On being a bartender

This was originally supposed to be a text about being a woman-bartender, but somehow in the thought process of mine it became to all the women and men who brave out each night to stand behind the bar and please the patrons.

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Photo by Marta Allina. Bar Pantera

It would be a very far stretch to call me a bartender to begin with. There was a time and place when I was aspiring to become one, but life happened and that didn’t happen (it’s a good story with a moral or another day). That being said, I’m obviously still passionate about bars and the community with it’s good, bad and weird.

And I occasionally help out as a bartender-substitute. Like this week. At Pantera Bar, the assistant suddenly quit, leaving the main bartender/owner in a bit of pickle. The area between Jamsil and Sincheon is famous for it’s unique nightlife and even on a Monday you can get a full bar. So an extra pair of knowledgeable hands is a must. And I happened to come along, also in a need of a quick financial fix…

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Pounding on the importance of whiskey in the world peace scheme.
At  Pantera Bar

The term ‘bartender’ is so vague and general, that it’s really hard to pin-point. It’s not unlike ‘company worker’ (회사원), where you can be pretty much doing anything: from R&D engineering to doing taxes in the accounting team. Same here: one can be a fancy-shmancy ‘mixologist’ taking his time to create wonders of art and taste, while the next bar over there is a dude smacking out ‘Sex on the Beach’ like there’s no tomorrow while putting on a live flair show. Not to mention the hardworking barbacks, managers, bodyguards, waiters/waitresses and many more.

But let’s focus on what a bartender’s job is all about. It’s a challenge in more than one sense. First there’s the physical demands: You work at night, depending on the venue, to even wee hours of morning. And then sometimes, again depending on the venue and the kind of people who work there, you go out for drinks and food with your colleagues (assuming you are a pro and don’t drink on the job). Which can sometimes mean finishing the day quiet late in the morning with an added value to a terrible hangover when you do wake up. Another delight is that you have to stand for 9 hours plus (although I recently saw the owner of Sweet Jane not care one bit about that convenance, preferring to sit with her clients, just on the opposite side of the bar). There have been essays written on shoes for bartenders and appropriate footwear for the job (ranging from doc martens, professional ‘bart shoes’ to good ol’ Crocs). The sad truth is that if you don’t have a backache, sour hips and bad knees, you probably are not doing your job right. Not to mention all those times one has slipped on the wet floor and landed hard on their bum. I would not hesitate to compare the bartender’s job to the most demanding physical occupations. And that means that one has to have at least a very good body condition to put up with all the demands. Obviously if you are smart and passionate about the job, you drink moderately, sleep 8 hours a day and find time for physical and mental exercise. But being 20 (or even 30), surrounded by booze and drinking buddies is very tempting, even if the future costs can be ridiculous.

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Biceps of steal, quads of an olympic lifter.

So say you can and have survived the physical ordeals that come with the bartender job, you have to face the mental. First is becoming the Encyclopedia Brown of cocktails and alcohol in general. And that means not only memorizing recipes (you soon realize that like in grammar, a lot of them follow certain patterns and proportions). You now have to be a history professor, specializing in the development stages of each genre of alcoholic beverage and its’ side products, underlying political and social issues and implications. And than you have to be a master distiller of all: know all the processes of creating eau de vies, various factors that affect the taste, aroma and color. Once you’ve gone through that, you have to pin-point your tasting buds to level with the best distillers, so you can vibrantly describe flavour of each drink to the customer. If your brain doesn’t explode from all that, then you can move to stage three.

Your body may be aching, your brain may be huffing and puffing, but it’s not all that awaits you. In most cases, more than a creator of cocktails, you are the entertainer, the MC, the host, the friend, the mother, the bro, the policemen etc. In other words, you create the atmosphere of the bar, into something that will make people want to come back and be frequent patrons. Big responsibility much? It’s all fun and daisy, when you have to be a master of chill and nonchalant conversation. A bit like a geisha or Korean kiseong. But you also have to spot out and pacify odd rotten eggs, that might be making other guests feel uneasy. Revolting old dudes, hitting aggressively on girls, drunk girls that pee themselves, dudes having a dick contest that is about to blow up? You are the one who has to stop it before it becomes a scene. You also have to make sure that the patrons don’t drive after drinking, that if they are wasted, they get into a taxi home and that all their belongings are with them. It’s a mental game harder than what Bobby Fischer had to go through when playing with Boris Spassky, where you are sweating bullets not only about your bar but also the wellbeing of fully grown and (technically) responsible adults.

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It ain’t easy, at 5 am. At Mania Street.

You also need a backbone of jail officer. You will be called names and yelled at, either by your superiors (for various reasons: they are jerks, stressed, have their own set of shitty life problems that they take out on their subordinates etc.), by customers (drunk and not) or your co-workers. I once got punched by a very wasted girl, whom I was trying to escort to the taxi (fyi. it was a rather high-brow, respectable bar to begin with. Girl was having a rough day, got mega drunk with her friend and both went bananas. They came back the next day to apologize for their behaviour and swear not to drink for the next fortnight).

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Unfortunately, it’s not only about making perfect ice balls. At Pantera Bar.

That’s a lot. I now help out in a tiny bar that can’t sit no more than 10, but I still get home tired as if I ran a marathon with a backpack full of single malt bottles. And, if I want to be compelling in my job, I have to spend the time after I wake up (hopefully relatively hungover-free) on reading up history books, recipe guides, tasting flavour combinations and worrying whether they will match the customers’ palate (that is I would, if I were a full-fledged bartender, not a random substitute like now). In exchange for that… you get pretty shitty money, unless you are also a self-branding guru, that can convince bar owners and patrons that you are the next Simone Caprole (which you might as well be and that’s good!). And don’t count on tips in Korea (very very rare, usually from foreign patrons). What takes you through the night and makes you show up to work again the next day, is the occasional smile from a customer, a praise about your cocktail or whiskey recommendation, a capturing conversation, a friendship formed by two patrons, sitting alone at the bar. The list is endless of all those little things that make your heart skip and beat and say ‘gosh, I’m doing something meaningful here’.

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