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So You Want to be a Mixologist?

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Have you ever dreamed of being the glamorous, smoothly proficient mixologist in command behind the bar of a high-end cocktail den? It takes more than an exquisite moustache and a love of bitters to do this job. I talked to three of the best bartenders in New York City to find out what it took for them to become the practiced professionals they are today.

Bryan Teoh at The JakeWalk

Behind the Scenes: Bryan Teoh at The JakeWalk gears up for a night of pouring, stirring, and shaking. (Photo credit: Neal Bayless)

Bryan Teoh, The JakeWalk, Brooklyn

My favorite cocktail den in my corner of Brooklyn is The JakeWalk, where Bryan Teoh presides over the bar with humble, steady expertise.

Before taking up residence at The JakeWalk, Bryan spent time under the tutelage of Eben Freeman, cocktail prophet and pioneer in New York’s current mixology scene.  When he heard that Freeman was hiring bartenders for a new project, he leapt at the opportunity to learn from the best.

How did you get the job with Eben Freeman?

They had a really rigorous application process. Hundreds of people applied, and I went through three rounds of interviews before they hired me. We had to go through an intensive two-week training program before we could begin. But then it turned out that the bar was only going to be half the size they originally planned, so suddenly there were only enough jobs for half the bartenders they had hired. The training program turned into an elimination competition that, seriously, was like a reality TV show.

We learned cocktail history, famous bartenders, ratios, formulas, physical training, morning stretches, agility, time tests, races, stirring exercises, workstation organization. There were endurance tests where we had to hold up full pitchers of water. There were pop quizzes too – we had to be ready to answer any question at any time. And at the end, I was one of the bartenders left standing.

What is a bartending skill that you are most proud of mastering?

Learning how to talk to people, all kinds of people, every night.

About how many cocktail recipes do you think you have memorized?

Five. There are five base recipes  — like the mother sauces in French cuisine. There are classic ratios and the way that ingredients are used. Based on that, I can make just about anything.

What do you do when someone requests a ‘lowbrow’ drink like a vodka-soda?

I can make suggestions, I can try to steer them towards something they would like better, but if that’s not what they want … the customer is paying. And they’re out to have an enjoyable evening. At the end of the day, we’re all still wiping up breadcrumbs.

What is your favorite part of what you do?

I like the performative aspect of it. You add your own flair, tricks, secret tweaks to recipes  — you make the same drinks as other bartenders, but you make them the best with your own personal touches.  I also like the physical aspect. You keep moving, time passes quickly, and you get a pretty good workout, unlike a desk job.

What is your least favorite part of what you do?

The hours.

Do you get a lot of people coming in trying to apply to be bartenders?

Oh yeah, all the time. You can immediately sum people up and figure out whether they’re qualified. Just because someone is an enthusiastic home mixologist doesn’t mean they’re cut out for the job. You can B.S. your resume but as soon as they step behind the bar, you can tell by the way they move if they know what they’re doing.

What’s the sign of a good bartender?

They acknowledge you when you walk in the door, no matter how busy they are, no matter if they’re in the weeds. And they say goodbye when you leave. And, do they work clean? Do the bottles and tools go back into the same place every time or is there stuff scattered all over the place?

What’s your favorite “last drink of the night?”

The Pumpernickel.  A measure of Rittenhouse Rye with eight or nine dashes of Angostura bitters, served neat.

Jack McGarry Dead Rabbit

Jack McGarry behind the upstairs bar crafting one of 72 historical cocktails at The Dead Rabbit Grocery and Grog. (photo credit: Neal Bayless)

Jack McGarry, The Dead Rabbit Grocery and Grog, Manhattan

The very best kind of living history museum (the kind with drinks!), The Dead Rabbit Grocery and Grog pays tribute to New York’s Irish immigrant legacy as well as the city’s drinking history. Jack McGarry is the man behind the bar –  and the man behind the cocktail menu — which is a hardbound tome that reads more like a history textbook than a mere list of drinks. It comes complete with Walt Whitman quotes, prints of antique maps, and etchings of old New York, as well as 72 fastidiously researched and tested historical cocktails.

My mind was boggled when I heard you tested thousands of 19th-century cocktail recipes to develop your menu. How long did it take you? Did you ever feel completely overwhelmed by the process?

To finalize the beverage program it took almost two and half years from start to finish. Almost a year and half was dedicated to research alone before even picking up a shaker to start testing drinks. The following year was all about testing and reformulating the drinks, three to four days a week and up to 12 hours a day.

There was a lot of times I felt completely overwhelmed, a lot of times waking up in the middle of the night and thinking that I have over stretched or over indulged myself with the program… But I always remain focused with the task at hand and always concluded that if you want to be amongst the best in the world you have go for it with everything you have.

What is a bartending skill that you are most proud of mastering? How long did it take you to learn to do it well?

I love watching bartenders all across the globe because each of us have that one little thing which makes them special. My uniqueness behind the stick would be my fluidity. I believe in dancing when behind the bar and everything should be synchronized, thoughtful and graceful.

About how many cocktail recipes do you think you have memorized?

That’s a tough one. Definitely hundreds and hundreds — at The Rabbit, to give you an idea, we have 72 drinks on the menu and then 1500 recipes off it.

What is your favorite part of what you do?

