Whenever I have the spare cash, I like to go grab a good cocktail. It’s never to get blottoed since you can’t drink craft cocktails on a budget. I do it to unwind with good company.
There’s been a resurgence in craft cocktails and speakeasies over the years. I still remember eating at Crif Dogs in the East Village just as Please Don’t Tell (PDT) was opening up. The last time my brother and my sister-in-law were in town, we tried to get into a cocktail place but there was a three-hour wait. (We went to a wine bar instead and argued about photography and bourgie art collectors — a fitting drunken argument to have in a wine bar.)
Douglas Tirola’s documentary Hey Bartender chronicles some of this rise of the craft cocktail, though its emphasis is on the bartenders themselves, both as personalities and as the new culinary rock stars. There’s special focus on bartenders Steve Schneider and Stephen Carpentieri, whose different backgrounds and personalities guide the film along.
Director: Douglas Tirola
Release Date: June 7, 2013 (limited)
Schneider is a former Marine who suffered a major injury while visiting his brother back home. When we meet him in the movie, he’s become an apprentice/barback at Employees Only, an NYC institution and one of the best cocktail places in the world. He hopes to one day become an actual bartender there, though the apprenticeship process takes times and dedication. What shines through most about Schneider is his personality, which is broad and boisterous and fitting for the “bartender as rock star” side of the film.
Carpentieri, by contrast, operates Dunville’s, his own restaurant and bar up in Westport, Connecticut. I’ve seen it described as a hole-in-the-wall or a dive in some write-ups of Hey Bartender, but Dunville’s is really just a neighborhood bar. As Dunville’s hits hard times, Carpentieri wonders how his business can adapt. Maybe some of the craft cocktail stuff can revamp business.
Amid this tale of two barkeeps are major members of the cocktail and mixology scene, including Dale DeGroff, Charlotte Voisey, PDT’s Jim Meehan, Milk & Honey’s Sasha Petraske, and Employees Only’s Dushan Zaric. What’s revealed is a community built on varying degrees of mentorship and camaraderie, with dedication to taste, style, and service.
Watching Hey Bartender, I found myself less interested in the idea of bartenders as rock stars and more interested in them as human beings who take pride in their work. Both Schnieder and Carpentieri have compelling stories behind their lives, though oddly it’s Carpentieri who I think has more to lose and to gain in this story than anything else. He’s the only bartender in the film who’s not based in a large city, so it already gives him a kind of underdog status. He’s not competing for international recognition or trying to make Dunville’s some destination cocktail place; he’s simply trying to make sure his business survives and adapts, and there’s a nobility in that. Less about lifestyle, more about livelihood. (This also reveals one of the major shortcomings of Hey Bartender, but I’ll get to that in a bit.)
The whole idea of rock star bartenders appeals to me as much as the idea of celebrity chefs, which is to say I think it sort of misses the point. When the culinary focus is celebrity, it becomes less about the cocktail or the food and more about the person. The personality should push the food and not just the personality. To that point, each of the bartenders in the film seems to stress the importance of the drink and the experience of the people visiting the bar rather than engaging in any kind of self-aggrandizement.
Tirola said that a lot of Hey Bartender was inspired by Campbell Scott’s underrated and often forgotten film Big Night, particularly in little segments that show bartenders crafting their cocktails. I actually thought more of Jiro Dreams of Sushi in these sequences, which also features a similar kind of slow-motion elegance in food preparation, and I think it does its food porn better than Hey Bartender. Even the the idea of mentorship and self-perfection in Jiro finds expression in Hey Bartender, but not quite as philosophically or gracefully. (To be fair, Jiro had the benefit of Philip Glass and Max Richter music to underscore the creation of sushi, which just wouldn’t work here.)
While pretty enjoyable, Hey Bartender is too narrow and yet aspires to be broader at the same time. The only kinds of bartenders who get a lot of consideration tend to be the mixologists and craft cocktail people, save for Carpentieri. In terms of clientele, decor, and concept, Dunville’s stands in such stark contrast to a place like Milk & Honey, so it made me wonder why only Dunville’s as a unit of comparison. There are so many other bars that weren’t focused on that do well (wine bars, bars with a good beer selection, beer halls, dives), and those stories could have also been explored.
Similarly, I think because of this focus on high-end craft cocktails, the film takes too much time focusing on the bartender as rock star and the bar as a party place when there’s so much more going on at bars than that. What about the bartender as a cipher and the bar as a third place (like Cheers, basically)? The reason a lot of people go to drink at the neighborhood bar is because of the community that exists there independent of the larger cocktail scene. There are drinking buddies, and the bartender is blank-slate pal. The third place aspect is rarely explored in the film, though probably because most people find that escape from work and home in the dives an neighborhood hangouts rather than destination cocktail establishments.
And I guess thinking about it more in terms of this narrowness and broadness, Hey Bartender is a film all about the New York City cocktail scene more than anything else. There’s not much focus on what differentiates the cocktail scenes in other big cities (e.g., Chicago, LA, the Bay Area), and I wondered if there’s a different approach based on available fresh ingredients and local flavors. These are things I’ll just have to explore on my own, I guess, though I may just wind up having a beer at a comfy bar a few blocks away from my apartment.