Bryant's Cocktail Lounge. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.
After a particularly satisfying cocktail early this spring, I was moved to write a piece extolling the virtues of the folks who make such drinks, and how they have come to be so treasured in our current imbibing culture. When the June issue of Esquire Magazine named Milwaukee as “Bar City of the Year,” and The New York Times noted the gin we make here is in the top 10 in the county, it seemed only appropriate to fix a sidecar at home, dust off the piece, and submit it for this next Amuse Bouche. (A note to the reader: you may want to follow suit and prepare a cocktail to enjoy while reading.)
An experience with a good bartender has always reminded me of one of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s better-known photographs. In the 1940s, he captured the image of a man leaping over a puddle, with a near-perfect inverse of the man reflected in the water below. The action in the photo evinces the stillness of the moment, a movement frozen in time. Everything was in motion, and nothing was. A little-known but salient detail about the photograph is that Cartier-Bresson snapped it through a crack in a fence, observing a world separate from his own. What do art history cliff notes have to do with bartenders? I would argue that sitting at a bar sharing a perfect rapport with a good bartender is the equivalent of this image; someone with astute perception is providing us with a look at our own reflection, in a space apart from the rest of the world.
Great bartenders have a sense of timing worthy of academic study. They hold court, listen with sincere interest to the peanut gallery, and at times move the minds of men more subversively and diplomatically than a dozen Vince Lombardis, whilst handling the thousand other moving parts of a busy bar. They know when to ask “Would you like another,” of a couple with eyes only for each other or a group of coworkers deep in shop talk, all while simultaneously mixing, pouring, tapping and attending to the needs of other patrons. Layer in waiters who descend on the drink station like a finely tuned bomber squadron, and one has a sense of the finesse, the pure presence of mind that it takes to tend a bar well.
Why has it taken so long, then, for bartenders to receive the much-deserved wave of affection and renown they seem to currently be experiencing? I trace the uptick of the cultural value of bartenders across three distinctive trends over the last 20 years:
The first trend is the resurgence of what I call the era of overbearing, fancy drinks. They arrive in large, satellite-dish-sized glasses and have names like "Cosmopolitan" and "Appletini.” To be fair, I cannot toss these overbearing, fancy drinks under too big a bus. They unquestionably offered a whole generation an entry point into cocktail culture and paved the way for the craft/classic cocktail evolution we are currently experiencing. An old acquaintance of mine who is still slinging drinks once told me that his whole industry “should write one big thank you note to Darien Starr,” the producer/creator of “Sex in the City.” All the Absolut Vodka ads in the world couldn’t do for big-flavored cocktail drinks in impossible-to-hol glassware what four fictional New York women, who fool around like men, did in just a few seasons on HBO.
The second trend is wine and its increased popularity. Robert Parker, the enthusiasts and spectators can fix the game, but they can’t pour you a glass or make a recommendation in person. The very fact that the word sommelier rolls off the tongue of so many Americans – correctly pronounced to boot – is all the evidence needed. Americans imbibing more wine over the last 20 years has brought a legion of talented wine geek types to the bar side of the service game, who otherwise might have remained investment bankers. For the record, I am not exaggerating here: That was the career path for my friend Jessica Bell.
Additionally, between the “Sex and the City” cocktail effect and the ascendancy of Americans' wine palates, more women have come into bars to drink, with a fervor greater than any diet beer called “Lite” could ever have hoped for.
The third and final trend has been the bartenders themselves. The great ones take great pride in their chosen employment path, whether or not it is a career or simply a means of keeping the lights on. Because creating the perfect cocktail is an intricate art, skilled bartenders can rightly argue that they are both professionals and crafts people. The elevation of food and drink to extraordinary national media proportions hasn't hurt either. (Thank God for that. But for the grace of Bourdain and Zimmern go I.)
In preparing for this article, I requested, through Facebook and Twitter, names of bartenders who were not only good at pouring and mixing, but had an intrinsic understanding of the humanness necessary to tend a bar (which, of course, is really tending us). There was an outpouring of adamant voices, all positive, and, dare I say, even filled with love. There were a few names that I didn’t agree with (everybody’s got off nights), and still more that I didn’t recognize. I was enlivened to see that the local bartender names called out were not just from the higher end of the drinking and dining options, but spread across the board. It was proof-positive for me of the preceding arguments and the difference a great bartender can make in people's lives. You can tap a perfect beer or mix the sharpest cocktail, but it is how you mirror the human on the other side of the bar rail that makes all the difference.
Dan Grenda and Russell at Hinterland
Margot, Charles, and Jimmy at Lake Park Bistro
Mathias Simonis at Distil
Chad Doll at The Rumpus Room
Nick and Ira of Bittercube
Katie Rose at Bryant’s and Burnhearts
Those crazy cats at The Hamilton
Jason Nue at Great Lakes Distillery
Honorable mention for Ben at Waterford Wine
Evan Barnes of Hotel Foster
Social Media Picks:
Paul Ward at County Clare
Mike Romans at Romans
Bill Castagnozzi at Coquette
Mary Oglesby at Hi Hat
Paul Kennedy at Tonic
Jimmy Biava at Von Trier
Jim and Pat Sweeney and Jim Connelly at Elsa's