The first bar I was ever behind was the bar in the corner of my grandfather’s basement in Westchester, Illinois. With my mother being the oldest of twelve kids, our family parties were never short on liveliness and motion. The basement offered my cousins and I the chance to escape the watchful eyes of ‘the adults’. There was an old hi-fi that we could tune into B96 or Q101 and get a decent signal occasionally, a children’s-sized billiards table, dusty board games, and a television that was so old you couldn’t even hook up your Nintendo.
I always found myself drawn to the other side of the room though, where an old three-seat bar was nestled into a corner, illuminated by the glow of Olympia beer signs that my mother had brought home from her time working at a liquor store during college. There wasn’t any booze but there was a hand-crank ice crusher and I could chip off chunks of freezer burn from the mini-fridge and turn out a pretty mean orange soda slushie.
In college I worked waiting tables at an Irish supper club on the west side; the type of place where everyone knew everyone else, and where entire generations of families grew up together in the same neighborhood. I was underage when I first walked in and asked about a job. The owner shook my hand, smiled and asked, “would you like to bartend?”. I told him that I would, but it would probably have to wait a couple of years. In the meantime, I learned as much as I could through observation; asking questions about ingredients, learning to take drink orders, but most importantly learning how to interact with people, and hanging out after my shift to sneak beers and shots of Irish whiskey.
My first chance to really get behind the bar came one year on St. Patrick’s Day when our bartender fell sick. I volunteered to barback for the day, but there was no one else to jump back there and finish off the afternoon shift, so I stepped up. I remember trying to pour Irish car bombs and my hands were shaking from the nerves—not to mention we were using a 1L bottle of Bailey’s with no pour spout. By the end of the day I had gotten a handle on my Half & Half and Black & Tan pouring techniques, and I turned the bar over to the closing bartenders in a somewhat passable condition.
Since then I’ve worked in hotels, nightclubs, high-volume cocktail lounges, fine dining restaurants, shot-&-beer spots, you name it. Along the way I’ve picked up some nifty tricks, learned about fancy ingredients and presentations. I’ve figured out what to do and more importantly what NOT to do.
The biggest takeaway from all these experiences is this: a great bar is all about the people, both the ones working beside you and the ones sitting across from you. An outstanding cocktail isn’t worth a damn if it’s presented with a piss-poor attitude. In the words of cocktail historian and author David Wondrich “A proper drink at the right time—one mixed with care and skill and served in a true spirit of hospitality—is better than any other made thing at giving us the illusion, at least, that we’re getting what we want from life.”
Written by Michael Huebner, Revival Bar Manager