During many of my cocktail jaunts, I often think how cool it would be to experience, first-hand, the behind-the-scenes mechanics of a bar or cocktail joint (hint hint, bars). So I was ultra-pumped last week when Copperwood Tavern’s bartender Will Witherow reached out and offered to let me hang out with him and his team for an evening of bar service. As a big fan of Copperwood’s cocktail offerings (read my fawning seasonal write-ups here, here, here, and here), it was an offer I couldn’t refuse.
For someone like me who has never worked in the food service industry, the evening behind Copperwood’s service bar was a really, REALLY fascinating and fun experience. I got to observe and participate a bit in the drink service, learning how to use beer taps and other bar tools. I also watched in awe as dishes many times more sophisticated that my microwaved cuisine flew out of the kitchen and onto waiting tables within minutes. Will was gracious enough to show me step-by-step how many of his cocktails are made as well as lots of bartender secrets. It’s hard to quantify and categorize the dozens of facts and tricks I picked up watching the crew work, but here’s four key observations that stuck with me:
Learning by doing. I think I learned more about cocktail preparation and ingredients in 2 hours watching Will and Co. work than I did in the hundreds of articles I’ve read online. That hands-on experience and working alongside folks who love the craft and experimenting is the best education you can ask for. I’ve never gone to bartending school, but I can’t believe they’d offer better instruction than what you’d get shadowing a professional for a few hours. And no way would it be as much fun, as Will and the others spent some time playing with old drinks in search of new ones. The opportunity to mix and match ingredients with professionals was heaven on Earth for this cocktail nerd.
These guys work hard! It’s pretty stunning when you realize just how much preparation and effort it takes to support a full beverage menu (not to mention food) for just one evening. Buckets full of syrup have to be prepared, citrus has to be squeezed, glasses have to be washed, and liquor has to be staged. I got exhausted just watching! So, next time you’re going through a cocktail list that features dozens of ingredients, give a little thought to the time and effort spent rendering it all – the drinks will taste better, trust me.
The little things matter. I’ll admit, sometimes when I make cocktails I home, I cut corners. Liquor or ice first? Whatevs. Shaken or stirred? Who cares? But watching Will and Co. work taught me the importance of consistency at every step of making a drink. For example, I made an Apple Sazerac (Apple brandy, maple syrup, Peychaud’s) behind the bar, which was fine. Will then walked me through the process and, using the same ingredients, made a superior drink simply by doing one or two things a little differently. I think its that eye for detail and appreciation for those simple techniques that separates the good bartenders from the bad.
Organization, organization, organization. As someone whose apartment is often…unkempt, I was a little out of place in Copperwood’s very well-organized service bar. This emphasis on order is a necessity given the speed the bartenders have to turn out complicated drinks. To help expedite this process, the key ingredients for numerous drinks are placed in complimentary positions, allowing pros like Will to make cocktails in roughly 20-30 seconds. Even with my uncoordinated, rookie hands, i was able to make one of Copperwood’s “Commonwealth Mules” in about 30 seconds.
In summation, spending four hours watching the action at Copperwood was an awesome learning experience. Picked up a few tricks of the trade I can employ at home and gained some new respect for bartenders and everyone else who makes a bar hum. Thanks so much to Will and everyone else at Copperwood!