I got my first bartending job when I was 20 at a place called Jimmy Z’s Timeout Tavern in Erie, Pennsylvania. Glamorous, right? I thought so. The manager saw my birthday on my resume, did the math wrong, and I was launched into the glamorous world of Long Island Ice Teas and 25¢ draft beer specials.
I wasn’t looking for a career. I was looking to make money while going to college. After I graduated, when life got in the way of my “real” career as a thriving desk assistant at NBC Universal, I found myself back behind the bar.
At the time, craft was the name of the game. Craft beer, craft cocktails, and craft spirits were suddenly everywhere. I could barely keep up with all the new drinks and many of my customers seemed at least a step ahead of me. I quickly realized I didn’t know shit.
Nothing felt worse than standing in front of a wall of some of the most interesting bottles in the world and answering someone’s simple question with a lame, “I don’t know.”
So, I decided to do the only thing I could—learn. I read everything I could get my hands on. I tasted everything I could get access to or afford. I learned cocktails recipes and forgot trying to master fancy flair moves. I learned how to use a jigger even when the bar was packed four deep. I learned that I really loved bartending. I also learned that I loved to share the information I collected.
In 2008, I even started a special weekly event, Whiskey Wednesday. (Genius, I know...) I featured a different bottle of whiskey every week, did a write up on the history and stories behind the brand, and put together a menu of three or four drinks that included the featured spirit. It was supposed to be a way for me to educate guests about the wonders of alcohol but after eight years it’s become clear that this little promo night has taught me more than I could have imaged.
So, in honor of the past eight years here are the eight biggest things I’ve learned from hosting Whiskey Wednesday.
When I started, I was practically screaming at my guests, “Look at this menu! Look at this rare whiskey! Aren’t you impressed?!” For the most part they weren’t. They, of course, just wanted a good drink. They didn’t care what I knew. They cared about their evening and sometimes they wanted to talk, and that meant learning something new, but oftentimes it just meant getting an $8 Old-Fashioned.
While I was ostensibly hosting Whiskey Wednesday as an educational event, the truth was I needed to fill seats at my bar and it was a glorified happy hour. But it was a happy hour that I was actually glad to work. There were nights where I was pouring bottles of George T. Stagg for $10 a shot, and the only thing the guests cared about was the low price. But there were also nights when I got to teach guests about the family tree of how Blanton’s was related to Rock Hill Farms and Elmer T. Lee and a myriad of other whiskey minutia and lore.
People really like what they like, especially when it comes to booze. So much of a person’s personality is wrapped up in what they drink. Are you a Martini person or a Manhattan person? Do you like vodka or gin? But the one commonality among all drinkers that I’ve found is that they all want a bargain. The temptation of getting a deal made it a lot easier for me to entice a patron to try something outside of their comfort zone. Maybe it was a dram of Redbreast Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey instead of their standard Jameson. Every night was an exercise in how to get a guest to take the first step, to get them to trust me enough that I could get them to play along. When it connected that’s when the magic started to happen.
In the early days, I used Whiskey Wednesday as an excuse to get rid of back stock but there was a notable difference on the nights where I was pouring something I truly cared about. So, I started being very particular about what I featured. I promised myself I wouldn’t use anything I wouldn’t happily serve to a customer on a regular night.
I was also always incredibly frank about what I was pouring. Some of it I loved, some of it I was lukewarm about but there was always a reason for why I thought it deserved to be featured and why it deserved a place on my menu. This honesty built up trust and as my deal seekers became regulars they grew to enjoy the fact that not every Wednesday drink was something they were going to like, but it was something new and interesting to try.
This change in mindset of what I was pouring also led to a change in how I was tasting liquor. It’s far too easy to taste something and say, “I don’t like this” or fall into the good vs. bad dynamic. Instead of deciding if I subjectively “liked” a spirit, I started asking myself where it fit on the back bar. What holes in the flavor spectrum did it plug? Did I already have something for that category and if I did, was what I was tasting better? More authentic? More interesting? Again, it wasn’t about me it was about the guest at the bar. I wanted to have something that I was proud to pour no matter what the guest requested. If I didn’t have the brand they were calling for, I wanted a reason why and I wanted something similar but better on hand.
People love new things. Because I was starting to find out about whiskies before they were cool, I was in turn able to tell my guests about them, which made them look like rock stars with their friends and families. (I can’t take credit for the Japanese whisky shortage but we definitely helped drain a few barrels of it before most drinkers ever heard of it.) While people in general now like to be ahead of the curve, with drinkers it’s doubly true. Part of the joy of drinking for many whiskey aficionados I learned is the art of the hunt, tracking down and tasting new or hard to find whiskies. If anything that has only gotten more intense in recent years.
After a few years of regularly hosting Whiskey Wednesday, my regulars expected me to really deliver. Week in, week out I had to walk in with a featured bottle, an educational write up, and a special cocktail menu. Because I’m a bartender this often meant I’d be walking into the bar still writing but I always got it done. I also had to balance the event costs, so I got more creative in how I did things, which in turn lead to me being more thoughtful and educated about how I made drinks. Working with a rotating selection of whiskies also taught me the important lesson that just because a recipe calls for “rye,” it doesn’t mean that it works with any rye available. The guests would also call me out on this as well and if they thought a drink worked better with a whiskey from a few weeks ago, you can be damn sure they’d let me know.
Liquor brands, especially whiskey brands, like to talk about family. And as I looked around every Wednesday night I saw family. I saw people who trusted me with their evenings and their palates. As time went on, I ultimately left the bar where I started Whiskey Wednesday and that family came with me to my new bar. It grew from a promo night into a blog, into a community, and is, honestly, why I have the career that I do today.
But in the end, it is a family that I found by pouring whiskey. To me Whiskey Wednesday encapsulates the spirit of the people I want to spend my life with and I highly encourage you to find your spirit of choice and drink deep.