A Dash of Bitter
Written by Sarah Borufka
Thursday, 24 July 2008 10:57
New Orleans seems like the perfect place to host a cocktail festival. After all, this is where apothecary Antoine Peychaud first thought of mixing brandy with sugar and bitters to relieve his clients' ailments, inventing the Sazerac, which some consider the world's first cocktail. Almost two centuries and thousands of recipes later, the use of cocktails has shifted from medicinal to recreational purposes (or, if you like, self-medicinal).
It is difficult to escape bars in New Orleans and impossible to visit them all. So it makes sense to host an event dedicated to cocktail culture here, in a city that is historically connected with cocktails and where booze is a powerful industry. In New Orleans, bartenders are easier to come by than doctors, and in certain circles, are far more respected.
Ann Tuennerman, founder of Tales of the Cocktail, agrees that there is a certain myth that surrounds the bartending profession. "To me, when I hear the words 'New Orleans Bartender', a smile comes to my face and I think of someone interesting, a character that has some fun stories to tell." With cocktails being more popular than ever, it seems that the kind of bartenders that are in the spotlight are what we have come to call mixologists. "I think the good thing that is happening right now is that the bartender is going back to being a profession, not just something you do while you are doing something else," says Tuennerman.
It is positive to see that events like Tales of the Cocktail highlight the skill in tending bar. Certainly, being a bartender can be a creative and glamorous profession, but only a tiny fraction of bartenders are blessed with that type of work situation.
Then there are the ones who tend bar to get by.
You know them, the bartenders who pour Jameson shots and open High Lifes, Coronas, or Bud Lights all day. My friend and fellow bartender tells me how much she hates stuffing olives with blue cheese by hand for her rich, entitled customers. She has a good gig (her bar has hand-stuffed olives, after all), but despite having a good gig, she still has to worry about making rent, especially in the summer. Or my friend up in Boston, a ten year veteran of the trade who has worked more places than she can count. She is "really, really tired of still being a bartender at 31" and looking for a way to quit.
For many, tending bar becomes a lifestyle. The bar is their stage, and every night they are performers. But they do not see themselves as mixologists; they are content to know the standard recipes. And in the bar culture that is New Orleans, some become part of (and often, all of) the appeal to visiting certain spots.
But the majority of people who work in New Orleans bars do so to make money because they can't make a living doing what they love, because their Liberal Arts degrees turned out to be useless, or because jobs tending bar are so easy to come by here. A large percentage of the service industry tends bar because it is the best opportunity available.
The reality is that most employers do not supply bartenders with health insurance or benefits. As for time off or sick leave, a line from my former boss comes to mind: "Unless you're in jail or in the hospital, you can't call in sick." It is a job for which one is usually paid half the minimum wage and relies on the kindness of strangers for the rest. It involves endless standing and repetitive motion injuries, often in the presence of patrons who are either boring, crazy, or hostile.
Those are some of the realities that Tales of the Cocktail glosses over. The kind of bartender in the spotlight here creates his or her own recipes, stays on top of industry trends (right now, only fresh juices and ingredients, Latin Cocktails, brown spirits, smaller glassware, a renewed interest in the classic); he or she is a mixologist, and well-paid.
There's nothing wrong with dedicating a festival to fancy drinks, food and historical tidbits about spirits and cocktail recipes. The event brings in a lot of business during one of our industry's slowest months; it celebrates a crucial and dynamic element of New Orleans culture; it gives local professionals a chance to catch up on industry trends.
Ann Tuennerman is one of those people who is fiercely devoted to her city, its business, and its culture. After Katrina, she made it a point to bring back Tales of the Cocktail bigger and better. As she reads me an email by a woman who has been attending the festival since its inception and who begins looking forward to the event in January, I realize that Tuennerman's passion for the festival is genuine and sincere, qualities that can be rare in social entrepreneurs.
Still, I cannot help but be amused by the fact that most of my bartender friends will not attend any of the festival's events. Despite the fact that some of them work at upscale bars and mix fancy cocktails all night, they feel that this festival caters to wealthy people who enjoy raspberry mojitos, and to people who have become rich because of the cocktails they make.
Ann Tuennerman tells me she's never worked as a bartender before. As the founder of a cocktail festival, she has attended numerous mixing seminars and workshops, but she has never been paid to tend bar. "I always say, when I retire, that's when I am going to do it for a living: bartend a few nights a week at some fun bar, hopefully."
Recounting memories of blowing a keg while three people are barking their orders at me (Dirty Ketel, Up! Bloody Mary! And a Cosmo, Goose!), I can't help but think that I cannot wait to retire from bartending.
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