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Fort Worth Weekly is proud to introduce a new column written by renowned mixologist Brad Hensarling. The Top Shelf blog will cover the cocktail scene from the bartender’s point of view. You can expect helpful tips, reviews, recipes, and general observations from behind the bar. Pour yourself a stiff one and enjoy!

Within the world of craft cocktails, even the most respected mixologist will admit that sometimes knowing (and reciting) cocktail minutia takes priority over basic service. It’s our little cocktail world’s proverbial cart before the horse. With knowledge comes power, and with power comes an ego. We should always remember that it’s the booze that makes the party and not the cheap parlor tricks. With so many factoids running through our heads, it’s easy to forget that we’re in the service industry, not an impromptu episode of Jeopardy. I’ll take enthusiasm, a good sense of humor, and attentive service over the most well crafted drink any day of the week.

Knowing your stuff is important, but there are too many bartenders who can list the five regions of Cognac in alphabetical order who have no clue how to interact with other human beings. There’s more to being a good bar tender than just having a vast bank of cocktail trivia. Here’s what I’m looking for out of the person making and serving my drink:

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A great bartender will greet their customers before they find a seat. The real pros will invite guests to get comfortable wherever they like, let them know that they will be served as soon as possible, introduce themselves by name, and serve each of them a water as they begin their interaction.

Condensation is the sworn enemy of the professional, and to defeat this evil scourge it will mostly likely take more than one cocktail napkin per drink. The benchmark for when a guest needs a new cocktail napkin is not just when they need another round. Just like changing a newborn’s diaper –– you don’t wait until it’s fully soaked.

Good bartenders anticipate their guests’ needs. They will recognize when you’re getting close to finishing your drink and ask you at the appropriate time if you would like another. They instinctively understand the pace at which their guests drink and don’t leave them waiting for another round.

A great bartender has a great laugh. A sense of humor, great conversation points, and a backlog of good jokes can go a long way in making a guest’s experience memorable. More than once I’ve seen a bartender just mechanically serve drinks and leave customers to silently browse on their phones rather than engage the people around them. It takes zero effort to ask someone about their day. That simple interaction can create a lifelong friend and regular.

Lastly, skilled bartenders don’t give the bar away. They understand that by being responsible with money and product, both the bar and the bartender have the best chance of making money. I’m not saying that you should never offer a customer a drink “on the house.” On the contrary, I find that’s a great way to keep existing customers and make new ones. Real pros will exercise great discretion when “comping” drinks.  Just because you work at a bar doesn’t mean your significant other drinks for free.

I enjoy the company of knowledgeable bartenders who are equipped with the skills to make a fine drink. As well-made cocktails and highly skilled barkeeps become more commonplace, I hope I’ll get to try more amazing drinks. But don’t try and wow me with knowledge until there’s a drink in my hand.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Ah, when you sat across the bar from Malachy McCourt or Mickey Bayard in New York City some years ago, you would have been sitting across the bar from fabled raconteurs. They wouldn’t serve fancy drinks, refused to mix anything that took more than a splash of water or cola, but they made you feel like you were the only person in the universe. That’s good attention.

  2. Damned good piece. I especially liked the advice to serve a glass of water. In South Texas where I reside thirst is not uncommon…best not to try to slake it with a well made Old Fashioned. Also it is always nice to be recognized even if you can’t be served immediately. A nod is enough.

  3. Great column, Brad! Your rules on how to treat customers and the fact that every one of your employees follows them are the reason I’ve been a regular for so long. I love your establishments.

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