Yesterday I posted a negative review of my experience last weekend at Drink in Boston. I didn’t pull any punches and got emails from a couple people who also blog about cocktails regarding the post. As a result of one, I updated my comments on the bartender not knowing a couple cocktails unique to Death & Company in NYC I’d asked for. I added:
I want to be clear that I’m not trying to be hard on this bartender for not knowing The Conference and St. Columbs Rill. He’d served a drink from Death & Co. already for my friend, so I assumed he’d known others. But I really didn’t expect him to, as I don’t think it’s that fair to expect people to know contemporary cocktails from bars in other cities. But he should know a Journalist.
Beyond that, I prefaced my request by saying to him, “Hey, since you know the Oaxaca Old Fashioned, is it OK if I try to order another drink from Death & Co.?” He obliged but then conceded not knowing the drinks I request. Again – not a big deal and I certainly don’t hold it against him nor the bar.
John of Observational Gastrophysics, a Boston-based cocktail blog, has a post up responding to my review. Like my friends Austin and Arianna and top DC bartender Derek Brown, John is a fan of Drink. But also like my friends, he’s never had the sort of experience I had and is rightly distressed. Here’s a lengthy quote from his post:
and yet, matt’s experience exemplifies something i’ve been sensing – that the level of professionalism at drink is slipping… unlike the first generation of bartenders who started the place, not every new bartender (and there are lots of them, with drink’s growing popularity) knows their shit, let alone their classic shit.
and i feel like the bartenders effectively are creating a menu – instead of listening to each patron – by pigeonholing tastes into the friday/saturday pre-mixed drinks. it takes the magic out of drink, and it saddens me to think that a no-menu kind of bar can’t do big business.
as for his remaining critiques – no doorman, no menu, no liquor shelf – well, i’d rather sit down and have a drink to talk about them. i believe that an open (we’re not speakeasy nyc), interactive (for minutes at a time during off hours), and unostentatious (bars are not liquor churches) bar is the new paradigm.
Now I’ll grant that going to cocktail bars on Fridays and Saturdays, especially during peak hours, can be a bit dicey. But I don’t always get to visit new cities mid-week to enjoy bars on their slow nights. I knew going in that there was a good chance I’d be less-than-pleased with the crowd. And in the end, I don’t think the crowd was in itself that much a problem, other than on the bartenders’ work load.
I want to say that, in my defense, I don’t really have a problem with the open door policy, other than how it manifested itself on Friday. I don’t have a problem with the absence of a menu – I know drinks well enough to be able to do just fine without one, though I’m probably more knowledgeable than many other customers. And the absence of visible bottles? I thought it was cool from a design standpoint, just a bit unusual. In an ideal world, I would have done what it is clear John usually gets to do at Drink: grab a stool, start chatting, and make my way through an evening of enjoyable drinks with the help of a friendly bartender.
I’d also add that being a bartender, especially a craft bartender, is hard work. It’s even harder when the bar is full on a Friday night. It’s even harder when you can’t rely on 10 or 20 standard recipes that most people order and are expected to know literally two centuries worth of cocktails by snobs who write poorly read cocktail blogs (ok that last one is an exaggeration, I don’t expect them to know all of this stuff). But to me, this is all indicative of an important question proprietors of craft cocktail bars should be asking themselves…
A high quality bar should not vary in quality from night to night – it should be uniformly enjoyable, with an equal level of service regardless of who is behind the stick. One of the reasons I probably never became friendly with any of the bartenders at Death & Company when I lived in New York is that the quality was equal regardless of the night I went or who was tending bar. Frankly, at that time I didn’t even know the way different bartenders shaped the menu. It was all the same high quality for me. Likewise I’ve found fairly uniform levels of service at bars like The Gibson, PX, The Bourgeoisie Pig, PS 7s, and Bourbon. There simply should be an obligation at higher end cocktail bars to ensure their staff have adequate training to give their guests the same experience every time. Quality drinks at a bar shouldn’t be dependent on knowing the bartender nor having a long conversation about what you as a customer like.
I don’t expect a bartender to know The Savoy cocktail book front to back (well, unless it’s Erik Ellestad bartending). But I do expect them to have a more-than-cursory knowledge of classic cocktails. Even more importantly, I expect them to know proper techniques for making cocktails. Ideally, they know more than I do about cocktails if they’re working professionally at a high-end establishment like Drink. But even if they don’t (which, in my case, but certainly not many other accomplished cocktail bloggers, is quite a statement), if they can make a good drink and learn along the way, all is well.
The craft cocktail movement is growing in popularity. Craft cocktail bars are increasingly in high demand. This is a good thing! But as these bars expand to accommodate their popularity, they have to sustain the level of quality and service they deliver on slower nights. It sounds like Drink is going through a growth period. I clearly went on an off night and I’ll say I look forward to going to Drink again the next time I’m in Boston. But John is right, I hope they hear the criticism they are getting online and work to fix it.