Drinks on Film: An Interview with Jesse White, Director of Spirit Guides
Spirit Guides: The Return of Craft Bartending in New York is a short film that explores the history and evolution of cocktail culture in New York City. The film features interviews with some of the most influential figures on the scene, such as Dale DeGroff, Julie Reiner, Jim Meehan, Audrey Saunders, Eben Freeman, Brian Miller, Robert Krueger of Employees Only and recently crowned Miss Speed Rack, Eryn Reece. It was shown at Nitehawk Cinema (one of the only movie houses in the city at present with a full liquor license and service) in Williamsburg, Brooklyn during Manhattan Cocktail Classic.
Watching with mixed drinks and truffled popcorn, I was impressed at how, like a good cocktail, the film is a true work of balance. Through interviews and footage shot in the various bars in which the subjects work their magic, it’s a well-paced, entertaining look inside the method and the culture, but also manages to convey a reverent perspective on the bar environment without coming off as too pretentious or sycophantic. It is directed and produced by Jesse White, who came to the scene as a barback simply to work, but gained a true admiration from there. I recently sat down with him to discuss the film and his progression into what he terms the “resuscitation” of the cocktail era.
Amanda Schuster: Drinking cocktails and maybe reading about them is one thing. What made you decide people would be interested in watching a movie about cocktails?
Jesse White: The reason I started making The Spirit Guides is because I had never seen anything on the history of cocktails. I was learning about that from the people I was working with. It really started as a project where I wanted to film my friends. I got hired to work as a barback.
AS: Did you already know you wanted to make a movie about this subject before you worked in a bar?
JW: The filming came as a result of working in a bar. I was not one to go to bars myself, let alone order a cocktail. When I got the job working behind a bar, I was introduced to a world that was completely new to me. It changed my ideas about what having a cocktail meant, and all the work that went into it. I had these friends who I respected on a personal level, but then seeing them on a professional level, I was shocked at how much work goes into this - how much knowledge they have. I remember going into a bar at first and seeing these bottles, not knowing anything about them, they were just these ‘colors.’ But these individuals were thinking about how to use them on a whole different level that I never even considered possible. So I decided to apply my own artistic training to this process and show people how beautiful it was... the level of integrity and craftsmanship that goes into it. How many other people know that this goes on? Then through talking to the people I knew, they started mentioning other people I’d never heard of, like Dale DeGroff, Jim Meehan, Julie Reiner... I started talking to them and other bartenders who looked at bartending as a real craft. In doing so, I was able to construct a history about how cocktails evolved in New York City.
AS: You have that great moment on film where you capture customers as they are introduced to their first Manhattans. They don’t know what to order, and they’re in Employees Only and you physically see their a-ha moment of enjoyment when they taste them for the first time. It becomes their new favorite drink! Was there an epiphanic moment like that for you?
JW: It wasn’t one particular cocktail... But I just remember the moment where I realized it wasn’t just being inside a bar, and it wasn’t just about the drinks, but the whole atmosphere, who I was enjoying this experience with. It wasn’t only the bartenders, it was everything. It was a number of things contributing to that - realizing what a good bar should do. I felt like I was lucky to be there. It wasn’t just another stop on the way to another bar.
AS: Since this experience probably heightened awareness of how you taste drinks yourself, do you have a favorite type of cocktail now? Stirred and boozy or fruity and shaken?
JW: I honestly enjoy the taste of alcohol...
AS: Ah, good man. You’re one of those...
JW: Right! Don’t tell my mom! (laughs) I enjoy all the different flavors that come through with different spirits. So for me, the best cocktail is when I can taste all the notes of every ingredient. So stirred drinks, at least at this particular moment, are the ones I’m finding to be really exciting.
AS: How did you convince your subjects to go on camera and discuss their process?
JW: It wasn’t as hard as you think. Because I think these people are so smart at what they do, and they know that one important aspect of their job is to provide a great service to people. But the other aspect of this is they want to get the word out. There is no greater joy for them than contributing to that exchange of knowledge with other people, as they do their customers. They like watching people get excited about trying new things. It’s not only about us taking an interest in them, it’s about them taking an interest in watching others learn. Hopefully this movie opens up new avenues of thought and ways to explore this subject. Hopefully it takes some of the intimidation out of trying cocktails and approaching these kinds of bars - starting a dialogue.
AS: You found these people at a golden moment in cocktail culture, especially in New York City. Is there another time and place you wish you could go back to and film?
JW: I feel incredibly lucky I was able to capture even a sliver of this cocktail renaissance now. If I had to go back in time, I honestly would have loved to have seen [19th century cocktail innovator] Jerry Thomas bartend. I heard he had like 10 rings on his fingers, white rats running around his shoulders as he’s making drinks...
JW: Oh, I probably read that on TMZ, but yeah. (laughs) I can’t validate that. But when you think about what it means to be a showman, and what he did to promote his craft, his attitude, his way of making a memorable experience for customers... I think he would be very interesting to capture. If I had to watch anyone make a drink, I’d want to watch him, I think.
AS: Do you think the new molecular movement in cocktails is still as customer-oriented?
JW: I’d like to see that as not just about flourish, but flourish with purpose. Thinking about textures and ingredients in a new and creative way. But I love all these parodies like on Parks and Recreation, It’s Always Sunny and Portlandia of what bartending is now - smoke infusions, salad orbs, glasses that are filled with ingredients you haven’t even heard of. It’s reached a point in the public consciousness where you can make fun of it.
AS: Well, sadly, there are people who really think that’s all it's about.
JW: It’s like how Modern Art is talked about. Cocktails called “Symphony No. 8 With Rye.” But I think that’s a good thing. It means it’s out there and some of the piss gets taken out of it. It’s boomeranged back to where it’s exciting popular culture, but then it also draws attention to it. I’d like to think it’s all positive, that even the most molecular drinks are progressive - I think Eben Freeman would rather be associated with that term - progressive, rather than molecular. It’s about texture and ingredients. It’s not just about trying to impress a customer, but contributing towards presenting something new and valuable.
AS: Finally, if you could have a drink with any character from any film, who would it be and why?
JW: Kevin Spacey from the Usual Suspects because he would tell me a good story.
The Spirit Guides: The Return of Craft Bartending in New York is currently without distribution, but making the rounds at festivals. With all the heart he put into it, we wish Jesse great success. Hopefully there can some day be a sequel. Maybe the first 3-D cocktail movie - The Sex on the Beach Strikes Back?