A good writer is not, per se, a good book critic. No more so than a good drunk is automatically a good bartender. — Jim Bishop
There are two kinds of women: those who don’t mind getting their hands dirty, and those who do. Now that I think about it, there are four kinds of women: those who relish mucky stuff on their paws, those who don’t mind a bit of mess on them, those who do mind but seem to cope, and those for whom even the concept of dirty hands is horrifying. Because I have long been fixed in the last category, I had mixed emotions when I was asked to be the “celebrity bartender” at the W Hotel’s Beach Bar. Of course, it was flattering to be thought of as a “celebrity,” however local and minor, but the moment I said yes, I was struck by the ominous reality of the mess ahead.
Not counting the General Foods International coffee I’d occasionally stir into microwaved water, I’d never “made” a drink before. Domesticity is not my thing, and if it weren’t for David (who enjoys cooking and has the diligent patience for thorough cleaning), the cupboards and fridge would be filled with ready-to-eat food. If I had to, I’m sure I could survive a bit of grunt work. But, in the past, someone has always been around to handle that which nauseated me — things like breaking open eggs, scrubbing the kitchen floor, kneading dough, or playing the learned, icky-sticky role of mixologist.
I was asked to choose a specialty cocktail from the menu or invent a drink of my own for my volunteer gig (I’m still trying to figure out what I got out of inviting my posse there to spend their money while I worked behind the bar, aside from my own edification and the apparent amusement of my friends). I didn’t want to be lazy and pick something right off the menu, so I decided to go with an original libation that reflected my personality and taste. It was suggested to me that my specialty be named the “Barbarella,” but one already exists (the Barbarella I’m referring to is a cloying raspberry-chocolate martini created for me a few years ago by Burrito, the managing bartender at Air Conditioned Lounge).
As I now find the Barbarella to be disproportionately sweeter than I am, I turned to my friend and veteran bartender Sara to help me come up with a mixture that would reflect my burgeoning sour side, something we could dub the “Divatini.” The week before the big night, David and I dined at Kensington Grill (where Sara works as manager), after which Sara and Joe (her bartender and sommelier) laid out the formula for the Divatini, demonstrated how it was made, and then let me practice shaking ice in one of those metal cup things.
When they’d finished giving me the lowdown — a list of ten thousand ingredients and how much of which to put in and when — I struggled to choke back my panic and wondered how a vodka tonic on the rocks might go over instead. As though reading my mind (or taking notice of my short breaths and wide eyes), Sara said, “It’s really not that hard. Here, we can make it easier.” I got out my pen and took notes as she told me which ingredients to request that the bartenders have premixed so that I could just combine that mixture with a few other things. When she finished talking, the drink still seemed complicated, but not impossible — more like Cowles Mountain than Mt. Everest. And although I hadn’t yet tasted that particular mixture of liquid ingredients, it sounded not only like something I’d like, but also something like me.
Because of the probability that something or other would splatter on me, I asked David to lace me into a rubber corset. It seemed more practical to wear my hair up, so I pulled it back and topped it off with a comb headpiece from which a cluster of thin black-and-red feathers explodes like fireworks. Sara told me that it would be unthinkable to wear heels behind the bar, so I wore my black patent-leather spikes out the door but brought a pair of platform sandals to don when duty called.
It was a balmy evening, and the sun had not yet set as I arrived at the outdoor beach-themed bar. I surveyed the sand-covered landscape with trepidation, worried about the likely buildup of dried gunk beneath my feet — I mean, how often could they realistically sift and rinse all of it? I placated myself by contemplating the exfoliating benefits of the contaminated granules. After a short while, a representative of the W introduced me to Brian, the ill-fated bartender who would have to put up with a corseted, feather-headed, icky-phobe fumbling around him for the next few hours.
Brian reviewed the printout of an email I’d sent of Sara’s instructions and then walked me through the steps — sugar the rim of the martini glass; drop in a glop of raspberry puree; scoop some ice into the metal shaker, and then into that vessel pour the raspberry vodka (hold the bottle by the neck), and don’t stop pouring until you’ve counted slowly to four; splash in the premixed fresh lemon juice, triple sec, and sweet and sour; stab a blackberry with one of those little sticks, toss it into the liquid, and serve the drink.
I was just beginning to think I could pull it off when I looked up and realized that all of my friends, standing patiently on the other side of the bar, were waiting for their Divatinis. With Brian’s help, I made a batch of five and handed them out. Brian sugared and set five more martini glasses on the counter before me. Between the sugar, the lemons, and the alcohol, it wasn’t long before my hands grew gummy; I pushed past Brian so I could get to the sink and scrub away the stickiness.
By the third batch, I had found my groove, and despite the unbearable cold of the ice-filled shakers and the tacky fluid that kept finding its way between my fingers, I was beginning to enjoy myself. Like playing one of those super-physical, hand–eye coordination video games, the better I got, the more fun it was.
During a lull between orders, I decided to make a Divatini for myself, seeing as I’d yet to taste the drink I’d been serving my friends. It must be good, I thought, because my sister Jenny was on her third, and I’d lost count of how many Rob had ordered. I stepped to the side so that I would be out of Brian’s way (he was hustling to fulfill all non-Divatini orders) and took a sip. It was not the best drink I’d had. I wondered about the ratio of ingredients, as I’d been haphazardly mixing and indiscriminately sloshing raspberry puree and vodka into the shaker. It certainly didn’t taste as good as any of the drinks Sara had made for me.
Being a good bartender takes a lot more than following a recipe — you have to understand the relationship of the ingredients to one another. I thought of a few of my favorite bartenders and realized they had all spent years sullying their hands in order to perfect their craft. I will be sure to tip them even more generously in the future, now that I see that even though they make it seem effortless, they are working their asses off. How could I think that one night of getting a little sticky could elevate me to the rank of bartender? I had begun to sulk at my hubris when I got an order for two more Divatinis, this time from Jen and Amy, who’d been sitting at the bar. I took in my friends’ relaxed smiles and cheered up a little as it occurred to me that there was one sure formula for immediate bartending success — if you can’t make ’em good, make ’em strong.