Justin Stone is currently a manager at the DiBicarri brother's Tavern Road in Fort Point, Boston. He has worked in the hospitality industry as a doorman, busboy, maître d', server and bartender. In the fall, he will be part of the front of the house team at
Alden and Harlow, Harvard Square, Cambridge.
How many craftsman do you know? Working in food and beverage service is the closest I have come to working with and for craftsman. They are my favorite kind of professional colleague. I simply appreciate those who can make something out of a series of parts, using skills learned and developed over time. Cooks and chefs tend to get the accolades in my line of work. Just take a look at my Instagram feed for examples; I'm following three times as many chefs as bartenders. Maybe it's because cocktails don't photograph well at night, or it's possible that as of the moment, the chefs have the floor. Over the past few years, though, the word kitchen has been slowly married to the word cocktail into something of an awkward marriage. Is The Hawthorne a cocktail kitchen? I am sure that Ms. Carrie Cole would say “No.” I have heard many bartenders say that their bar space is an office. Others have remarked that the bar is a river where animals come to drink and get eaten by alligators. Both images conjure interesting associations, especially for those who have had to work the door on a busy weekend, but I digress.
When you place a food or drink order, a magically odd thing happens. You, the human being, perfectly capable of making a grilled cheese sandwich or a lemonade, have relinquished this responsibility to another human being. Expectations are set and a contract is written in the air. “My grilled cheese will appear as I have imagined it,” you think while reviewing the menu one last time before placing your order. It's a matter of trust. You are paying for the pleasure of not having to do a thing yourself. You are letting one whom is deemed “a professional” craft this item for you, sometimes without knowing what the end result will be. I contend that food and beverage service is the closest humans come anymore to the craftspeople who produce their consumer goods. I haven't visited a Chinese IKEA factory lately, so I can't vouch for the poor guy drilling holes in my Burjta bookcase shelves.
Trusting a craftsman used to be a necessity for those interested in purchasing quality consumer goods. You had to visit the carpenter for your chairs or the cooper for your casks. Nowadays, that relationship is diluted by matters of convenience. Who needs to shake the hand of the craftsman anymore? Who pays patronage to the hands and the brains behind something truly well-made? I believe that kitchens and bars are some of the last remaining places where people can regularly appreciate craftsmanship. I also maintain that the kitchen, especially in recent years, is receiving the bulk of the attention from the consumer. I would like to turn the focus to the bartenders for the time being. Sometimes, they're the only people I trust.
Two years ago I decided to pull up the roots again and move to Shanghai for work. I had visited the city while still living in South Korea and it seemed to have everything I wanted in a metropolitan environment: a vibrant nightlife, diverse expat population and a booming restaurant and bar scene. Luckily, I had an industry contact in the city. While on my reconnaissance mission in 2010, my contact took me to a bar in the Luwan district of Shanghai called The Alchemist. The Alchemist was unlike any bar I had seen in Korea. It was aesthetically well-designed, driven by a cocktail program, stocked with all sorts of wonderful spirits and directed by a man named Ryan Noreiks of Brisbane, Australia. Mr. Noreiks and I would develop a friendship over the following year and he would go on to share with me the best of his craftsmanship.
As with other beings in nature, bartenders come in many forms. You have your pint-pullers, your nightclub gun-slingers and the guy named Al who cracked beers at the VFW for your grandpa. There is no blueprint for what a bartender “should” be, but I do believe that out there in the ether, a formula exists which creates the perfect match of skill, service and professionalism. I've known hundreds of bartenders by acquaintance and had the pleasure of knowing a handful personally. I will venture to say that Mr. Noreiks ranks among some of the best, not because he is an upstanding fellow, but for one simple reason, he exuded craftsmanship through his work. He was a special breed. What I learned from him and his drinks changed the way I consider cocktails, customer service and presentation.
The cocktail list at The Alchemist resembled an old travel journal, much like the list at The Hawthorne. You could easily tell there was authorship behind it. For those customers interested in spending time considering their beverage, it was a lovely object to behold. It was not built for push-button ordering. A cocktail list should be more like a bar's resume or a statement than a multi-doored portal that ends in a buzz. It doesn't have to be pretentious, but it should represent the establishment and its bartenders. Over the years, I have come to be more interested in the people behind the drinks than the lists themselves. Rarely do I tip on product alone. I have had a hundred Manhattans, most of them shoddily composed. I know a good one after the first nip. What I'm looking for these days is craftsmanship, composition and creativity.
I made my way through The Alchemist's list in a matter of a month or so. It wasn't a daunting task if you had some friends to help. It was actually not my kind of list, heavy on the molecular side, very avant. I had no intention of repeating myself and going back to classics. One night, I remember it vividly, I asked Ryan to “give me his take on a Sazerac.” What Ryan produced was my first recognizable example of craftsmanship in a cocktail, something I like to call “Off List”. It wasn't complicated, but it was inspired.
2 ounces of Willett rye whiskey, 5 drops of cardamom tincture, 15 ml sugar syrup and 2 dashes of Peychauds bitters. Shake hard and double strain.
We called it “In Cold Blood”. It changed the way I drink cocktails and consider the craftsmanship behind a beverage. “Drinking off list” became a way of life at The Alchemist. Once Mr. Noreiks broadened my palate with “In Cold Blood”, once I could trust whatever came off his bar, I didn't want to go back to a list. However, without the man behind the drink, the experience was not the same. There had to be a marriage between the product and the craftsman. Given the chance to share with a guest not only craftsmanship but humanity, a skilled bartender should do both, simultaneously. What Ryan brought to the bar beyond his skill and charm was a genuine interest in my taste. He learned, he listened and put these interactions into a crafted drink based on my previous orders. In turn, I showed the same interest in his work. It's the best kind of service based relationship, one based on mutual appreciation.
Ryan and I continued our friendship along these lines for the remaining time that I lived in Shanghai. He moved on to renovate another bar called Yucca and I followed. At Yucca, on the slower nights, we would converse over the bar on all things spirits, service and hospitality. Towards the end of my time in Shanghai, I rarely ordered drinks by name. I wanted, more than anything, to be educated, to put the pleasure of discovery in the hands of a craftsman. It's not often that I can have this experience. I don't look down at my burrito and consider the man or woman who rolled it up in foil and paper. These days, when I visit a new bar, if there's a list, I'll generally order something from my wheelhouse. However, the drink that follows, if I dig the person wielding the shaker and spoon, will be up to them. I understand that this has been happening at “Drink” for years now. It's going on everywhere, even in the homes of people who have decided to practice the composition of cocktails on their own. Liquor stores carry better spirits, people read Imbibe magazine and David Wondrich's column in Esquire. Even apps help. We're moving forward as a consumer culture, hopefully towards a place where we once again consider the people behind the products and not just the brand.
I encourage you, the consumer, the customer, to seek out craftsman, to give them your patronage and to take an interest in their skill, their humanity. With your interest and curiosity will come the reward of discovery. You'll come to find that behind every wonderful drink or dish there is a human being who has spent years working towards that sweet spot between product and consumer. This is why I tip, why I return time and time again. This is why I come back and bring my friends and family. A stage can be as small as 6 ounces.
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