Many will tell you that mixing great drinks is an art form. We beg to differ. While there certainly is an art to mixology – the crafting of new recipes – mixing drinks is really more of a craft than an art. The difference? A craft is skill that, with training and practice, can be learned and mastered.
Take, for instance, the case of Brian Rea, a bartending and bar management legend who certainly didn’t start out that way. Although we know the man of today, Brian was kind enough to share one of the less-than-masterful moments from his early days behind the bar. This excerpt is from Rea’s forthcoming book, B.A.S.T.A.R.D.S. (Bars and Saloons, Taverns and Random Drink Stories), which chronicles both the history of the bar and Brian’s personal experiences behind it.
“B” is for “Brian’s Special Old Fashioned”
A small piece of ancient history about my first bartender’s position (not a pretty picture!) in late 1947. This was at an establishment in downtown Manhattan, in the vicinity of the courts and jail known as “The Tombs”. Our clientele was a mixture of lawyers, clerks, various civil service employees, and a large group of laborers working on a subway expansion project. Thus we had a mixture of old classic cocktail drinkers, and the beer & a shot group.
I was not paid the first two weeks on the job, as I was in training, and also due to my abnormal breakage of glassware. The floor behind the bar seemed to have wall to wall glass shards. I could not believe how many glasses I dropped, until I realized the primary reason was that they were still wet from washing.
The only drinks I was allowed to serve were the straight shots, as well as draft and bottle beers. This was my very first bartender job and I did not have any knowledge of mixed drinks recipes or preparation techniques. The owner gave me a Cocktail Recipe Book put out by Angostura Bitters, & told me to study it. So every day I would study the recipe book, hoping to remember the ingredients of all the various cocktails. I was somewhat surprised to see the number of cocktails that called for Angostura Bitters.
About the fourth week on the job, the owner, who was always behind the bar when I worked, said “Brian, I have to go to the bank to get change. You take care of the bar, and try not to make any mistakes while I am gone” So here I am, the very first day on my own. I felt like the Captain of the Ship, strolling up & down the bar, waiting for my very first customer. And lo & behold this fortunate individual entered. I approached the gentleman and said, “May I serve you a cocktail, sir?” The gentleman said,”Yes, I would like to have an Old Fashioned.”
So here it is, my very first cocktail! I went to the mixing station and commenced to prepare the cocktail. I placed an old fashioned glass on the bar, and put a half of teaspoon of sugar in the bottom. Then I picked up the Angostura Bitters bottle, and attempted to pour bitters into the 1 & 1/2 oz. shot glass we used for measuring. I realized that the bitters just dripped out, so I removed the restrictive cap, and then filled the shot glass with 1 1/2 oz. bitters, poured it into the old fashioned glass and stirred same. I then added ice, 1 1/2 ounces of blended whiskey, a dash of soda, together with a cherry, orange slice, lemon peel, and proceeded to serve the customer.
The customer was obviously in a rush to catch the subway, so he practically consumed the drink in one swallow. I awaited his response, hoping that I would receive a compliment, or maybe a tip. The gentleman did not bring his head down for about 15 or 20 seconds. He just stood there, sort of working his neck muscles. His eyes looked like they had rolled back a little. He finally lowered his head, stared at me, did not say a word, & left quite quickly. And…..he never even tipped me! It appears that one and a half ounces of bitters, and one and a half ounces of whiskey in a drink does not automatically result in a tip.
A customer at the end of the bar motioned for me to approach him. He explained that he was in the restaurant business, and knew a little something about drink preparation. That gentleman proceeded to instruct me in the proper procedure for making an Old Fashioned, as well as inform me as to the potency of Angostura Bitters, in both flavor and alcohol content (90 proof). About seven years later, I was fortunate enough to be employed at the restaurant where he was one of the owners, a nice little place located at 21 West 52nd Street, New York, known as…………… the “21 Club”.
For more stories and wisdom from Brian Rea, we highly urge you to subscribe to his mailing list, found at thebarkeeper.com. Or, find an excuse to share a drink with him — something we intend to do at every possible opportunity.