Being behind the bar gives me a sense of belonging. I feel, not in an egotistical way, invisible behind it. It’s my home — there’s no better feeling when you’re holding your room in the palm of your hand and what I mean is, the guests are happy, the drinks are down and the room (heat, light and sound) is nailed.

What is your least favorite part of what you do?

I don’t hate my job in any way — even to say “job” pains me because I believe once you love something and you’re living it day in and day out you’ll never work a day in your life. I’ve read articles before from other bartenders in the past and some have said things like cleaning up, paperwork, drunken people, etcetera, but I wouldn’t say that as it’s part of being a bartender and that’s what I love — the unpredictability of being behind the stick and the fact you learn every single day about how to deal with particular situations. You become better with each passing day.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to become a professional mixologist?

Be humble and listen to those who are more experienced than you. It’s that simple really.

Meaghan Dorman contemplates your next cocktail. (Photo credit: Lantern's Keep)

Meaghan Dorman of Raines Law Room and Lantern’s Keep, Manhattan

Raines Law Room lies behind a nondescript subterranean door in the Flatiron district of Manhattan. Ring the buzzer to gain access to this plush den of velvet couches and precisely crafted cocktails. Presiding over it all is head bartender Meaghan Dorman.

How long have you been tending bar? When did you realize you wanted to make it a career?

I started bartending at 18 at a sports bar in my college town in Connecticut. It was not cocktail focused at all, but showed me how a good bar functions as a team and how to deal with all kinds of people and situations. When I moved to New York after college, I was drinking at places like Milk & Honey and Death & Co.  I was definitely a nerd and read cocktail books and made drinks at home. I was working at a restaurant bar that wanted to do cocktails but the management wasn’t very organized and I wanted to be somewhere I could have more input. I wanted to find a bar to make my “home” and Raines Law Room came along at the perfect time. I decided to make that my focus.

Where did you learn the most about bartending and mixology?

I definitely learned a lot from watching other bartenders and not being afraid to ask questions. I still ask a lot of questions. There’s a lot to be learned from my colleagues’ experiences and creative processes. Michael McIlroy (of Milk & Honey and now Attaboy) taught me the most about being technically accurate when bartending, and to build good habits and then become faster and more efficient. Being fast and then trying to fix accuracy issues doesn’t work. We use a lot of robust ingredients like chartreuse and amaros which can easily overpower a drink, so accuracy is important to make consistently great drinks.

What is a skill that you are most proud of mastering? How long did it take you to learn to do it well?

I think I’m most proud of my ability to teach others and inspire them to excel. At Raines Law Room, it’s my job to train new staff on all aspects of our service. I definitely had some issues when I first took over getting everyone on the same page and addressing issues in the most productive way. But we’ve been rocking with a great staff for quite awhile now, and we have a very low turnover. Which means we are all working together and progressing in a very competitive city.

About how many cocktail recipes do you think you currently have memorized?

Oh lordy, a couple hundred I would say. But a lot them are related to each other so that helps! If you start with the very important classics, you’ll see how they inspired many drinks down the line.

What is your favorite part of what you do?

I love a “Sherlock” moment, when a guest tells you what he or she is in the mood for, and I say, “Alright, I’ve got something for you,” and I nail it. There’s immediate gratification in bartending when people really love what you’ve crafted for them.  A very close second is when people come back to Raines Law Room for an anniversary or birthday, because our bar is where they want to spend a very special day. That is an excellent feeling.

What is your least favorite part of what you do?

There is a small minority of people that seem to go out with the intention to have a bad time. Nothing seems good enough, even their company, so they spend the whole time on the phone. Those people skunk up a room, and you just want to yell, “Hey honey, life is too short, you’ve got a good cocktail and cute date!” But you’ve just got to kill ‘em with kindness as they say.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to become a professional mixologist?

My advice would be there is no substitute for putting the work in. Now that there are cocktail bars popping up left and right, bartenders starting out seem a bit too prideful to start at the bottom, like barbacking or volunteering to help out at events with people they want to learn from. As someone that is in a hiring position, it doesn’t impress me that you’ve worked at four bars in a year, or you pull shifts all over town. Its take a lot of time and energy to train someone, and to work a couple months, soak up some knowledge and bounce isn’t fair.

You need to make yourself an asset to your bar, meaning you are contributing to the people that are paying you and giving you the stage to work on. Contributing to the menu, to the energy of the place, covering for your co-workers. My time in sports bars, restaurants, working events and so on made me ready to run a program and build a staff. I only look for people looking to make a commitment, and that doesn’t mean the best shifts off the bat.

Outside of the actual bar, it’s important for people interested in this craft to understand you have to make time to take care of yourself, it’s a physically demanding job and you’ll need rest, vitamins and yoga to make it for years.

Anything else about your profession that most people don’t know?

It’s important for anyone who is looking at bartending as a career to know that there is a lot of business-hours things that have to get done to keep the wheels turning. People have an idea of bartenders staying out all night and sleeping until whenever because they don’t have to work until 5pm. But once you’ve gotten to a position with management duties, things still have to get done during business hours to make the bar run. Liquor orders, getting repairs made, making sure we have toilet paper and napkins…all that fun stuff happens during the daylight.

What’s your favorite “last drink of the night?”

I most often make myself a half bourbon, half aged rum old-fashioned while I am closing up the bar. It’s a nice one to sip on and decompress from service with. If I get out of the bar on the early side, I shoot down to Attaboy for a Dark and Stormy (or two) before bed.

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