Before I discovered bartending, my past was riddled with misdirection and indecision. A few years ago I spent a fair amount of time hovering in a purgatory of post-collegiate stress, constantly convincing myself that I would one day find the motivation to pursue that desk job that a four year degree would merit. I eventually found my calling, and it wasn’t at all what I, or my family had expected. In the summer of 2013, after working at a top local restaurant and cocktail bar for a couple years, I was given my first chance to step behind the bar, and I haven’t looked back since.
I decided I wanted to start this blog about a year ago. A culmination of life experience and creative angst have brought me to a point where I can adequately share how I approach my craft. But first, here’s a look at how I got here.
The Compulsory Graduate
My search for a fulfilling career had always been bogged down by my own criteria. Society’s expectations seemed to always be nudging me against my will, scouring the job market for an entry-level position that would likely have me manipulating spreadsheets and chasing promotions in a beige prison of monotony and superficial office dialogue. Although it sounded attractive to pursue a focused career path in my field of study, with a salary, health benefits and upward potential, I observed with a lack of envy as my fellow graduates settled comfortably into such positions. Meanwhile, I found myself working as a line cook and a server in an up-and-coming restaurant in Burlington, VT, the city where I attended college, making ends meet and avoiding the cubicle life at all costs.
This lifestyle wore on me quickly, but in the deep void of a mind-numbing restaurant job, I found inspiration. The spot I was working at had been blessed with a cocktail consultant who created a program unlike anything ever seen in Vermont. Classically inspired cocktails made with proper technique and preparation, with attention to detail and balance. At the time I was a novice, but even I could see the allure behind a passion-driven beverage program. The bartenders at our restaurant meticulously studied their craft, elevating their knowledge and collaborating on original cocktails while I looked with intrigue. I began to take an interest in their expertise, studying their every move as they executed service with an attention to detail and precision I never knew existed in this industry. I often stayed late after work, ordering cocktails well outside my budget and discovering flavors beyond anything I’d ever bothered to experience. I would wait with them while they closed down the bar, picking their brains and absorbing as much as I could. Before long they took an interest in me.
The Enthusiastic Novice
When I finally got the call to train as a bartender I felt that something had changed in my life. I had spent the prior months reading basic bar manuals and practicing pouring, shaking, and stirring techniques at home, while I should have been applying for “real” jobs and trying to separate myself from the service industry. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had been so intoxicated with learning about this liquid culture that I had set aside everything that I was “supposed” to be doing. I had never cared so much about anything in my life, and I wasn’t about to let the expectations imposed by my alma mater get in my way.
My transition into bartending was fairly painless. All my preparation and reading had put me in a position where i could succeed, but that’s not to say that I didn’t make an ass out of my self a few times. Some things just come with time and experience. Guests would make requests in what sounded like a foreign language. If anybody asked a question I had no answer for, I hated that I didn’t know. I went home and read over and over the literature that had been given to me. I searched the local Barnes & Noble for anything that could get me up to speed. I was so fully intrigued by this culture and industry, and I couldn’t believe it had taken me so long to find something that had been right under my nose for years.
After learning under this program for some time, the bar manager left to pursue a new venture. In his absence, I was given the reigns to the cocktail program, a heavy responsibility for someone with my level of experience. I eagerly took on the role.
Realizing very quickly that this would be a labor of love, I maxed myself out every week. I began tinkering with every idea that came into my head. Syrups, infusions, smoked spirits, homemade bitters, barrel-aged cocktails, if it had been done before, I wanted to try doing it my way. Work was my playground, and I all but lived there. I would avoid overtime by purposely not clocking in, and would source ingredients on my own dime to avoid high R&D costs. All I wanted to do was learn how to craft the ultimate cocktail.
My tenure as bar manager never quite left its honeymoon stage. About a year into it, my girlfriend and I quit our jobs in favor of adventure. We left town and embarked on a backpacking trip through Southeast Asia. We spent four months seeing as much as we could see, and experiencing whatever we could. Half a year after leaving our lives behind, we returned to Burlington. Although I didn’t have a job waiting for me, I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything in the world.
In the next few months of re-assimilating back into American society we worked hard and often, digging ourselves out of the financial crevasse left by half a year of traveling with no income. Although I had picked up a couple lucrative bartending jobs, work wasn’t the same. It had unfortunately turned into… well… just work. I hadn’t created a cocktail that I gave a damn about since I had gotten back into town. The passion was still there, and I wanted to continue to challenge myself and learn, but I felt like I didn’t have an outlet. This was actually when I decided to purchase the domain for TheSpillSheet.com, in order to start a cocktail blog and foster my relationship with this industry through a new medium. However shortly after purchasing the domain, I somewhat accidentally discovered competition bartending.
Shortly after joining the USBG (United States Bartenders Guild), I received an email for USBG’s “Legacy” competition, sponsored by Bacardi. Not really reading too much into it, I submitted an old recipe I was particularly proud of, then moved on, completely forgetting I had done so. A few weeks later I got an email from Bacardi, inviting me to the Legacy semifinals in Boston. Again, with no previous knowledge of the USBG or competitive bartending on a national level (Vermont lives in a bubble), I shrugged it off and figured I’d take the free trip to Boston to take a couple minutes to make my drink for some judges and see how it stacked up. I had completely underestimated the level of competition I would be dealing with. I thought my drink was great, but I neglected every other competitive aspect with regards to presentation and performance. I bombed it. If I had to guess, I would say I landed somewhere near dead last. However, this colossal failure would drive me to compete again.
Over the course of the next year, I worked my way into several other competitions, and even managed to advance to the national finals in Bombay Sapphire’s “Most Imaginative Bartender” in London, as well as the Herradura Tequila “Legends” national finals in Guadalajara. While working two jobs, competitions have taken up most of my spare time and brain power over the last year, but have also pushed me to do things I never thought I’d be capable of. I’ve been blessed to meet people throughout the country who share my passion, many of whom are far more advanced in their careers than I am. It’s impossible not to learn new things when you are lucky enough to surround yourself with such talented individuals on a regular basis. These people, places, and experiences have invigorated and inspired me, and that is exactly what I look forward to sharing in this blog.
The Spill Sheet
The first bar I ever worked at had a notebook that we kept next to the POS, whose purpose was to record our waste. If a glass of wine spilled, you wrote it down. If you pulled the wrong bottle and botched a cocktail, you wrote it down. If you experimented with 10 variations of one cocktail before finalizing a recipe, it better be a damn good drink because you’re writing all of that down. Aside from its original purpose, the spill sheet took on a life of its own. It became our drawing board. A tactile reminder of our thought processes as we learned and grew together as a program. As I’ve taken on various projects for competitions, personal interest, etc., I’ve accumulated quite the spill sheet of my own. It’s my hope that whoever might come across this blog will enjoy it as it’s intended, which is a journey through my experiences as a bartender. This is a record of my trials and tribulations in my approach to this craft.