I got to make the allusive $10 cocktail at Keys On Main last Thursday.
It was a Rob Roy made with Macallan 12-year old Scotch whisky and sweet vermouth. I like to add a drop of maraschino cherry juice and a dash of Angostura Bitters to the bottom of the glass and swirl the liquor together before adding ice. Named after the folk hero Robert Roy MacGregor, a self-styled Robin Hood of the Scottish people, it is a smooth smoky tumbler of hooch that pairs nicely with cigars by a fireplace. It is one of those dangerous cocktails that one is too many and a hundred is never enough.
I rarely make a $10 cocktail at Keys simply because no one in their right mind would order one unless they are on a corporate credit card tab. The average customer at the bar just wants something simple to enjoy while they are watching the dueling piano show. Considering the frantic nature of the show, it is no surprise that I pour a lot of Red Bull into vodkas. Years from now, I am certain that there is going to be some sort of doctor’s report detailing the damage Red Bull has done to the internal organs of club goers for the last decade.
I know how to make well over a thousand drinks but I only have 30 or so that I am particularly good at making. They tend to be the more traditional cocktails that I learned to make while working at the Wyndham Hotel. Manhattans, Old Fashions, Ramos Gin Fizz and Mint Juleps are some of my better drinks. I think I might be the only person in Utah that knows how to make a Horse’s Neck and I am definitely the only one who makes more than one a week.
Bartending with laryngitis is like pitching with one arm. Sure, Jim Abbott was able to rack up 87 career wins pitching without a right hand but everything is much easier when you have all of the tools needed to do your job. For me, talking is as much a part of the job as filling ice bins and cutting fruit. I don’t think there is anything better at the club than yelling over the sounds of the pianos and keeping customers entertained. I love the calm before and after the show where I get to talk with guests, getting to know them and hear their stories. There is no better place to control a conversation than from behind the bar. I get to meet a wide variety of people and the vast majority of them have something interesting to talk about.
This week was tricky because I sounded like Kathleen Turner yelling through a Brawny tube. If I was a two-pack a day smoker, it would sound appropriate. Instead, I spent the entire weekend taking drink orders with a combination of hand signals and facial expressions. I pride myself on keeping my composure while bartending but I know my eyes deceived me when guests would ask what do we have on tap when their head is less than a foot from the beer taps. I’d like to think people were just making conversation instead of being so myopic that they couldn’t look to their left and see the eight beers we have available.
Not having my voice, I put myself in charge of the service well for Saturday. On the weekends, we have two bartenders behind each bar. One of the bartenders is responsible for pouring drinks for all of the guests that walk up to the bar. The other is in charge of pouring the drinks for the cocktail waitresses who take orders from the tables. Working service is a very tricky position and through seniority, I have positioned myself out of this really fast-paced station. When I have my voice, taking on a hundred of customers is a piece of cake; not being able to talk, a grandmother asking for a glass of white zinfandel becomes the hardest drink sale on the planet.
When you work service, your number one responsibility is to make sure the cocktail waitresses get their drinks as fast as possible. They will order them via the computer and a drink ticket will print out with instructions of what they need. I am lucky to work with very talented waitresses who are able to crank out a lot of drink sales but they can’t sell anything unless we make them in a timely fashion. Not having worked service in over six months, I got my tit in a ringer early in the night. The ebb and flow of the bar is that the girls are busy at the very beginning of the night as it tapers off around midnight. If all I had to do was make the drinks on the ticket, the night would have been a breeze. The problem was we had such a wave of customers at the bar unfamiliar with the bartender’s job description that they were yelling at me to get their drink. They don’t care that I have six tickets worth of drinks that need to be made for the cocktail waitresses—all they want is their drink now! Finding a balance between the girls and the customers was definitely the hardest part of the job.
The bar mats in front of me were littered with tickets as customers screamed for more Red Bull based drinks. The girls were tugging on shirt sleeve adding special orders to tickets and I was playing a game of human pinball with my barback who seemed unable to not knock into me every 15 seconds. If I had my voice, I most certainly would have lost it yelling for everyone to calm the Hell down. Instead, every time I tried to talk to anyone I sounded like a dog’s squeak toy. Maddening! Realizing that I couldn’t explain what I was thinking, I fell back into myself. I couldn’t help but feel like the patient in that Metallica video, “One.” Instead of thriving on the excitement of bartending at Salt Lake City’s busiest club, I did the one thing that I vowed never to do: I started looking at my watch.
Last call couldn’t come fast enough. I hated the fact that I was quietly praying for the night to be over. My attitude has always been that if I have to be at work, I might as well work. I much prefer looking at my watch and saying to myself that I only have two more hours to pour before the money train is over. I hate it when I look at the clock as my savior as oppose to my enemy. Nonetheless, considering that bartending requires being able to communicate with your guests and co-workers, I probably should have called in sick. Recuperating this weekend, I couldn’t help but think that I am becoming Roger Murtaugh and I am getting too old for this shit. Bartending is a contact sport with no timeouts and I am finding myself way too beat up after work.
The first job I got after college was as a commercial electrician in Las Vegas. I worked for a company that specialized in building large box retail stores. During the boom in construction in Vegas during the mid-90s, we were working on putting in all of the Best Buys, Home Depots and Walmarts. I became particularly talented at reading blueprints and laying out parking lot lights. Working with a team of laborers and a backhoe, I would trench out the hard Nevada desert soil and run conduit. We would build the rebar in sonotubes and eventually land the 30 to 60 foot parking lot lights. It was brutal, backbreaking work and the weather in Las Vegas never behaved. If it wasn’t over a hundred degrees outside, it was blistering cold with chilling winds. People tend to only think of the weather in Las Vegas in terms of what it feels like inside of a casino. Out in the desert, Vegas is a killer.
I left electrical work to go back behind the bar simply because I knew I would be a crippled man if I continued working in a trench for the rest of my life. Besides, the work was mentally numbing. The first job I worked was exciting because of the newness of the project but by the sixth job site, I was on autopilot the entire time. Checking out at work is the worst feeling on the planet. I have worked too many jobs where you hide in some dark recess of your mind and stop caring about what you are doing. In the field, checking out was a quick way of getting yourself killed. Checking out behind the bar simply means that you are not going to make any money. Now, there is no way that bartending is as physically demanding as electrical work but my Lord, am I sore after working my shifts. The one saving grace is that I am not mentally spent after pouring drinks for eight hours.
I agree with Coughlin’s rule that bartending is the apex of the working blue collar class. There is no better place to be than behind the bar on a busy night. Unlike other positions, the scenery is always changing and the money is good. Work for and with good people and the job is fantastic. Regardless of how tired and sore I get from the work, I still get very excited the first of every week to get back into the fight. It is a rare night that some customer doesn’t tell me that they used to bartend and throw their own story into what is happening in the club. I am looking forward to the day that I can order a $10 Rob Roy and bore the bartender with some war story from a time far gone.