It has often been said that successful catering is all about theatre, consistency and experience. This has never been so true in bartending today. The modern bartender can be compared to an actor using props (the liquids and the tools of the trade), an audience (the expectant guest), a script (the banter between drinker and server) and even a director (the bar manager or owner). But often we rely on the skill of the players and we assume that they are suitably equipped and trained. But even actors must go through acting class and have talented directors and a great script. Thus is it with bartenders but we have it easy… all we need is a good Bar Manual.
It is constantly surprising that bars do not have a solid manual. Where else can bartenders learn about the products that they stock, know how it is served in that bar and know in what style the owner wants it served? What about cleaning rotas, till systems and all the business end of catering. The editor of this magazine once told me she liked going to bars with no ‘stars’ or ‘celebrity bartenders’ because you weren’t disappointed by not being served by the Faces/Names and you could gauge the bar team as whole and the back of house support they got and the training they had received. Much of that will be down to the quality of the bar manual they adhere to.. so what should the ideal bar manual consist of?
In an ideal world it would have three sections. As a chain is as only as strong as its weakest link the manual should be understandable by both the newbies and the old hand – in fact far too often we assume that the experienced bartender is also a knowledgeable one… and we all know what happens if you assume…the manual should also be updated regularly with feedback from all involved parties.
Section one should be a basic bartending training manual. This section would cover everything from what alcohol is to the techniques used to serve it in its many wonderful guises. The mechanics and tradecraft of drinks serving; the health and safety of food and drink handling; the legal aspects of the job and the venue I which it is served. Not only how a cocktail is shaken but why and the do’s and don’ts of those techniques. This can be updated as new techniques become more relevant and important (muddling has become an integral part of bartending where 15 years ago it hardly featured and ‘throwing’ drinks may be the next must know skill…) This section will mean that server becomes a craftsman with a detailed knowledge of the physical skills and necessary responsible requirements of their job. It should also outline every team member’s role in the smooth running of the bar and their individual responsibilities.
The second section should be a product knowledge guide to provide as much knowledge about the actual bottles that the bartender is serving to allow them to ‘sell them’. The Sauce Guides are a wonderful and much-to-be-admired but to be frank the detailed tasting notes about various Poteens or £500-a-bottle tequilas are near-as-dammit useless to most readers. Your manual should have in depth knowledge about the products you sell and the questions you would ask the guest when they ask for it or the variety of interesting was to serve it to the un-initiated. Can I serve it neat? Frozen? On the rocks? With a mixer? In a Classic Cocktail? In a signature drink? For the higher levels you may have a tasting matrix of does it go with certain still mixers or certain carbonates but those long and detailed tasting notes never get repeated and merely clog up the brain. Be specific, be relevant and be concise.
The first two parts of the manual can pretty much be copied from any one of the plethora of drinks magazines or bartending books on the market today with judicious editing. Section three you will have to write yourself. This is the unit specific section. From the mundane (what times shifts start, where the rubbish goes and what you are expected to wear) to the service style (what you garnish your cokes and diet cokes with and how to serve absinthe… or even why you don’t serve absinthe) to the subtle nuances that is behind the owner’s vision for their bar and operation. This will have your recipes for both the must know drinks that you may not have on your list but every bartender should know how to make to your specifications and also all your new and funky drinks. Every drink must be the same regardless of the bartender who makes it and this can only be accomplished if the owner or bar manager writes it down in stone. As with acting ad-libbing or ‘improv’ is great if done well but appalling if done badly.
Section three can also be where the experience of the owner or bar manager can be expounded on. The purpose of, and lines to use while, upselling; greetings and farewells and ways to start conversations to make the customer start feeling like a guest; methods to learn and remember drinks and the ‘fluffy’ side of catering all live in this section. As more and more bars and restaurants open so the business side of an operation increases in importance. As the typical guest becomes more discerning and more educated so the role and importance of one’s staff increases. A good bar manual will engender consistency, set standards and make sure that every staff member has the tools to treat every guest as tho’ the writer/owner is doing it themselves…