There’s one person essential to any bar patron’s experience — a person who can make or break an evening out, who can be the difference between whether a bar is remembered amazing or awful. That person goes by many names, but the most universal is ‘bartender.’
Bartenders do far more than simply pour beer and recite wine lists. The best combine the acumen for flavor of a top chef and the interpersonal skills of a cruise director, singlehandedly creating a personal experience for every patron in the room, even when it’s Saturday night and the barroom is full to bursting.
“You need a combination. You need to be able to make drinks people want to drink, and you need to find out what they like,” explains Patrick Bruce, head bartender at Thistle. “You could make the best drink in the world, and if you don’t talk to people around you… most people come in by themselves. You’re their entertainment.”
Bruce has a well-deserved reputation as one of the county’s best barkeepers. In the small back room that serves as Thistle’s bar, Bruce’s personal warmth is matched only by his flair for innovative mixing.
“I really enjoy playing with different combinations of flavors — it’s like cooking. That’s what I love about my job; I have the freedom to create things that are mine. That’s what keeps me pumped up,” he said. “I’ve worked for the chain places where ‘This is what we do, this is all we do.’ It’s difficult, because you’re in a box. There’s not a lot of freedom outside of that. I’m lucky here to have the freedom to do things for people.”
The passion for new flavors and making drinks that wow thirsty customers is what separates the best from the rest, explained Emily Enomoto, tavern manager at Ruddick/Wood in Newberg.
“It’s the enjoyment of it. A good bartender, in my opinion, is someone that understands the concept of it and knows the recipes and can do it. A great bartender will have a little passion behind it; they really enjoy the flavors they are producing,” she said. “They’re always trying new things. For anything, if someone has passion behind it, you’re going to notice.”
For Enomoto, bartending is more then a job — she describes mixing original cocktails as her “creative outlet.”
“A lot of it is based on my experience with food. I’ll take items I enjoy eating, flavor profiles and concepts, and try to translate that into drinks,” she said. “I took Szechuan peppercorns, infused them into a vodka and created a cocktail, for example.”
As with any art, there’s a technical side to mixing as well. A master of the craft, Enomoto has come to appreciate the nuanced details of good cocktail making.
“I appreciate the bartenders who take the little bit of extra time to have technique in how they stir, how they shake, how they treat the ingredients that go into it,” she said. “When I was learning, that was the biggest thing that stood out to me was how shaking a cocktail can make it taste different based on how much dilution you get and how much air you put into it. I had no idea that made such a difference. Now, attention to detail is something I appreciate.”
So how does a patron show their appreciation for a top-notch mixologist? Some ways are obvious.
“Be nice,” Bruce said.
Other ways are more subtle. Let your favorite barkeep experiment on you — that’s when the specialists like Enomoto and Bruce are in their element.
“For me, I feel complimented when people are willing to experiment with me,” Enomoto said. “A lot of people might be scared to do that because they don’t
know what they’re going to get, but it shows appreciation in trusting them with
Like any artist, honest evaluation is essential. Bruce explained how he doesn’t need a pat on the back when he’s working on a new recipe — he needs suggestions.
“If I’m working on something and I have them try it, honest feedback is more important than ‘Oh, it’s great,’” he said. “If you’re in a band and come off stage and ask ‘how did we sound?’ ‘Oh, you sound great’ doesn’t really help us. Is it balanced? Is it too acidic? Is there too much of this for you?”
With a little help, top-class bartenders can put the perfect drink in your hand and a smile on your face.
After all, it’s their job.