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Ask A Bartender: What Revolution?

Friday, April 17, 2015


There is more to Cuba's cocktail repertoire than the iconic mojito. But what a great place to start.

Now that President Obama is attempting to restore relations with Cuba, you might actually get a chance to hang out at El Floridita, or The Hotel Nacional in the near future. If you do, you should have a mojito. Why not? They’re tasty and refreshing. 

Believe it or not though, there are other tasty libations to be had there. Remember that Havana once housed a cocktail revolution of sorts -this being in the years leading up to the political revolution- that has been unparalleled anywhere else. Yes, even in Portland. Although this cocktail revolution did not necessarily involve flannels, waxed mustaches or leather shoes, it nevertheless had merit.

These were real bartenders. They did their job with little ostentation. They did not smirk at you if you ordered the wrong thing. Yet they had the right to because they knew what the right thing was. It was an open secret that all had access to but nobody wanted. 

Their hands were callused and deft, and they maintained a demeanor of friendly authority. They wore starched whites. It was their job to make sure that their clothing was pressed everyday and they were not given the resources to do this so they spent a good amount of time hand washing their uniform and letting it blow dry in the breeze off the Malecón every night. 

In the morning they would report to work in their clean, pressed clothes, their faces neatly shaven. They were better than us. They were who I hope to be one day. 

They would start out washing dishes as a preteen, not going to school because school was for the kids who had money, the kids whose parents they would be washing glassware for later. Over time, they would grow older and develop an aura of humility. But their humility would have a power in it. Not so much meek as certain of their place in life; always willing and able to stand up to anybody, but never out of a sense of wounded pride. They had it rough but they had wonderful people who loved them and a sense of camaraderie among their social class that was downright alienating and terrifying to the customers they served. 

This is about the time they would become bartenders. As kids they would grumble as they washed the dishes. Now they would stand up straight and make drinks for the children of the people they once washed dishes for. They betrayed very little emotion. They didn’t lean on the back bar and discuss new drinks they had created with patrons because if the patron wanted the recipe, he would ask the maître d. Nobody saw art in their craft, It was just a thing that had to be done. Every day. With no reward except what was implied in their employment contracts. They were not rock stars. They did not get pictures of themselves working or looking casual. If they discussed their craft, it was to learn or to teach, not to brag. Because they knew that nobody cared. Why would they? It’s bad enough that they had to listen to their customers talk incessantly about themselves. Why would they subject others to such treatment?

After work, who knows? Maybe, given the nature of the trade, some or most were emotionally volatile alcoholic lunatics during their off time. 

During their shift, though, they displayed no emotions because they were professionals and that’s what professionals do. These were real bartenders. 

If they invented a new drink it was because something else needed to be done or maybe they were trying to get rid of something or preserve something else. It was a necessary distraction. Drinks were created out of thrift and resourcefulness, not a need to embellish the ego. And they were the best drinks. A cocktail is about balance, that’s all. A good cocktail has balanced flavors. A good bartender is also well balanced. In the old days bartenders would name drinks after their patrons, now they name drinks after themselves. The modern craft cocktail, at its worst, is little more than an eerily self-aware offspring of its betters. (The same can be said about most modern bartenders).

We have certainly restored the old-fashioned aesthetic in the bar. It’s time to restore the old-fashioned work ethic as well. I hope that for the sake of our future, we get better again. I hope that it’s not too late to rediscover authenticity and humility in our craft. Bartending is one of the few professions where people sit down and literally stare at your every move as you work. Don’t let it get to your head. They are watching you work. You can inspire them to do good work themselves. We can all get better again. We can start by doing a rack of dishes. No tears.  


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