By Khalid Williams
I get to bartend. I get to serve beverages to people while seeing their humanity in its most vulnerable place. When humans desire comfort, we are forced to show something of ourselves to the world. The comfort sought at bars is a collection of souls all looking for relief. They seek it not in just the beverages but the camaraderie and the instant bonds that are formed by humans seeking tranquility — the connection between the faithful host and a grateful guest.
This privilege is also a responsibility. I am entrusted with the health and safety of each person who deigns to sip from the cup I have poured. The collective comfort and inclusion of all guests is my duty. If someone is made to feel uncomfortable, I have the privilege of exercising a just power to eradicate what makes them uncomfortable, be it a poorly adjusted temperature or a maladjusted human who has trouble with the concepts of space and consent.
We aim to run an egalitarian operation. The meritocracy of the bar room is reflective of a silent system that rewards the faithful, welcomes the uninitiated and punishes the louse and the brute. How joyful it has made me to see a burly, rude man forced to either act right or leave the premises, moved on by the steely stare of my sister bartender. Standing no more than 5 feet, she stares down the crass individual until a look of realization and shame comes across his face. “Sorry, it won’t happen again.”
Each bartender who works under a restaurant’s license is an employee; until a liability case happens. Magically, we become partners in this litigious world. Our entire livelihood depends on the safe service of beverages, no matter what. I urge any bartender who isn’t familiar with the legal phrase “jointly and severally” to get to know it well. If overserving results in the destruction of property or, worse, injury, we are on the hook like a pay phone. This means financially and legally.
When I was starting out, the seasoned veterans I worked with really drilled into my mind that what happens at, and because of, my bar is my responsibility. No matter if it’s white tablecloth service or karaoke night at a neighborhood watering hole, we are constantly monitoring our guests and making sure that the fun they have is safe and legal. (I humbly offer that you’ll be safer at the shot and beer bar than at a country club banquet, but that’s a story for another day.)
Many times have I earned the temporary anger, but lifetime gratitude, of a guest whose keys I was forced to take. The harmonious balance of lowered inhibitions mixed with an understated code of conduct gives rise to an energy that is irreplaceable.
Our pride lies also in the fact that we act as silent protectors. The “angel shot” is always on the menu. Whenever someone feels uncomfortable with the attention that they’re getting from another, they simply need to order an angel shot from the bartender and we quickly set about the task of separating the parties by way of phantom phone calls. This is not by mistake. It’s by magic — and it’s a magic that we very specifically work tirelessly to create.
We are also the stewards of love. Like Cupid, the arrows we fire are from bottles and the hearts we pierce are the palates of guests who seek thoughtful beverages. More directly, a first date at a bar is one of the best ways to break through the initial layer of masks that potential romantic partners feel they must shield their hearts with. Something real comes to the surface and the individuals have a better understanding of their compatibility after sitting together at a well-run bar.
If you need a house sitter and have college-age kids that are prone to throwing parties whilst mom and dad are on vacation, call a bartender. Your home will be in the same condition as you left it upon your return. Look at your favorite bar: Each day it gets covered in booze, bits of fruit and whatever is brought in on the soles of patrons’ shoes. We make it look like the place just opened its doors for the first time, every single day. The bar is a stage and is something that we take seriously.
These themes have presented themselves time and time again. Be it at a corner neighborhood watering hole or a painstakingly curated beverage innovation center, the alchemy exists. It’s up to us to treat our responsibilities like they are privileges and our duties like they are gifts from beyond. I get to bartend, and I commit to my guests, my colleagues and myself that I will uphold the duties, every day and in every way.
Khalid Williams is a bar manager, spirits brand representative and program consultant specializing in marketing, engagement and data. His passion is for exploring the “why” behind consumer decisions. He loves Old-world wine, New-world rum and Connecticut beer. Follow him on Instagram @thebarrelage.