how I became a bartender

Preface:

This is my first legit foray into this “blog” stuff. I don’t want to limit it to cocktails and bar-related (baresque? Baroque? Baroque.) things, because I’m a well-rounded human being, dammit! That said, I do spend a lot of time and energy thinking about libations and potations. Whatever.

Post-preface:

The POS (point of sale, where servers/bartenders ring in orders and keep tabs) I worked with about 4 years ago presented me with a menu every time I clocked in. Let’s see. Am I a prep cook today? Am I a line cook? A dishwasher? A server? The day I acquired a “Bartender” option when I clocked into work was about 3 and a half years ago. Right place, right time, with a little help from the manager’s unwillingness to work weekend days, I suppose. I was working in the kitchen as head prep cook and brunch line cook and decided to put in my 2 weeks without a real plan for what to do. The bar manager heard I gave my notice and asked me if I wanted to be the “brunch supervisor”, which meant I got to work Saturday and Sunday 8:30-5. I had wanted to deal with customers a bit more, so I jumped on it.

As with any origin tale, especially of the Marvel/DC variety (which this is adamantiumly not), the narrative has a richer backstory that led up to that moment. I had several brief interactions with serving drinks, all of them in some weird circumstances.

(Flashback, camera pans out of the kitchen, zooms in on a 18-yr old, freshman Scuzzi with a weird fro and a shitty beard. It’s finals week. College roommate is holding a bottle of Bailey’s.)

I grew up in an extended family that did not have a positive view on alcohol and drinking in general. It was generally forbidden, and “drinkers” were referred to with some amount of disgust. I somehow made it through high school with just my nerdy friends without drinking, or even really wanting to drink. I went to college with more of my family’s alcohol-perspective than I realized, and didn’t drink at all in my first semester. Except this one time. My roommate had a bottle of Bailey’s Irish Cream, and brought it out at a particularly celebratory moment during finals week. He offered me a shot, and my immediate reaction was that familial disgust and a hard no. That quickly melted via some liberal self-examination, and I had my first intentional taste of alcohol. It was fine. At that point, it tingled a little bit (which is hilarious, Bailey’s is like 2-proof). Point: I got over my weird negative cultural perspectives about alcohol in that moment. It was great.

Note 1: Drinking while underage is illegal. /endrant

Note 2: My mother only drinks the cocktails I make. I just gave her a shaker/strainer combo, a jigger, and my copy of Death & Co. So we have progress.

The next semester I came back to school and made great friends with one of the Seniors on the hall, and he convinced me and my roommate to join him in making drinks and food for what he called “Latin Lounge”. Every Wednesday we would take over this 3-story old house-building-thing on campus and serve handmade gorditas, tacos, and a variety of drinks and shots. We technically only sold plates and 2 different sizes of cups to avoid some fun legal issues on campus. He ran the show, bought the booze, and split the “profits” with us. All to some form of fun Spanish dance music. We served 200+ people in 3 hours. Out of a home kitchen, essentially. It was insane, looking back. The menu was Barbie doll shots, apple pie shots, some mixed long drinks, but the one that stuck with me was a mojito. I loved muddling the mint with sugar to release those flavors. I was an absolute cocktail noob, I can’t even remember the shaker we used. It lasted one semester, and we only made 10-20 bucks a night, but it was a blast. Every one of those nights was a blur. Kind of a weird first for customer service, but it stuck.

(stage directions in a blog post are annoying, sorry…)

My next interaction behind the stick was at a bar/sandwich place. I was 21. I was head prep cook, responsible for making fun soups, porketta, desserts, and making up a hummus recipe. One of my female coworkers who was quite a bit cuter than me was offered the chance to bartend when our coworker called in sick. I was stuck making sandwiches and tiramisu. It was fine. At some point after the lunch rush she freaked out; someone ordered a margarita and she didn’t know how to make it. She came into the kitchen and asked me to help. I washed my hands, went out front, grabbed the worn, scotch-taped copy of Mr. Boston Official Bartender’s Guide, and found the margarita recipe. It called for simple syrup. I googled it. I grabbed some sugar and a fork and a cambro and whisked up a semblance of “simple syrup”, squeezed some limes into it, shook it with some tequila and, I hope, some orange liqueur, and poured it into a pint glass with ice and a stupidly salted rim. I served it to the woman, thanked her for being patient, and went back into the kitchen to finish prep. 20 minutes later, my coworker came back to the kitchen. Apparently that was the best margarita this woman had ever had and she wanted more. Four more, all told. I ended up behind the bar for the remainder of my shift, which included a World Cup soccer rush, had to learn about a bunch of beers and how to keep the foamy stuff (I would go on to discover this was called “head”) from getting too out of control when pouring. I learned where the margarita mix was kept, and didn’t make any more cambro-style margaritas. It was my first and last bartending shift there.

