Is Bartending a Form of Performance Art?

Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
June 14 2013 4:58 PM

The Dram-atic Arts

Notes toward a theory of the theater of bartending.

A barman works at the Hotel Radisson Blu in February 8, 2013 in Nantes, western France.
The bartender is forever customizing a one-person show to meet the spiritual and spirituous needs of a select audience

Photo by Frank Perry/AFP/Getty Images

Hey Bartender is a documentary on the subject of finally being able to get a decent drink around here. In paying homage to the craft-cocktail scene—tracing its origins, cataloguing its attributes, charting the motions of its stars—director Douglas Tirola has created a recipe for a feature-length aperitif. Light and easy, abubble with fizzy celebration, the movie’s group profile of tastemaking drink slingers whets the appetite for deeper study.

Troy Patterson Troy Patterson

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

This sector of the service industry looks, through Tirola’s lens, a bit like the field of entertainment. Not a few barmen (and -maids and -flies) in the film talk about the profession in terms derived from show business. They hail famous colleagues as rock stars, and describe the movements of two bartenders weaving around another, during a busy shift, as a dance. It is telling that Dale DeGroff—nicknamed King Cocktail and universally recognized as the obstetrician presiding over this bibulous rebirth—began his career in hospitality as an actor/waiter. He did not make it in Hollywood, but his arts training did not go to waste. “Who you are back there will define the space,” he says of his trade in this documentary. “You have to be a bit of an actor.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics counts half a million bartenders in the U.S., and though the government doesn’t categorize the profession under “Performing Arts, Spectator Sports, and Related Industries,” it very plausibly might. The dive-bar geezer pouring shots with a surly flourish is offering a solo show, as is the nightclub barmaid popping open a Bud Light grasped between her thigh and calf. Hey Bartender very reasonably asserts that its subjects, with their advanced degrees in mixology, are artists, and it encourages viewers to understand that—independently of the practice of inventing compelling recipes but entwined with the craft of mixing a proper drink—they distinguish themselves in commanding the stage that is the bar.

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I attended a screening of the film in the middle of May, not long after NBC had formally introduced Jimmy Fallon as the heir to The Tonight Show. The most iconic late-night program will soon be in the hands of a man who has broadcasted Rachel Maddow’s classic rendition of an Old-Fashioned, Sandra Lee’s ambitious desecration of a gin and tonic, and Questlove’s boozy adventures in liquid nitrogen. It was also around the same time that the MIT Senseable City Lab unveiled Makr Shakr, a bartending robot whose stirring and shaking are modeled on the gestures of a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theater. The signs were auspicious. It was time, I decided, to take some notes toward a theory of the theater of bartending.

May 17: Went to the library. In a tuxedo. The four floors of the Main Branch of the New York Public Library were given over to the opening night party of the Manhattan Cocktail Classic, an event combining a professional’s industry conference and an enthusiast’s opulent bar crawl. The 3,000 guests had their pick of 87 cocktails, the most intriguing of which, for our purposes, was a Negroni served next to the south staircase in Astor Hall: the Finger-Stirred Negroni. The finger was attached to an eccentric cocktail eminence who published the essential Joy of Mixology as Gary Regan and sometime thereafter changed his nom d’alcool to Gaz Regan, which he stylizes as “gaz regan.”

Mixing Negronis for the well groomed masses, Regan spun the sturdy ice cubes with authority while his eyes—one of them adorned with dramatic eyeliner—locked onto the supposed windows to each customer’s soul. Serving an eternal classic and an ephemeral experience, he punctuated each preparation with a sideways flick of his mixing digit, improvising variations on the flourish to suit the seeming mood of each customer.

The Finger-Stirred Negroni would have been gross under any other circumstances. It was delightful. It should be noted that Regan has written that “tending bar is, to a large degree, performance art.” I savored Regan’s drink as the epitome of (and as a fond commentary on) the intimacy of the relationship between a cocktail bartender and his patron—which is indeed a relationship, even when the customer is one-and-done at a bar at an airport he’ll never connect through again. The bartender is forever customizing an ongoing one-person show to meet the spiritual and spirituous needs of a select audience.

May 21: Went online to research Heywood Gould, who authored of one of the great bad movies of the Reagan Era—the Razzie-winning Cocktail, an anti-classic celebrating its 25th anniversary this summer.

Gould adapted the screenplay from his own semi-autobiographical novel, bastardizing a cult favorite in the process. The hero of the book is a sozzled 38-year-old misanthrope who describes the grand ruins of 1970s New York and his own life in a lushly scabrous voice. The hero of the movie is Tom Cruise-still-playing-Maverick, flinging bottles as if barrel-rolling a fighter jet. Gould explained how Cocktail’s vodka-juggling, which doesn’t feature in the book, came to be in a recent Chicago Tribune interview:

It was something that we did just to amuse ourselves. At this one bar, Spring Street Bar in SoHo, this guy I worked with, we used to juggle the cans and throw stuff to each other. We'd do it, and people would laugh, and we'd show off, because you are on stage; when you're behind the bar, people are looking at you. And after a while you start to play to that—you can't help it. Or I couldn't help it, anyway. …

When we were making the movie, I took Tom and Bryan Brown to my friend's bar and started showing them what we used to do, and they picked up on it and invented their own moves. They took it a lot further than we ever did.

That is, they took it further in scope, higher in altitude, lower in taste. As coached by John “JB” Bandy—the champion of TGI Friday’s inaugural Bar Olympics—Cruise and Brown made flair bartending a thing, much to the consternation of Gould’s former colleagues. When the movie came out, he went downtown and discovered a new set of expectations. “These drunken bartender friends of mine were not happy: ‘On top of making the drink, now I gotta juggle these f--- bottles and put on a show for them?’ "

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