Four Noble Truths for bartenders

FRIDAY NIGHT and the short young man in a porkpie hat and early 20th-century waxed mustache jockeyed back and forth on the periphery of my vision. First on the left of the woman seated directly in front of me, then to her right, and now back on her left. All of this I could see without looking up, because I knew the moment I did he would probably blurt out an order. And I was busy making six very different drinks.

I have heard new-age gurus talk about trying to live in the moment. One Friday night behind a busy bar and they wouldn’t have to try. In the middle of the rush, you either live in the moment or you sink. The minute you worry about why something is, or what is coming next, any number of the people will bring you right back to the present.

Finishing the drinks, I finally looked up at the wax-mustached man.

“Can I get you something?” I said, wiping my hands on a bar towel.

“Do you have any cucumber simple syrup?” he asked.

“I have several simple syrups, but no cucumber.”

“Do you have any house-made ginger peach bitters?”

I was now aware of the others peering at me. I felt sweat trickle down my neck.

“I have peach bitters. But it’s not house made,” trying to speed things along.

“Do you have any house-infused kaffir lime vodka?”

This time, instead of answering, I handed him our house cocktail list.

“I do have all this.” I then moved to take the orders from several of the people belonging to all those other peering eyes. Eventually, I returned to him.

“Well?” I said as kindly as possible, keenly aware of two new waving hands just behind him.

“At my bar we make a kaffir lime cucumber gimlet with peach ginger bitters.”

“So what,” I thought, although what I actually said was something like “very interesting.”

Mr. Mustache then launched into a spiel about his specialty cocktail expertise. About 30 seconds in I raised both my hands.

“Can I get you something?”

“Oh no, I was just curious. I’m a mixologist, you see …”

In the middle of the dinner rush he had just monopolized several minutes of my time for nothing. You might think that someone in the restaurant industry would avoid doing that at all costs. But you would be wrong. I can’t count how many times over the years that the last two people in the restaurant on a holiday eve are two employees from another restaurant. Or the person giving unsolicited advice during the rush is a bartender from a bar down the street, one that is going out of business.

At the turn of the last century, Marin County bartender and author Cocktail Boothby added a chapter to his book “American Bar-Tender” called Boothby’s Ten Commandments. In it he outlined 10 good rules for bartenders at work. It is in this spirit (and in keeping with some new-age philosophies) that I humbly submit a slightly different take.

Four Noble Truths for Bartenders not at their own bar:

• Don’t offer unsolicited advice. You really have no idea why they do things the way they do. And even if you do, and are right, they probably won’t appreciate it.

• Don’t try to impress someone who is busy working by bragging. This is their show and their bar. It’s kind of like going to see a comedian and having a member of the audience ruin the show by constantly interrupting the routine.

• Don’t order drinks that only you know how to make, that are incredibly obscure or that only appear on your specialty cocktail list. The likelihood that they will have the ingredients to make them is low, and while you might be impressed with them, the person behind the bar is not going to be.

• Do unto others as you would have them do to you.* This might be the most important. If you don’t appreciate someone coming in at exactly closing time, then don’t do it yourself. It’s really that simple.

*Admittedly this one is not mine, but all too applicable nonetheless.