There’s a pretty funny story in The New York Times this morning, in the Business Day section, by writer Harry Hurt III, who attends a class at the New York Bartending School. The instructor, James Bumbery, is described as “tall and lean with round horn-rimmed spectacles and a dark green beret” who has “over a decade of hospitality industry experience.” Over a decade of cartoonbar_01.jpg hospitality industry experience! That’s a confidence booster! I think I would prefer to be instructed by a short guy named Guido who learned his craft in the brothels of Montevideo in the 1950s.

In any case, the article made me wonder what the criteria are for a great bartender, the kind of bartender who keeps you coming back to the same bar.

Of course a great bartender knows the recipes and techniques for preparing many cocktails and highballs, so a meticulous memory is essential, but the same quality applies to any bartender, whether great or ordinary. Any bartender should know the different glasses and garnishes appropriate for the range of cocktails and highballs; any bartender should know that cocktails with fruit juice are shaken, but cocktails without fruit juice are stirred (Are you listening?) No, there’s something more to a great bartender than merely the knowledge of the bright and gratifying panoply of cocktails and other intoxicating drinks. A chemist — or, dear god, a “mixologist” — can turn out a perfect Harvey Wallbanger.

The great bartender, on the other hand, must lightly balance a seemingly paradoxical set of qualities. He — or she, but I’ll get to this issue in a moment — must display tremendous speed and dexterity and power of focus while, at the same time, maintaining an effortless aura of congeniality and engagement that, on the other hand, must never seem too intimate, too confiding or cajoling. A bartender may be conversational, but he must never commit to a topic; a bartender may be sympathetic, but he must also be detached. The bartender is not your shrink, not your college room-mate. And in that sense, the customer must not ask too much of the bartender, must not entice the bartender to step across the line of service into the morass of servitude or, even worse, the skittish realm of Friendship.

The relationship between bartender and patron is cordial but formal; each party knows his duties and the pleasures that attend them. That’s what makes going to an excellent bar with a great bartender such a rewarding part of life.

I mentioned the issue of women bartenders. There’s no reason why women can’t be great bartenders except that most men, being congenital jerks, bounders and cads, won’t let them. Men react to and challenge women bartenders in ways that they don’t react to or challenge male bartenders, and that situation upsets what should be the comfortable dynamics of a bar. It’s rarely the fault of the female bartender; it’s usually the fault of the male patron who tries to impress her. Look, you’re not sitting in a bar to impress someone; you’re sitting in a bar to enjoy a drink, a contemplative moment, a conversation with friends. So no hitting on the bartender!

Guido wouldn’t put up with that shit for an instant.

Cartoon images from topshelfservices.com.