Cocktails: a Love Story
I’ve been a bartender in New York City for ten years. I’ve been a cocktail bartender for the last three years. That means that three years ago I decided to start working harder during each shift, spend more of my free time studying classic cocktails, spirits, wine and beer, as well as memorizing countless recipes. I did all this despite the fact that I make less money in tips per shift than I did all those years ago when I was slingin’ suds and pouring Tequila shots. Why would anyone make a career move that costs them money? Some people are just crazy I guess.
I moved to New York City in 2003, like so many recent college graduates, with plans of “making it big” in the film business. A week or so later I realized that I had no connections in film but I did have rent to pay. I got a job working in a neighborhood restaurant. We served Tex-Mex food and Margaritas. I started as a server but it wasn’t long before I talked my way into a bar shift. I poured beer and made so many Margaritas that I still twitch a bit every time someone orders one. Don’t get me wrong - a properly made Margarita is a damn fine drink, I’ve just made a few too many. I was making good money and having some fun. For a while.
Eventually I got bored at work. Being a child of teachers, it was instilled in me at an early age that I should be learning all the time. Since we had a pretty nice selection of Tequila at the restaurant I decided I would learn what I could about it. Unfortunately, I was on my own in this endeavor. This restaurant did not offer much as far as spirits education goes. I sought out what knowledge I could and that lead to a hunger (thirst?) for more. It was around this time that I discovered the craft cocktail movement. I was a little late to the party but better late than never, right?
I started frequenting cocktail bars and picking the brains of the bartenders whenever it was slow enough that I didn’t think I was imposing. I asked about the right books to read and the right bars to try. I befriended more than a few bartenders who would let me taste spirits and cocktails that were utterly foreign to me. I was hooked.
New York City offered me the opportunity to sit at the bars of so many experts in the spirits industry and I listened to everything they had to say. I decided that I had had enough of serving Tex-Mex and Margaritas. One haircut, a few new shirts and ties (and, yes, a vest or two), a newly polished résumé, a fully stocked home bar to practice making the classics and I was ready to make a change. Then I went out to find a job at a fancy-pants cocktail bar.
I had a plan. Admittedly my plan had holes in it. More specifically, it had one major hole in it. I had no cocktail bar experience. This is when most people get a job as a bar back at a big name bar and work their way up. This is a great path but I took a different route. I parlayed some of the relationships I had developed in the cocktail world into a chance to train as a bartender at a neighborhood bar with a strong cocktail program. I reveled at the chance. It was certainly a slow start. I was scrambling to memorize a seemingly endless list of cocktail recipes. I had to grab the recipe Rolodex for nearly every order. The shifts were longer and more challenging than anything I had ever experienced.
On my very first solo shift behind the bar I found myself completely overwhelmed. I was deep in the weeds with two slips up on the service bar and one customer sitting in front of me. It looked as though my new direction in bartending may be short-lived. The customer sitting in front of me had ordered a flip and having never made one before, I panicked. The panic must have been written all over my face because he changed his order to something less labor intensive. I made it through that shift and immediately read up on flips so I wouldn’t be caught unprepared again. Eventually, with the help of my manager and mentor, Eddie Pellino, it got easier. Orders would come in and muscle memory would take over. I knew the drinks off the top of my head. When guests asked about spirits they had never heard of I was able to teach them like so many other bartenders had taught me only a short while ago. Needless to say, boredom at work was no longer a concern.
It wasn’t long before I started to create my own cocktails. The first one of my cocktails to be published on a menu (The Popular Demand) will always have a special place in my heart. Looking back, it is a solid drink but I’m glad I didn’t stop there. My drinks have gotten better as I have learned more. My palate has improved as I have continued to taste more and more spirits and this has allowed me to create more nuanced cocktails.
I work hard and keep studying. I learn more about my craft everyday whether I am working or not. I doubt that will ever change. I always want to know more. I want to be an expert in my industry and since this industry is always changing and moving forward, I can’t stop learning.
I have moved on from my youthful dreams of a film career and I have decided to make a career out of my night job. I couldn’t be happier. I have had some good fortune along the way, thanks in large part to my constant pursuit of knowledge, eventually becoming a head bartender and bar manager. I still work behind a bar five nights a week holding permanent bar shifts in both New York and Rhode Island. I have taught cocktail classes and worked as a consultant to design cocktail programs. I now have the pleasure of working alongside some world-class bartenders and I am constantly picking their brains on how I can be a better bartender. When I started out as a bartender I liked what I did. I made good money and could pay the bills. What I have found in the world of high-end cocktails is a career that I am proud of.
Editor's note: I'm very proud to say I have actually watched Tim's transition happen before my eyes, and more importantly, happen to my palate! Here are a couple of his recipes.
Currently on the menu at French Louie.
- 60 ml/2 oz. Bourbon (Buffalo Trace works well in this drink)
- 15 ml/.5 oz Sweet Vermouth
- 15 ml/.5 oz Cointreau
- 7 ml/.25 oz Green Chartreuse
- 1 Dash Orange Bitters
Combine the ingredients listed above in your fanciest mixing glass. Add ice and stir to chill and dilute. Strain into a chilled double old fashioned glass filled with fresh ice. Twist an orange peel over the top of the glass to express the oils. Rub the orange twist around the rim of the glass and place it into the drink. Enjoy!
The Georgia Smash
- 60 ml/2 oz Cognac (such as Louis Royer VS or VSOP, double gold winner in the 2013 NY International Spirits Competition)
- 15 ml/.5 oz Simple syrup
- 15 ml/.5 oz Crème de Peche
- 7 ml/.25 oz Fresh lemon juice
- 4-5 Mint leaves
- 2 Lemon wedges
- 2 dashes Angostura Bitters
Add lemon wedges, mint leaves and simple syrup to a cocktail shaker. Muddle these ingredients. Add the remaining ingredients to the shaker and top with ice. Shake vigorously to chill and dilute. Double strain through a fine mesh strainer into a chilled, double old fashioned glass filled with crushed ice. Garnish with a large sprig of mint.