(… because now you expect some sort of dramatic break between stories. Voila.)

Shortly after my emergency bartending shift, I started working at a place that served Scandinavian-style food. I was mostly in charge of making lefse sandwiches and Swedish pancakes. When I started there, they had a liquor license and a small selection of fun cocktails leftover from previous owners. I learned how to think about flavors in drinks, but only in the most basic sense. I even brought back a mojito to the menu. I was a self-proclaimed mojito specialist. Nobody ever told me to mojitone it down.

(Yarrrr)

I quit both jobs when I was offered a gig sailing on a tall ship out of Connecticut. My college friend called me and said they needed crew. I had sailed exactly twice on a small boat, for a total of 4 hours on the water. Of course I said yes. I bought a one-way ticket the next day and gave my two-weeks, with no idea what I would be in for. First day on the ship was hurricane Earl making landfall. I learned how to tie knots and make sure shit didn’t blow away. Later that sailing season, I decided to make a bunch of cocktails for the crew. Guess what. I made mojitos. I had never made mojitos for 8 thirsty sailors at once, though. I took a big stainless mixing bowl, added sugar and water a la cambro-margarita, and squeezed some limes. I muddled some mint, combined the mixture with a white rum and served the mojito-punch-thing in coffee mugs. It tasted like garbage. Ego check. I thought I had my mojito game down, but apparently things happen differently when you make more than one cocktail at a time. Who knew? The sailor solution was to just add more rum and drink them quicker. We drank dark rum with ginger beer the rest of the night and had a blast, but I was discouraged. My mixology skills were not requested again. 🙁

(Closer to home?)

I worked in a kitchen when I moved back to Duluth, and had the pleasure of working with some incredible chefs. One of my dear friends would bounce his ideas off me when we would take smoke breaks. He taught me how to think about salt, how to let things rest, how to cook eggs perfectly, but most importantly taught me that flavor combinations are not bound by recipes and ratios found in cookbooks. He left to work for a different restaurant in town, eventually becoming Head Chef, and now puts out some of the most delicious and interesting food north of the twin cities.

When I started tending bar officially, I had a lot of catching up to do. I read some wine books and had two of the most knowledgeable bartenders in town to answer my questions. I was given liberties to play with some weird stuff and learn about the world of cocktails. When I walked behind that bar the first time, they had Cynar, 2 kinds of Genever, 4 varieties of vermouth, Fernet before it was cool, Ramazzotti, Bonal, and Batavia Arrack. So much weird stuff to learn about right away. I went from messing up a sailor-mojito-punch to learning how to make a proper Pisco sour.

I now work at Vikre Distillery. I was hired when they decided to open a cocktail room via facebook message from one of my regulars, a wine-curious friend-customer. It’s been 2 years, and I can’t begin to describe what I’ve learned since I’ve been here. When I walked in and we opened to customers for the first time, I had no idea what a julep strainer was. I also was convinced that a short shake I called a “lazy stir” was an effective way to serve a stirred cocktail. That first day, some lucky news guy snapped a photo of a cocky bartender in a new environment straining a drink for a customer.

Bartender Nick Pascuzzi of Duluth pours an Inland Sea a drink containing Aquavit with apple blackberry grapefruit lime and vanilla flavors at the cocktail room of Vikre Distillery in Duluth on the first day of operation Friday afternoon in Duluth. This is the first cocktail room in the state allowed under a new microdistillery law passed by the Minnesota legislature in the spring session. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

To this day, it serves as a constant reminder not to let my assumptions get in my own way.

 

I don’t know. I think every bartender has a narrative about how and why they started in this industry. It’s fun to put the pieces together.

 

Keep your stick on the ice.

 

 

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