I recently began a new journey in my life—or at least a journey with a new component.
I now work as a bartender at Babe’s Bar-B-Que and Brewery in Rancho Mirage. I’m a Certified Cicerone at a restaurant with a brewery … what’s so new about it? Well, if you’ve ever been to Babe’s, you probably noticed the nice and well-stocked bar just inside the front doors. That bar makes many cocktails—but outside of the very basic (and likely unimpressive) drinks I’ve made in the past, I’ve never really professionally made cocktails before I convinced Babe’s to hire me.
In my first month, I was tossed into the fire. With the help of veteran bartenders Michele and Ryan, as well as the laminated sheets listing the ingredients of the specialty drinks (but not necessarily including the correct proportions), I was forged in the flame of customers clamoring for drinks ranging from strawberry lemonades to Manhattans. Thankfully, I’ve found it fun, and the money has been a little intoxicating—but I tend to try to excel at the things I do, and I would definitely rather the recipients of my cocktails greatly enjoy their experience.
Fortunately, I knew where to seek guidance. Kevin Carlow is usually no more than two pages away from me in the print version of the Independent, and cocktails are to him what beer styles are to me—a wealth of information and history, if you only look a little deeper (not to mention the various aromas and flavors involved). As regular readers may know, bartending is in Kevin’s blood.
“My father was a bartender in the infamous ‘Combat Zone’ of Boston in the ’80s when I was a kid,” Kevin told me. “He has a million stories about bartending for politicians, gangsters, business tycoons and other shady people. I was a chubby nerd growing up, and when I went to college, I am sure my dad was happy I wouldn’t live such a crazy existence.”
What caused the change in course? “I never considered bartending as a profession until I decided to be a writer, and my friend was opening a bar in a ski town in Northern Arizona. I figured it was a good way for an awkward guy to talk to women and get some story-writing ideas.”
I thought I’d try to cut to the front of the line, so to speak, so I asked what he wished he had known early on in his career as a bartender. “How hard of a profession it is to leave,” Kevin said. “You get hooked on the attention, the fast and hard money, the camaraderie, and— for many—substances. It’s hard on the love life, unless you’re just looking for a one-night stand.
“Also, it took me seven years to know how to balance a drink. Resources weren’t as available then. I would have wanted to know how to do that starting out.”
What might these resources for making a balanced drink be? “Aside from my column?” he replied. Could one possibly need more? “Start with Imbibe by David Wondrich and learn your cocktail history. I (also) like Difford’s Guide (diffordsguide.com), Imbibe (imbibemagazine.com), and Punch (punchdrink.com) for online resources. The first Death & Co. book is kind of a bible for a lot of bartenders. I get a lot of inspiration from Charles Baker’s Jigger, Beaker, and Glass: Drinking Around the World.
“But skip YouTube,” he added with a hint of caution. “It’s a mixed bag.”
All of this was a lot to chew on, but it was exactly the kind of thing I was looking for. So I was curious—as cliched as the questions are—what his favorite and least-favorite things about the profession were. As for the former: “I grew to love being onstage. I went from the kid with the notebook playing pool with old men at dive bars, lazily trying to write the great American novel, to the center of attention. It was a great confidence-booster! As my craft developed, it was a mix of being entertainer and wizard. I grew to love people watching my technique, and got an appreciation for how effortless effort can be mesmerizing—something I look for in other areas of life from various occupations. Also, most of my best friends I met tending bar—either as co-workers or guests.”
And the latter? “The late nights would be the easy answer,” Kevin said. Thankfully, where I work, closing time is 9.
If you happen to come to Babe’s and order a cocktail when I’m behind the bar, let me know what you think—honestly, of course. After all, I want to get good at this, and if the recipient of one of my drinks enjoys their experience, I’ve achieved success.
Meanwhile, Kevin imparted a final thought on bartending: “If you think you want to do it, do it. You will learn life skills and make life-long friends, and you’ll be part of a secret society, of sorts. You will literally never experience a night out the same way once you’re initiated. You’ll have friends in every city you visit, because we take care of each other. I don’t regret a minute of it, in retrospect.”
Never having considered these aspects of the job, I’m excited to see how it plays out in my future.