By weaving together the stories behind New York City cocktail lair Employees Only and Westport, Connecticut, corner bar Dunvilles, director Douglas Tirola takes on the changing world of bartending and the rise of craft mixology in his recently released documentary Hey Bartender. And while the film focuses on a pair of tenders with rich backstories, it also features insight from some of the most celebrated people in the industry, including Dale DeGroff, PDT’s Jim Meehan, Milk & Honey‘s Sasha Petraske, and Clover Club‘s Julie Reiner, who give anecdotal detail on how bartending became a celebrated profession and not just a plan B pursuit.
As the movie heads into wide release, we chatted with Tirola about why he opted to tell the story of this community, what he was trying to capture, and how making a movie about bartending changed the way he drinks.
Why did you choose to focus on this subject?
When I was a teenager and through the beginning of college, I was a bartender for a number of years at this place called the Backstage. It was the classic story of starting out as a dishwasher, and then the barback doesn’t show up one night, and they ask me to step in and they keep me as that. A year and a half later, a bartender doesn’t show up, so they try me as that. They said, “Do you think you can do that?” and I said yes, and then they asked me if I could make a Long Island Ice Tea and a Madras and a Sea Breeze. That was my exam. I passed, so they said, “Go home and get a collared shirt and a tie and come back and start.” I was 17. That was a positive experience for me.
I became a longtime regular of a place called the Spring Lounge. There was a bartender there for a long time named Aldo Dean, and he was one of the best bartenders I’ve ever known. He ended up meeting someone and moving to Memphis to open a bar down there, so I was sort of bar-less for awhile. So I started trying places out. That led me to Employees Only, which is about two blocks away from my apartment. Walking into Employees Only was like walking onto a movie set. It looked different, the bartenders bartended like I’d never seen, and it had a speakeasy feel, but like a movie version. I met Steve Schneider over the bar and then Dushan Zaric of Employees Only, Jim Meehan of PDT, Julie Reiner of Clover Club/Flatiron Lounge, and eventually Sasha Petraske of Milk & Honey, and I got a very in-depth education on what was happening in the cocktail renaissance and rise of mixology. I just knew immediately that this was a story that I wanted to tell. I specifically liked the idea that people were starting to pursue bartending as a career and not just as something to do if something else didn’t work out.
Beyond that, from a movie point of view, what this community was doing with cocktails was following the path of wine and, more recently, food in the U.S. I go out to eat a lot. I was an only child, and I came from a family that would stay in on special occasions. Otherwise, we’d go out. I have a great appreciation for food, but I especially appreciate dining out. I felt that way but didn’t specifically know this story, and I realized there’s this whole thing happening that outsiders of this world didn’t know about.
And finally, how bartenders are perceived says something about our culture. Just because you’re outside of the norm doesn’t say anything about how intelligent you are or how much money you make, and being able to tell my version of that story was appealing to me.
How long were you shooting this movie?
The first shots were probably done in late 2009 or early 2010, which is really when we were still exploring whether this could really be a movie. The last shot was January 2013. We made other movies during that time, so it’s not as if we went to the bar for 1,200 straight nights. It gave our characters time to sort of evolve and change.
You took on a very dynamic and rapidly changing subject. How did you see the cocktail world evolve in that time?
A year into filming, we were sort of at the height of the cocktail geek movement. That was when you’d go into a bar and order a vodka and a bartender might look down upon you. By the time we were finishing, you began to see more people describing themselves as bartenders rather than mixologists. They were acknowledging that how we treat our guests is also important. Saying you’re a bartender is a way to say that you care about the customer-service side and not solely about making a great drink.
You’ve also seen more of a community of bartenders grow. While we were filming, we filmed the first Manhattan Cocktail Classic, which is a highly successful, highly attended event that follows the success of Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans. But the Manhattan Cocktail Classic didn’t even exist when we started filming. Then we started to see the rise of these other cocktail weeks around the country; they were sprouting up the way film festivals did in the early ’90s. What’s significant about that is that bartenders have become their own communities. You don’t necessarily think of bartenders getting together like people do for books or cars or an insurance seminar or a digital convention. I wouldn’t describe these as conventions, but they’re gatherings for people in the trade. When a lot of us think of bartending, we think of a solitary profession. Part of that is because bartenders get out so late that they sleep for part of the day, and the part of the day they’re not working, they’re out doing the sorts of things people do. But because of these gatherings, bartenders know each other across the country. We’ve gone to shoot in other cities. One of the bartenders in New York City may say, “You’re going to Denver? Look up Sean [Kenyon] in Denver.”
We’ve also see the rise of spirits. A decade or so ago, how many tequilas were available? How many gins? Now there are dozens. The rise in spirits is a big deal. I love tequila–I drink Milagro, and that wasn’t even on shelves not very long ago.
