a practice but an attitude, defined by empathy, humility and a capacity to share joy.
How do you define great bar service?
Stacey Swenson, Dante, New York City: “Great bar service requires not only attentiveness but a good deal of empathy and compassion. You need to be able to put yourself in the guest’s place, [to] try to understand where they’re coming from. Sometimes a guest can’t articulate what it is they need, and it’s your job to ask questions and be patient. A good hospitality professional can make every guest feel like they’re the most important person in the room.”
Tatiana Moreno, Sweet Liberty, Miami: “Philosophically, I’m a sucker for [a bartender] I can talk shit with, not too sensitive, ready to fire off funny insults. Good banter is key. Let’s have fun and mess with each other, meanwhile sipping good drinks. Let’s have a shot or toast together. Then I’m leaving thinking of you as a friend rather than just as a person taking care of me.”
Chris Amirault, Otium, Los Angeles: “Genuinely listening to a guest with not only your ears but your whole body goes a long way. When we truly listen to someone, when we make eye contact with them, it can be quite personal. But that’s because we’re connecting; you’re in the moment with them. If you listen to your guests in this way, suddenly you can make connections that will help you personalize their experiences. When we personalize, the guests feel extremely special. That all starts with listening well.”
What represents the new standard for bar service today?
Swenson: “Newer bartenders are stepping behind bars and expecting to be stars right away. Without a little humility, it’s nearly impossible to be good at your job if you’re a front-of-house employee. Every bartender should work as a barback, a server, a backwaiter—get down on their hands and knees and clean the underbelly of a bar, plunge a sink, work a double-double. It builds some character and camaraderie in a space that won’t function without teamwork.”
Joy Figueroa, Herbs & Rye, Las Vegas: “People are bringing back the old-school bartender style. The public is no longer interested in the crazy cocktails that you may be able to create. People crave the interactions loaded with stories and experiences. The new style is the old style.”
How has service changed over the course of your career?
Swenson: “Even in high-end cocktail bars, we are seeing a shift that’s moving away from pretension and intimidating environments toward warm hospitality and inclusivity. Great, you can make a gorgeous and delicious ‘Instagrammable’ cocktail, and every glass in your bar costs a fortune. It’s OK to have pride in those things, but are you making people happy?”
Figueroa: I learned about bar service at a five-star hotel that was very scripted and what I considered elegant. Unobtrusive service was the best service. But with time, I discovered that the more I interacted, making the whole experience focused on hospitality and my guest, the more referrals and repeat guests I had.
Moreno: “I’ve noticed that we are way past having snooty, passive-aggressive bartenders that frown when asked for a vodka soda. Hallelujah! Bartending is all about connecting with people and making them feel welcomed. I love that the ‘snarky mixologist’ is out and your knowledgeable smiling bartender is back!”
Amirault: “When I started, there was an emphasis on service techniques, but not a ton of focus on hospitality. Most young bartenders try to memorize all the recipes and facts about spirits and forget that bartending is a very personal job. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve seen more bar directors and mentors focusing on hospitality as a key ingredient to that service.”
What recent bar-world changes do you hope to see catch on?
Figueroa: “The time of the one-man show that hooks you up with extra shots and acts like a superstar is in the past. True hospitality iscaring genuinely for your guest and their well-being. We’re seeing more beautiful non-alcoholic creations on bar menus across the country. A night spent with us should leave a ‘I feel good’ feeling and not a ‘I’m not going back in a while’ feeling.”
Amirault: “I love when bartenders open their own bars and are actually behind them. It sets the tone for the other bartenders there. You get to see them invite guests into their bar home. More often than not, those bartenders have impeccable hospitality and hardly have any empty seats at their bars.”