You’ve seen bars like this. It’s New York City, the center of the universe, and you’ve seen everything. Speakeasies, dives, pubs, wine bars, beer bars, tiki bars, bars in restaurants and hotels, in breweries and distilleries, in cafés, in grocery stores, in basements, on rooftops, on boats. Bars with twelve seats and two hundred. Bars that serve nothing but cocktails, bars with no liquor license at all.
Joe’s Apothecary is one of many, and yet, there is nowhere else like Joe’s. It’s small, with white walls and exposed brick, big windows looking out onto the street, a scattering of high-tops in the front, a handful of tables in the back. The bar itself a golden gleam in a dim room, a ten-seater “L” built out of wood and brass, lit by Edison bulbs and candlelight. A cocktail bar, at its core, though not pushy about it, though there are regulars who come in for top-shelf Scotch and Narragansett alike. It’s a true neighborhood bar, the kind of place that is harder to find by the year in this city, the kind of place that could only possibly exist on this block, in this neighborhood, in this borough, under these exact unlikely circumstances.
* * *
It’s June in New York and the city is awash with kids in robes, blue and black and purple, the class of 2018 on the streets and the subways, double-parked in front of dorms and apartment buildings, and if I close my eyes I can pretend to be one of them, pretend the last two years never happened and I’m twenty-two again, fresh out of Columbia, a Bachelor of the Art of English literature, cum laude, thankyouverymuch. The world my oyster, waiting to be plucked and shucked and swallowed. Pretending I’m not flat broke and sleeping on my best friend’s couch and painfully single and so far jobless, although this last is about to change, I’m hoping, standing outside this lovely bar, ten minutes early for a trial shift, peering in through those front windows with a wine key in my pocket and my hair tied back in a ponytail and my stomach tied up in knots. Brooklyn is still dusky rather than dark, but I can see the flicker of candles inside, a dim warm glow. I crack my knuckles, try to remember the feel of a cocktail shaker, the heft of a tray. I have, as you can probably tell, some reservations.
* * *
How do any of us end up working in bars? Some become bartenders on purpose—Han, Gina, Scott the Scot. But more often we stumble into it, in moments like these. Because our shiny degrees have not delivered the futures we were promised. Because we are night owls in a world that prizes early birds. Because we are tired of staring at screens, of sitting in unending meetings, of working for companies that do and make nothing. Because something marked us in our lives, or we marked ourselves, as somehow unfit for the office, for the classroom, for the nine-to-five. Because we descended, and found that once we had drunk the nectar of this particular netherworld, we could never go home.
* * *
But I’m getting ahead of myself. For now, like so many before me, I am just looking for a job. Something temporary, just enough for rent money, just to get me off Hayley’s couch, just to keep me in the city until next year, when I’ll be going back to school myself. I open the door. I walk inside.
1 ounce gin
3/4 ounce lemon juice
3/4 ounce simple syrup
Short shake the first three ingredients with ice. Strain into a champagne flute and top with sparkling wine.
Go to Joe’s, Gina said. Gina, the beautiful, heavyset, heavily tattooed owner of Hayley’s favorite bar, a thirty-something angel who took pity on me, who, she would insist later, saw something in me, and sent me to the other bar she owned, which is to say, this one. Carver’s short-staffed, she said, and I’m tired of helping them out every weekend. And I wasn’t looking for a bar job—I am not looking for a bar job—but I was in no position to say no, especially not in front of Hayley, and so here I am, and I walk in, and Dan Olsen is behind the bar, and I am tempted to walk right back out again.
* * *
A bar story. Once upon a time, a twenty-year-old virgin had a big dumb crush on a tall blond bartender. The bartender worked at a sticky Irish pub that didn’t card, or at least that didn’t card the virgin and her beautiful best friend. The bartender smiled and made jokes and gave the virgin free whiskey-gingers when she came in after work, and she would recycle her tips into his tips. One thing, as they say, led to another.
The virgin never told the bartender that it was her first time, assuming that he would be a weirdo about it. Unfortunately, he was a weirdo about it anyway: grew awkward, distant, unavailable. And while the virgin was never in love with the bartender, she did like him, and he was a real dick about the whole thing, and after four more ill-advised hookups, she and the best friend had to stop going to that bar. But four years later, the bartender greets her with a smile and a hug, calls her unexpected appearance a pleasant surprise in a tone that is more or less convincing.
* * *
A pleasant surprise. The pleasantness is the surprise; he may have been a dick to me, but I know him, and this grounds me. I am in need of grounding; the bar is busy already, no time for a tour or any further orientation, just quick handshakes with the other men behind the bar—Carver, the manager and Gina’s protegé (her word), a classic Brooklyn bartender type, stocky and tattooed and sporting a dark beard best described as luxuriant; and Han, a lanky East Asian guy with a man-bun and a grin so wide you think it’ll break his face open.
