Mixology 101ers

IMG_1914Last night we had dinner with friends and our hosts had a surprise for our merry HJ band: they invited a bartender to teach our group how to make drinks. It made an already great evening into a riotous one.

Our bartender, an outgoing young woman named Charity Justman, gave us a funny, soup-to-nuts overview that started with wrestling pour spouts into bottles and ended with sage advice on tipping techniques that will improve the service you get in a public bar. She taught us how to do a professional bartender’s pour without using a shot glass (it’s all in the “one and two, three and four” cadence), showed us how to shake, muddle, mix and pour our concoctions, and clued us in on the language of bartending — a lot of which includes sexual references. We all got to serve as the “bar back” and the bartender, make a complicated drink, and then sample small portions of our reasonably well-prepared libations. At one point our hardworking crew donned unique sunglasses for a picture.

There’s more to bartending than the uninitiated would think, and learning about the craft from a friendly and patient pro like Charity is a lot of fun. If you’re looking for something different to do during your next dinner party in Columbus, you can reach her at http://www.facebook.com/YourTravelingBartender.

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Chemistry Behind The Bar

It turns out there was a practical reason to pay attention during your boring high school chemistry class — it might have made you a better bartender.

IMG_3504Scientists are beginning to pay more attention to the chemistry of alcoholic beverages.  They note that mixing cocktails is a very elementary form of chemistry.  The bartender experiments with different combinations of chemical substances, looking to find just the right mixture of taste, appearance, and alcoholic punch.  Every mixologist understands that, of course — but it turns out that the chemistry of booze is even more interesting than that.  Most alcoholic beverages sold in America don’t have labels that identify precisely what goes into the liquor and whether, for example, the ingredients are natural or artificial.  That’s because, in the U.S., alcohol is regulated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, and not the Food and Drug Administration, and the main focus of the labels is the alcoholic content.

There’s some logic to that, I suppose.  If you really like a flavored vodka, for example, will it make a difference to you if the flavor is artificial and the grain that is fermented to create the drink was raised through liberal use of pesticides?  Most people don’t drink to promote their health, they drink because it relaxes them and they have more fun when they’re loosened up.  The precise nature of the substances that get them to where they want to go without barfing onto their shoes really aren’t that crucial.

Anyone who’s worked mixing drinks knows that, to be a really exceptional bartender, you need to be a bit of a psychologist, relationship counselor, priest, character judge, and comedian, among other attributes.  Now we need to add chemist to the list, too.

My Alpine Village Summer of 1976 (Part II)

The grounds at Alpine Village

After a few weeks of washing dishes I got promoted to waiter.

Alpine Village operated on the “American plan,” so guests got breakfast and dinner served at specified times and ate whatever our cook decided to prepare.  The wait staff would carry in platters of scrambled eggs, meat loaf, pancakes, and Swiss steak and put them on the long, communal tables for everyone to share.  The dining room usually was filled with lively chatter as the wait staff weaved in and out, dropping off fresh, hot plates of food and clearing the dirty dishes.

The dining room at Alpine Village

I also worked as a lunch-time short order cook, flipping burgers and making grilled cheese sandwiches and milkshakes at the “Rathskeller” in the basement of the main lodge, and as back-up bartender at that same location in the evening hours.  For that summer, at least, I could make a tolerable Tom Collins or Harvey Wallbanger.

The workday stretched from 6:30 a.m. sharp to 9 p.m. or so.  When the day was over, the staff would party in the common area on the second floor of the barn, playing the Eagles and Jackson Browne albums on a battered communal stereo and drinking cases of beer, or take the Alpine Village speedboat across the lake to a local establishment that served ice-cold pitchers of beer and buckets of steamed clams.  Few things taste quite so good after a long, hot workday as a cold beer in a frosted glass and a hot steamed clam dipped in drawn butter.

I roomed with Jerry, the speedboat captain.  He was a fun-loving, 30ish Vietnam War veteran who was primarily interested in testing the virtue of the bored mothers who spent the long weeks at Alpine Village with their spoiled kids, waiting for their husbands to come up from the City on weekends.  My other great friends that wonderful summer were Sharon, the hilarious and acerbic bartender, and sharp-tongued Kate and good-hearted Ceal, who worked as waitresses and chambermaids.  Our bosses were Marilyn and Peter, the chain-smoking, highball-guzzling married couple who owned the resort.

There was no individual tipping at Alpine Village.  Instead, guests would leave envelopes for the staff as a whole, and if they wanted to reward a particular employee they could designate part of the money for that person.  We got the accumulated tips at the end of the summer.  Peter and Marilyn did it that way to prevent reckless staffers from irresponsibly blowing their pay as the summer progressed — and they were right.  I received several thousand dollars on my way out the door, which was a huge amount of money in those days.

When I left Alpine Village at the end of that summer, with money in my pocket and a sense of self-confidence from having succeeded, on my own, in that faraway job, I felt like I had taken a long step toward becoming an adult.