Drink Drink Spirits + Cocktails

The Current State of Bartending

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Written by Korsha Wilson

In 2014, Smirnoff, America’s largest vodka producer, decided to parody the craft cocktail movement. In a six-part series of commercials, two friends plan a house party and the viewer follows along as they decide what they’ll drink, what the dj will play and whether or not there will be a VIP section. The climax comes in the third video called “The Mixologist.”  At the party, a bearded bartender in suspenders makes a ‘deconstructed martini’ as the series’ protagonists look on dubiously. His ingredients get more and more ridiculous as the commercial continues: “this is actually tap water from the library of congress”, “I like to add just the faintest suggestion of mint”. The protagonists finally pour themselves Smirnoff on the rocks and walk away from the bar before he has the chance to finish making the cocktail. The mixologist looks up to see them departing while Vampire Weekend’s ‘Diane Young’ plays in the background.

So, here we are. Craft cocktails and bartenders are now part of the collective consciousness.  “The Mixologist” commercial is definitely entertaining but it doesn’t accurately portray bartenders or the current state of cocktails. What does the current state of bartending actually look like?  

To get some perspective on this I spoke to Luc Thiers, head bartender at Backbar in Union Square. Luc began his bartending career working at the Otherside Cafe in Back Bay and liked bartending but didn’t really think it would be his career. “I think it was an age thing,” he says. “The idea of learning a craft and actually applying yourself to it didn’t come until later.” The moment he knew he wanted to be a bartender? It came while working at a bar in New Orleans.  “Once I learned how to make a sazerac, I was like, ‘this is everything I want to do.’” After he moved back to Boston, he began working at Backbar, a cozy Somerville spot with a strong and innovative beverage program.

Backbar in Somerville

Backbar in Somerville

To understand the current state of bartending and mixology, take a look at the current state of restaurants. Just like many other parts of a restaurant, bartending has been impacted by the proliferation of food media and the increase of public interest in restaurants and bars. Bartenders and mixologists have become local celebrities and there are no shortage of articles about the latest bartending tool or ‘hot’ ingredient. “Out of necessity, bars are now making really good cocktails,” Luc says. Restaurants nationwide have been blurring the lines between fine dining and casual, and between a good cocktail bar and a good restaurant. The New York Times  called this trend a movement, “making it increasingly hard to tell whether you are in a restaurant with unusually good drinks or a bar with unusually good food.” Restaurants now have to have both.

So what spurred all of this and where is it all headed? Luc says the future of bartending and cocktails always follows what chefs are doing in the kitchen. “The kitchen leads the bar in philosophy,” he says. Just as chefs have embraced locally-sourced produce, and heirloom varietals, bartenders are now buying from local distilleries and recreating drinks that are rich in history. In Boston we’ve seen new distillers try their hand at colonial-era rum, and bartenders adding milk punches and housemade tinctures to their restaurant’s beverage program.

The kitchen also provides technical advice for bartenders. When Luc wanted to create a banana-flavored syrup for a cocktail called “The Banana Stand”, he looked to the kitchen for guidance. “The kitchen taught me how to make a banana caramel to really get the flavor that I was looking for,” he remembers. He says that chefs will continue to influence beverage programs this way. “Most chefs have a set of techniques and training to manipulate food to get a desired result,” he says. “Bartending is more of a free for all.” Kitchen terminology has even started to show up. “Fifteen years ago, ‘mise en place’ wasn’t used behind the bar, now you hear it all the time.”

Looking to the future, it’s hard to tell what’s coming next for cocktail programs across the country. Luc sees bartenders maintaining a high level of knowledge and execution but being less serious. “It’s going to be about having more fun,” he says of the future of cocktails. “The trend of super fancy places that take themselves seriously has run its course.” Take a look at the resurgence of “goofy” tiki drinks and you can see that everyone just wants to have more fun, he says.

“The Mixologist” may be poking fun at bartenders who take their jobs and their craft way too seriously but I think that that kind of bartender is few and far between. When I asked bartender friends if they even like to be called a ‘mixologist’ most of them said no. When I asked Luc which title he prefered, he said that he “tries not to get too wrapped up in the names of things.”

And that’s where I think bartending is heading. People on both sides of the bar won’t take things so seriously and will be open to trying new drinks. The line between bar and kitchen will be blurred even more with both aspects leaning on each other for ideas and techniques. There will always be bartenders like the one in the commercial but he won’t be the one adding to cocktail community. 

About the author

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Korsha Wilson

Korsha is a contributing editor for the Industry Press and a freelance food writer. She loves hospitality and is obsessed with the restaurant world and the people that work in it. She loves salt cod, Old Bay seasoning and french fries.