How has the community responded to the movie?
I would say that the community has embraced the movie in an overwhelming way that’s humbling beyond my expectations. I think they understand that we tried to tell their story carefully and accurately and fairly.
The movie is aspirational in terms of the lead characters chasing their dreams beyond the bar, and it’s aspirational in terms of thesis, which is: How did this movement come to be? And the movie is entrepreneurial from an industry standpoint in the sense that a lot of people in the industry want people to believe in their efforts and that what they’re doing is so much more than what is in the glass. You can’t have these great cocktails made with fresh ingredients that taste better without the immense respect these people have for their craft.
So where does bartending go from here?
I believe that, eventually, you’ll be able to get a good or decent cocktail in most places. I don’t believe that the corner dive bar is going to become a speakeasy like PDT, but as happened with wine and food, any place that’s serving cocktails will be serving some craft cocktails. Years ago, if you were to go to a really great restaurant in Westport, they’d have 10 wines, 20 wines, and you’d say, “That’s a big-time wine list.” And it was–for 1977. Now you might go to a restaurant, they’ll have 100 wines, but the corner bar will have five or six wines, and that’s at a place where you could never have imagined having wine. Cocktails will follow that. Once you’ve tasted something good, you’ll never go back.
At the corner bars, where the bartender really is the unofficial mayor of that community, the bartender might have more luck getting people to try something new than the more sophisticated bartender in NYC. It doesn’t mean that people aren’t going to come in after work and not want Bud and a shot of whiskey or tequila, but maybe one of those beer-and-shot guys will come in on a date and order a cocktail that his bartender buddy has been telling him about for a year.
I think when people think of flair bartending, they think of Tom Cruise throwing the bottle in the air. This is still flair, but it’s a different kind of flair. Order a drink and watch someone stir. How hypnotic is that stirring? That drink is made just for you or the people with you. This is an intimate experience in the era with less and less intimacy. That’s the allure of cocktails, and that allure translates to all levels of drinking establishments. At the corner bar, it’s still intimate. This bartender knows you. That’s part of the rush. You’re being invited to come along with something special.
Did your drinking habits change as you made this movie?
Yes. When I go out to eat, I almost never order a special. Like, never. I’m going to get what I know I like or, if I’m going to someplace new or I’m traveling, I want their signature dish. Like, you’re not going to go to Antoine’s in New Orleans and not have the oysters Rockefeller; they invented it, and that’s what you’re getting. What has changed in my drinking habits is that when I go to a cocktail bar, whether I’ve been there before or not, I’m more likely to ask, “Is there a special today?” Did someone go to the farmers’ market and come up with something just for today? I love that experience of looking at the menu and having the bartender say, “Well, what do you like? What kind of spirit do you want? Do you like sweet or tart or bitter things? OK, how about we try this.” I love the idea that they’re figuring out your tastes and making something just for you. In the past, I just wanted what I wanted. Now I want to see what’s out there.
No call drink then?
Not really. I like tequila. Maybe something with a whiskey. I learned to try gin, which is something that I associate with my grandfather. The bars all serve a Manhattan or daiquiri or margarita, but they all have their own take on things. I want to know who the bartender is, and I want the cocktail that’s of that moment. I’m a movie guy, so I think about if I were scripting it, what would be the cocktail for that moment?
There’s also something great about the bartender putting the shot glass down in front of you and saying, “Cheers.” I asked a lot of these bartenders, “In the world of classic cocktails, what is the role of the shot?” My favorite answer: “The shot is the bartender’s handshake.” It means welcome, have a good night, or it’s nice to see you.
In all of this, did you find a new regular spot to replace the Spring Lounge?
I split my time. I still go to Employees Only, but I’m also into a corner bar called the Kettle of Fish. I like the new Milk & Honey on 23rd Street. Sasha isn’t hiding, but it seems like not a lot of people know about it yet, and I think that’s great. I like a place called Daddy-o, I still like PDT, and I go to a place called The Daily a lot.
With the characters in this community, it’s fascinating that no one’s made a movie like this before.
Well, I think Cheers cast a huge shadow. And, for better or worse, there’s a shadow of negativity. People think, “It’s a bartender, what’s there to say?” This moment of classic cocktails gave me an opening to say, OK, let’s take another look at that story. Something was changing at that moment. It allowed us to take a look and get people interested.
It took awhile to make the movie because I was trying to get a lot of information, but I was also trying to tell a story so that people outside of the industry can relate to it beyond its subject matter. I love the part in the movie when one of the main bartenders says, “I found a way to make a difference in the world as a bartender.” I hope everyone looks at that and says, “Yeah, that’s just like me.”
And then I hope people want to go out and have a drink afterward.
Hey Bartender just entered wide release. It’s playing at Village East here in New York.