LIFE BEHIND BARS THE BAR

RICHARD EHRLICH'S beverage REPORT
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The Independent Culture
It's my big night, and I am prepared for it. Sensible shoes. Swiss Army Knife in my trouser pocket. Gary Reagan's Bartender's Bible under my arm. Yes, it's my first night as a bartender.

I figure that bartenders will become as trendy as chefs. And face it, everyone wants to be a chef. That is, they want to watch chefs on TV, buy their books, and hallucinate (after a few drinks) about being able to cook like Rick or Gary. Chefs have the high-glamour image once accorded to lead guitarists.

So why, I wonder, why shouldn't bartenders be next? They're in the catering biz: they're cool, young and immensely skilled; they perform a kind of theatre. And what they do, they do far better than the folks at home.

Convinced that I had a ground-floor idea here, I considered enrolling at the London Academy of Bar-tending (0171 580 2828). Learning on the job seemed a better idea, so I rang mix-master Dick Bradsell of London's ultra-cool Detroit (35 Earlham Street, London WC2). What Bradsell doesn't know about cocktails is not worth knowing. He seemed the perfect tutor.

"Dick", I said, "I want to learn how to be a bartender."

To my astonishment, no laughter sounded down the line. Dick told me to come on a Tuesday night, which is not one of the busiest. Armed with my accoutrements, I rode the Tube with a head full of fantasies. Shmoozing with the regulars. Performing incredible feats with a cocktail shaker. Perhaps inventing and naming my own cocktail. Splendour in the Glass? Pineapple Paradise Regain-ed? Ehrlich's Energiser?

When Dick started talking, my dreams quickly evaporated. The first thing he'd do if I were a real beginner, he told me, was teach me how to use the till. Then he'd find out whether I knew how to wash and polish glasses, since that's what I'd be doing for my first month on the job. (Some aspirants fade away at this point.) If I made the grade, and showed the necessary social skills, after a while I'd be allowed to open bottles of beer. Maybe even pour them into glasses. Along the way I'd learn basic rules: no smoking, no drinking, no touching my hair or face. Watch all the time, never be still, clear away glasses, wipe spills, check ice. Put things back where you found them. Learn to spot trouble before it happens.

That would all come with my education in bartending. And after a couple of months, he'd train me to become a cocktail bartender. The distinction is an important one.

At around seven, I was furiously taking notes when in walked in my first lesson in the art of trouble spotting. Eight suits, and all of them pin-striped. One slapped down a credit card and ordered a round of Labatt's Ice beers. "Eight Labatt's", replied Dick. (That's another rule: repeat the order back to the customer.) Then he turned to get the bottles and whispered, "we're going to hate him, but we have to love him." What did this mean?

Within 20 minutes, all became clear. Another round of beers followed, and then a round of Lemondrops (a shooter based on Absolut Citron vodka). More beers. More Lemondrops. Marga-ritas. Bottles started breaking. Voices got louder. The staff developed worried looks. I expected to see a few lunches deposited in the ashtrays.

"It's always the suits," Dick said later. "They're the ones who cause trouble." The no-suit policies of some of London's trendier bars began to make sense. A place called Riki-Tik acquired instant fame when it turned away Quentin Tarantino for wearing a suit. Maybe they thought he'd whip out a '45 after sinking a few Lemondrops.

While keeping an eye on the Suits Behaving Emetically, and helping barman Bill De hOra when things got busy, Dick instructed me in one of the basic skills, measuring. Measures are a big deal in bartending for legal, economic and psychological reasons. When you're serving shots or mixed drinks, you must give no less than the legal measures (25ml). Some-what surprisingly, you're also forbidden to give anything more (something to do with drink- driving: they don't want over-the-limit drivers pleading innocence because they thought they were drinking ordinary measures).

The economic importance of measuring is obvious. Bars make money selling drinks, and the more they put in each one, the less money they make. Careful measuring is one way round this, but it's time-consuming and lacks theatricality. Bartenders learn to measure by counting instead. Dick showed me how. For a double measure (which is all they serve at Detroit), you count 1-2-2- 1-2. The bottle has to be turned straight down for this to work. Dick emptied a bottle of Wyborowa (the house vodka), filled it with water, and let me practise while he attended to business.

Reader, I blew it. My first 10 tries were short, the next 10 slopped all over the bar. I emptied my 50ml into a large water glass after each failure, and since the glass filled up, I drained it as I went along. After a few glasses I noticed a woman watching me. She looked alarmed, and with reason: what she saw was a guy pouring clear liquid from a vodka bottle then drinking it by the half-pint. I grinned at her as if to say, "Don't worry, it's just water". She looked away, and left soon after.

At Detroit measuring is done accurately and honestly. Other places use cheater's tricks. Dick showed me a few. In a mixed drink, like a G&T, the bartender might pour gin over the ice, squirt in the tonic, then add gin to top up. That usually means you're getting one quarter-measure and one half-measure, but the final shot (less diluted) makes it seem strong. Dick has also been in places where the bartender poured into the bottom of the measuring cup, which holds about a teaspoon. "You have to let the customer see what's going into the drink," he says.

Apart from the endless glasses of non-vodka, I pour-ed no drinks. Dick made the offer - a gesture born of kindness, not confidence - but I wanted more practice. We ate dinner - Detroit serves good food - and talked, and at 11.30 I left. On the Tube, I experienced pangs of self-doubt. Was I ready for the big time? Could I count to 1-2-2 1-2? Is the Pope Jewish?

At least I had my book. If I ever got to mix drinks and someone asked for a Presbyterian or a Joumbaba, I'd be ready for them.

! Next week: Dick tries to teach me the art and science of mixing cocktails

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