It was inevitable: The reality show competition model would spread from cooking to winemaking to, now, bartending. The Fine Living Network’s Bartender Wars, debuting tonight at 10:30 p.m., will follow three of the city’s bartenders each week, as they compete to develop drink recipes, perform technical challenges, and answer spirits trivia before a live audience of barflies. The first episode features Vinnie Costa, a bartender from The Duplex, Deborah Harris from Harbour, and Gage Cass from Socialista.
The show’s host, Egypt Sherrod, says she loves “girly drinks,” and the first challenge the bartestants must face is to make her one. Each episode features a particular spirit — this week, it’s scotch. Vinnie makes a sickly-sweet-sounding self-proclaimed “gay drink” called a Chocolate Cherry Cheesecake that incorporates Kahlua, Bailey’s, and cheesecake syrup, while Gage, who may sport the look of the craft bartender — suspenders, mustache — admits he’s no mixologist and must rely on “other tactics” to woo the judges. Speaking of judges, Sherrod and various “guest mixologists” aren’t the only ones enlisted to decide the fate of the bartenders. A ridiculous “Applause-o-Meter” is used to gauge the approval of the crowd.
Clearly, the show is meant to appeal to the average-joe drinker, but future guests, such as craft bartending pioneer Dale DeGroff, brand ambassador Charlotte Voisey, and molecular mixologist Eben Freeman, suggest that serious cocktail enthusiasts might tune in. These viewers will be disappointed by challenges like beer pong and how to layer the perfect B-52 shot. But the show isn’t a mixology competition; it’s a bartending one. Correspondingly, it incorporates all the cheesy, dumb, affected sport involved in a night behind the bar. The bartenders hail from vastly divergent establishments — Gage, for example, never fails to throw back whatever drink is before him, while Deb prefers to soberly build cocktails with ingredients like champagne and sake. The show, cringeworthy at times (like all great reality shows), perfectly illustrates that the craft bartending movement can only go so far. Most of the masses still go to the bar to be entertained. And get properly sozzled.