You’re just in time, Han says, as if I have wandered in by coincidence and not at exactly the hour appointed. You can make the Snaiquiris.
Baby daiquiris, Han says, brandishing a bottle of rum at me. It’s a Friday night tradition.
We don’t really have time, Carver says, and I can understand why; the place is packed, every table taken, no seats free at the bar, dirty glasses for days back by the glasswasher. Han pulls a face at him and drags me over to one of the bar stations. You know how to make a daiquiri?
It’s a question that’s not a question. The daiquiri is one of the basics, the bare necessities of cocktail bartending, the simplest of simple sours: light rum, lime juice, simple syrup. If I don’t know that, I don’t know anything.
There’s a shaker already sitting on the bar-top, and I lift up the rum first, and go to pour.
Oh, no, Carver says. Not like that.
He takes the shaker back, dumps it out. No free-pouring at Joe’s, he says. And he nudges me out of the way and makes the drinks himself.
* * *
And so, our first bartending lesson. In spite of everything you may have been told at your last bartending job, you must measure your ingredients. Take your jigger. That’s the funny metal measuring tool, two cones with their points stuck together. Most decent bars will have these in two different sizes, and you want the larger one. The big half holds a full two ounces, the smaller holds one, with a line at the three-quarter mark. You’ll hold this upright in your nondominant hand and you’ll take the bottle of, in this case, rum, with your dominant one. When you pour, a Scottish bartender once told me, hold the bottle like you’d hold somebody else’s penis. Scott the Scot, the bartender at my second-ever New York job, begun the summer after sophomore year. He was straight and I was a virgin at the time, so I’m not sure how meaningful the advice was to either of us, but it’s stuck with me. More directly useful was the instruction to keep a thumb pressed against the speed pourer—that’s the rubber and metal beak that goes into the mouth of a bottle to control the flow of liquor—because one day you won’t, and the speed pourer will fall out, and you’ll get booze fucking everywhere.
When you pour, fill that jigger all the way up, and then some. Experiment with the magic of surface tension. If you don’t have a nice domed meniscus, just about to burst, you’re under-pouring.
Scott the Scot taught me to do this by touch, by taste, by sight. Count to four, that’s two ounces, a standard pour. That goes up to here in a Collins glass, there in a rocks glass. A quarter ounce of simple syrup feels like this; an ounce of citrus pours like that. You can do good work free-pouring; you can certainly save time. Great debates have arisen out of this, schisms in the cocktail scene; bartenders have come to blows; families have been torn asunder. The world of bartending, you will learn, is a world of strong opinions. But Carver says no free-pouring at Joe’s, and so, we won’t.
* * *
When everything has been measured and shaken, Carver pours the drink, cloudy and faintly green, into four elegant little glasses, and mine is heavy in my hand as I lift it up. To Sam, Han says, who I’m sure had better things to do with her Friday night.
I didn’t, but I let them toast me anyway. It tastes like summer.
* * *
Having failed my first test, then, I am relegated to the glasswasher. Han and Carver resume their roles behind the bar, and Olsen—they call him Olsen here, because by some strange coincidence or a small, dumb joke of fate, everyone but me has the same first name—Olsen is out on the floor. The glasswasher is a noisy, scuffed steel contraption that cleans and sanitizes and expels tray after tray of hot, gleaming glasses, which I am supposed to polish and put away. Joe’s is the sort of place that polishes everything—wineglasses, of course, but also coupe glasses and rocks glasses and water glasses and Collins glasses and even the beer glasses, although those need only the most cursory of wipes. I use brightly colored cloths and I am thorough, if not as quick as I would like to be. Scott the Scot never made me polish anything.
The washer is in a corner behind the bar, the back corner, far away from Olsen as he works the floor, far from Han as he works the point, near only to Carver, who keeps his back to me as he bangs out drink after drink after drink. I watch the Dans as I work, their rhythm behind the narrow bar, the quickness and ease of movement, the economy. Olsen’s speed and agility on the floor. I’m not an asshole; I know that working in the service industry requires certain skills. I can tell that everyone here is good at what they do, that I am the odd one out and not only because I have the wrong name and the wrong gender and not only because I’m younger and less experienced. None of this surprises me. What surprises me is that I feel a small pang of envy.
* * *
Mine is not a glamorous job; it is dull, repetitive work, and not at all what I expected, although I will admit that for long, pleasant stretches it becomes meditative, even soothing. A couple hours in, Carver comes over with a pair of coupes, and he sets these down to the right of the washer with the rest of the dirties, and then he puts a hand on my arm and he shakes his head.
