A little more than a year ago, New York bartender Sheldon Wiley clenched the Guinness World Record for the most drinks made in an hour. He needed 938 to break the record. Wiley made 1,043 drinks in one hour.
Although it has been a while since he has made headlines, Wiley asserts that he has not been getting rusty. In fact, he’s prepping for a nationwide tour to bartend in all 50 states in 50 days, and will soon compete in what he calls “a smaller event,” where he will attempt to break the world record for opening 2,000 beer bottles in less than 28 minutes.
The man is busy, but we caught up with him for a phone interview on his recent ventures and ambitions.
Why do you do what you do?
It was quite simple for me. When I was entering my twenties, my older brother was a bar manager at the time. Quite honestly, I was in college, I was poor, and I was chasing girls around. I was looking to get more money and meet more girls. It’s kind of funny looking back on it, but that’s exactly what actually what got me into bartending.
How did you learn how to make drinks so quickly?
When I was younger in this industry, it was a matter of what I thought would make me a better bartender. My idea of a bartender when I first started was you have to be able to flip a bottle around. That was my big misconception, and then I kind of realized it’s different because the more people you serve, the more money you make. And then I just worked on my hands more, and over time it just kind of stuck. I got better with my hand-eye coordination. It’s not just about making your typical vodka and tonics and your Jack and cokes, but being able to put together some fairly complex ingredients and make it look presentable as well as being able to do it at a quick pace. That just sort of became my thing. The more that people encouraged me and told me that I killed at what I did, that all just sort of egged me on, to be honest.
What motivated you to enter the competition?
I was reading an article about four years back about Bobby G. Gleason, who is a master mixologist and currently held that world title. I had such a love for ingredients and providing people with a quality cocktail, and it just made me see that the whole realm of mixology could be applied to speed as well. I was just so fascinated by that and just told myself: I want it, I got to have it.
It has been a year since the competition. What have you been up to since then?
Since then, I have not been getting rusty. I have been working behind the bar. But I’ve actually been gearing up for a few more challenges. I’m going to go for the world record for the most beer bottles opened in however long it takes. The fastest time is 2,000 bottles in 28 minutes and 11 seconds, but I’m pretty confident I can get that down. The other one that is more comparable to my last world record is bartending in all 50 states in 50 days. And I will also be DJing as well. I think that people will be a lot more interested in seeing my hands move.
So when you’re behind the bar on a regular day, do you always make it a point to get the drinks out quickly?
I don’t have an off switch, and it’s not within me to go slow. If there’s two people in the bar when we first open, I still make the drinks fast. It’s just a part of who I am. Sometimes someone will read an article, come in and it will be a kind of “dance monkey dance” situation, which I can’t stand. But I get it and expect it. I’m putting myself out there and I just make all my drinks quick. But I definitely make sure the drinks are presentable–that they’re of quality and that they taste good.
What’s the most complicated drink to make?
I don’t find complication in making drinks, and I think once you get to a certain level of comfort in the bar, it’s just a matter of following protocol. There’s a set of ingredients in a recipe, and if you follow that formula, you can’t lose. Some recipes are over-complex and overdone, but there are ways around that–as long as your ingredients are kept at the right temperature and made fresh daily. But it’s not about you or the title that you have or the amount of knowledge that you have in spirits, or even the fact that you make many different house-made syrups and bitters. It’s not about you. People go out and have a good time and enjoy themselves. And I feel like a lot of bartenders and mixologists fall short of that. It’s really about the people and what they want. If they want a vodka and soda, I’m not going to steer them away from vodka and soda if that’s what they drink. If they want something a lot fancier, I’m more than happy to make that as well.
You’ve traveled a lot already and are embarking on this tour to bartend in all 50 states in 50 days. What’s the bartending scene like in other places?
They’re all different, and they’re all a lot of fun. For instance, if I’m bartendering in Scottsdale, Arizona, I know that they’re more about the party and the fun level. A lot of those drinks are a lot more basic. However, there is definitely some demand for quality cocktails, but really people just want their drinks, they want them fast, and they want to get drunk and party. However, here in New York, I think a bartender will be falling pretty short if that’s the only style that they know how to serve drinks. Because here, you need to know the basics and the classics, and it’s not always a big party. There are a lot more palatable and conservative cocktails and cocktail drinkers here. But everything really varies depending on the venue to the theme of the venue.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 2, 2012