Drinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

From booze for thought on Jun 18, 2013

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Secret [see-krit]: faithful or cautious in keeping confidential matters confidential; close-mouthed; reticent.

In this time of NSA eavesdropping and data mining, of leaks and whistleblowers, let us take a moment to consider privilege. Not Attorney/Client, nor Doctor/Patient, but something perhaps even more treasured and ubiquitous. Let us consider the privilege that exists between bartender and guest.

Those of us that frequent bars and restaurants entrust our bartenders with a great many things. We often do this without even really thinking about it. There are the material things: the bartender holds your credit card when you run a tab, we’ll safely guard your phone that’s charging and not read your text messages. When you ask for a Ketel One and soda, you get a Ketel One and Soda. When you are at a table and request that obscure $32 Age D’or Calvados that pairs perfectly with your dessert, it goes without saying that the contents of your glass have not been surreptitiously replaced with some spirit of far lesser quality. You take for granted that your bartender is washing their bar tools and their hands thoroughly and frequently, and, when visiting a craft cocktail bar, that all the garnishes are market fresh and have been carefully chosen and maintained. The social contract and guest-to-host dynamic in our bars affords us a certain civility and comfort and on this we heavily rely.

A good, observant bartender bears witness to a great many private things and hears a great many secrets. We know where the bodies are buried and who did the burying; we know the numbers and the data behind them. We know what’s cooking in the kitchen and in the office. Bartenders are exposed to all these things, yet as professionals we are all sworn to obey the prime directive of bartending: Discretion.

My favorite example of this involves a legendary NYC bar owner and colleague of mine. Even though he is incredibly knowledgeable and fluent about wash lines, the science of shaking and the importance of the surface area of ice cubes in cooling your cocktail, he is equally concerned with preserving the sanctity of his bars as places where all his guests, be they famous or just a face in the crowd, can feel well looked after and have their privacy maintained.

One particular night at his bar he had a guest he had never seen before drinking with a friend. This person happened to be drinking the cocktail equivalent of a Dead Man’s hand in Poker: a drink invented by Ernest Hemingwaycalled a “Death in The Afternoon.” After having several of these, he promptly passed out at the table and was abandoned by his friend. In search of a relative or significant other he could contact to come retrieve the fellow , my colleague scrolled through his texts and recent calls. He found the number of the guy’s girlfriend, but not before discovering some salacious texts from a second girlfriend. He promptly deleted the incriminating texts to save the guy from the wrath of the first girlfriend and then contacts her. She asks him to put him in a cab, which he does, but the driver will not take him home alone in such an unresponsive state, so he rides home with him. Along the way the guy soils himself. In spite of this, he takes the guy to his door and left him safely in the care of his girlfriend. He played Alfred to his Batman and fulfilled his duty, he saved him from himself and asked for no reward

It also pays to have a short memory.I once worked with a guy who, like a lot of bartenders, worked two bar jobs. Both places were owned by the same person and, while differing in concept, they shared a similar clientele. One was a French-American bistro and the other a trendy subterranean Russian-Inspired cocktail bar. Said bartender had a male regular that he knew quite well. This gentleman liked to frequent the bar at the bistro with his wife and the cocktail bar with his mistress. At one bar he’d laugh raucously and passionately grope his paramour, and at the other he’d enjoy a more placid date night with his spouse. In visiting both places it was implicitly understood that his bartender would never disclose having seen him with another woman, and further that he even visited him at the other bar at all.

While thoughts of such deception may seem distasteful, this guest felt very secure in doing this because he trusted his bartender. It is not our place to judge or comment on suchmatters it is simply to serve and provide a safe harbor from the stress and strife of life outside those swinging doors. Regular or rookie, this benefit is afforded by bar professionals to all of our guests. One veteran bartender I know follows this code to such an extreme that if you walk into his bar with someone he’s never seen you with before he will behave as though does not know you. More than once when walking into his bar I have been greeted with a blank stare found myself feeling like the star of another remake of “Total Recall.”.

Those of us that choose to do this professionally believe in the inviolability of the bar. We work for tips, but that alone does not sustain us, your trust does.

Waitresses canchat about their cramps and their love lives, the owner will grouse about his business partners and the General Manager spending all his money, the GM will complain about the owner being a skinflint and we are privy to it all. It is priceless information, and at the end of our shift it gets placed into the vault of our memories and we dutifully forget the combination.


Cocktail Epilogue:

Death In The Afternoon

1 oz. Absinthe

4 oz. chilled Champagne

Method as per Ernest Hemingway as published in "So Red The Nose" ca. 1935:

"Pour one jigger absinthe into a Champagne glass. Add iced Champagne until it attains the proper opalescent milkiness. Drink three to five of these slowly."


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