Not like that, he says. I have a wineglass in my hands, stem in the left, bowl and polishing cloth in the right. I can’t tell you how many bartenders I know who have sliced their wrists open like that. You snap the stem and next minute we’re rushing you to the emergency room.
He shows me how to do it properly, carefully, but it takes longer and the glasses don’t get as clean and I’m getting further and further behind, when I was keeping up just fine before, without injuring myself, and Carver leaves his bar station and comes back and starts polishing again. I’m sorry, I say. I’m just not used to doing it like this. I’ll get quicker.
Just let me do the stemware for now, he says, and then he doesn’t say anything and I polish everything that doesn’t have a stem as quickly as I possibly can. I’m not sorry. I’m annoyed. I’m wondering if this is what working here is like, being micromanaged by this unfriendly stuck-up hipster who treats me like I’m stupid. My chest feels tight and I feel hot all over and the silence is stretching on and on and thicker and thicker but I don’t know how to break it. And then after fifteen minutes or so I’m caught up, and Carver walks away again without a word.
* * *
At a normal job, like, say, the gig your best friend’s mom gets you at her law firm, you have a résumé. You have references; you have an interview, maybe a couple. In the service industry all of these things are true, too, sometimes, but then nine times out of ten you have an extra step, a trial shift, which means you work for free in an attempt to prove that you’re not a total idiot. There is an innate awkwardness to this; you don’t know anything about the bar’s policies or practices, you don’t know that they use jiggers or that the manager has some kind of stick up his ass about how to polish glasses. It’s like walking into a stranger’s apartment and using their kitchen—you’ve cooked before, I hope, but you don’t know where they keep all the pots and pans or how sharp their knives are or what they have in the pantry. Plus it has been a long time since I last worked in a bar, and that bar was much less nice than this one, and I am flushed and raw and nervous and I am also desperate to succeed, and not sure how likely that is. I am so broke that I walked the hour to get here rather than taking the subway, trekked in the ninety-something heat and the ninety-something humidity from Hayley’s apartment down through the Disneyland sheen of Williamsburg, through the Orthodox neighborhoods with the women in wigs and the school buses painted in Hebrew, past the projects, down into Bed-Stuy. Showed up drenched in sweat and so thirsty, and my feet are sore already, and I need this job, because I need to be able to afford the subway, and new shoes, and eventually my own apartment, too. Did I mention you don’t get paid for trial shifts? I polish another wineglass and I wonder if it might be a better idea to cut my arm open just how Carver said and sue.
* * *
And then it’s eleven and Joe’s Apothecary is all but empty. Funny, these service industry tides; the bar will be busy again before the night is over, though the biggest wave is behind us. Our daywalkers are gone, either home or to rowdier places, and our nightwalkers are yet to arrive. We reset the bar: Carver and Han wipe down wet and sticky surfaces, clean the sinks, replenish the stacks of square black bev-naps on the bar-top; Olsen and I restock beer and liquor and wine from the stores down in the basement.
So how have you been? he asks me, and I don’t know how to answer. The walk-in is cold and dark and entirely too intimate, and I stand a careful arm’s length away as he fills a bus tub with cans of beer and bottles of wine, all of it pretty and expensive, the hipster beers with their names like nail polish colors, the wine in every imaginable shade of white and pink and orange. Artsy minimalist labels and dark glass. Fine, I say; I’ve been fine. Brief stint back home, newly back in the city.
Olsen nods, crouching down to reach for something on a far back shelf, his white tee riding up to reveal a band of pale skin and a stripe of dark elastic. I suppress a shiver. California, right? he asks, and I say yes, and I remember that he’s a California native as well, and that there is perhaps common ground to be found there, but I do not want to talk about California. He straightens up, leads the way out of the walk-in, and I turn the question back. How have you been, Olsen? How’s The Bright Brigade?
These last words spoken with feigned hesitation, as if I were not quite sure I had the name right, as if I had not lost hours and perhaps days of my life listening to Olsen’s band, stalking Olsen through their SoundCloud or whatever, utterly in the thrall of his voice, striking and urgent like he was singing to survive.
Olsen sets the bus tub down, starts adding more bottles, well whiskey, two different gins, mezcal. Broken up, he says, and when I say I’m sorry he looks at me with his sharp blue eyes and his face twists into a mirthless smile. All those guys are back in California now, he says, working in tech. This last spit out like the four-letter word it is. He hefts up the bus tub, and I watch him, my hands empty and useless at my sides. You think you know someone, he says, shaking his head, and I think of my techie ex-boyfriend, and I tell him I know what he means.
Fuck ’em, he says. He nods to another shelf and tells me to grab two pinots and meet him back upstairs.
* * *
Upstairs, Carver has disappeared, and Han is the very image of relaxed, leaning against one of the ice wells with a glass of water in one hand and his phone in the other, though he puts the latter away now, and straightens, and says, All right, Samantha. Let’s make a cocktail.
He waves me over to his side. He smells like sweat and ethanol and he is a good half foot taller than me and he looks down with deep brown eyes and the same toothy grin as before, and he asks me, What do you drink?
I guess my go-to is a martini, I say, and I hear Olsen laugh. Last time I saw Sam she was more of a Jamo and ginger kind of gal, he says, and I want to defend myself, first of all because there is nothing wrong with Jameson and ginger ale, it is a perfectly reasonable order, especially in an Irish pub in the East Village, and also because I was twenty and new to drinking in general, and also because, if memory serves, the Jameson and gingers were Olsen’s suggestion to begin with. But I understand that this is only good-natured ribbing, and best not argued with. I laugh, too.
* * *
Han stands half a step behind me as I work, looking down over my shoulder, and I hope I’m not blushing, but I probably am. I’ve made martinis before, of course, but he talks me through it like I haven’t, and I let him. The first thing, he says, is to keep everything cold. That’s easy enough: the mixing glasses are kept in a freezer under the bar, and the coupes are, too, and I pull out one of the former, setting it gently on the bar mat. The second thing, Han says, is vermouth.
There’s a famous quote from Hitchcock, or Churchill, depending on who you ask, about how much vermouth to put in a martini: to paraphrase, a dry martini should consist of gin stirred over ice while looking at a bottle of vermouth. This, Han says, is bullshit. It’s a two-ingredient cocktail, he says. If you leave out the vermouth, it’s just gin in a cup.
Nothing wrong with gin in a cup, Olsen says, and Han shrugs.
Sure, I guess. But don’t call it a fucking martini.
Vermouth first, because it’s cheaper, and you use less of it, and as a general cocktail-making rule, Han says, you should start with the cheaper ingredients and the smaller pours, so that if you fuck up the drink early on, you’re not throwing out the expensive stuff. It’s all booze in this case, so the order matters less, but still. Vermouth first, then gin, a hefty pour of, in this case, Plymouth, which Han has already selected from the back bar, and then a big scoop of ice.
The next lesson: stirring. You want that mixing glass to be full up with ice, and if you are using big cubes, like they have at Joe’s, you’ll want to crack some of them to fill the gaps. There is a tool for this called, cleverly enough, a tap-icer, a plastic, lollipop-looking device that will break up ice nicely, if you know how to use it, which I don’t, and the first time I hit my hand and the second time I crack the ice only to immediately drop the shards back into the well, and now I know I’m blushing, but Han doesn’t say anything about it, just waits beside me as I try yet another time and manage the great feat of cracking a couple cubes, and now all I have to do is slide a long, spiraled barspoon into the glass and stir until everything is cold and diluted just the right amount.
Ideally the ice should stir as one, almost silent, but mine clatters around horribly and I’m thinking of Scott the Scot, who never said anything about filling the glass all the way or tap-icers or stirring silently, who used the small, chipped ice from the old machine in the kitchen, the technical term for which, I will soon learn, is bodega ice if you’re polite or shitty ice if you’re not. On top of this he shook his martinis most of the time anyway, and nobody ever complained.
I wish I were working with him again.
I know better than to say any of this out loud.
How long do I stir? I ask. How many times?
You get a feel for it pretty quick, Han says, but that’s not an answer. What do I do until then? He tells me that when he started, he always just counted to twenty-three and then tasted.
Twenty-three, Olsen scoffs. What kind of arbitrary hipster nonsense is that?
It was Michael Jordan’s number, you philistine, Han says, and Olsen is surprised into laughter. I finish stirring and Han leans in close, and he straw-tests, which is to say he dips a long steel straw into the drink, covers the top opening with a finger so that through the joy of science, the straw holds a sample of the drink steady as he lifts the business end from glass to mouth, releases the finger, tastes.
Just a couple more, he says, and I do it, and he tastes again. Perfect, he says, and I strain it out into a coupe, garnish with an olive from one of the jars on the bar-top, and then I hear Carver’s voice and I jump a little, I wonder how long he’s been watching, realize belatedly that this is another test, that everything about tonight is a test, and not the kind I’m good at.
Let’s talk, he says, and he tells me to wait for him in the back room, and I’m so nervous I feel sick.
Copyright © 2022 by Wesley Straton