Sasha Petraske and Douglas Tirola

Sasha Petraske and Douglas Tirola. (4th Row Films photo / July 2, 2013)

Hey, Bartender

July 10, 7:30 p.m., $6-$11, Avon Theatre Film Center, 272 Bedford St., Stamford, (203) 967-3660, avontheatre.org; July 5-10, $4.50-$10, Real Art Ways, 56 Arbor St., Hartford, (860) 232-1006, realartways.org.

 

Are bartenders like rock stars, chefs, dancers, athletes, soldiers, alchemists, actors or sages? They're compared to all of those roles in the film Hey, Bartender, a new documentary about the cocktail revolution and the lives, career paths and dreams of the men and women who run your favorite watering hole and mix your drinks. (The film has major CT ties. The filmmakers — director Douglas Tirola and producer Susan Bedusa — are from Westport, Conn., as is one of the film's main subjects. Coproducer Danielle Rosen grew up in neighboring Weston.) With its slow-motion rock-video style footage of dapper bartenders mixing elaborate cocktails, the film glamorizes the trade and tips a little into boosterism, while mostly steering clear of subjects like absurd pricing, obnoxious customers and alcohol abuse; but a few stories of individual struggle and passion — the strong spirits — are mixed in with the fizzy extras and flashy flourishes, like a good cocktail.

"Bartender" seems to be the preferred term among the pros in the business, though some of them do refer to themselves by the more pretentious coinage "mixologist." Whatever you call the craft, we've definitely conferred an aura of mysticism, grace and wisdom on the people behind the bar, even if all they do for you is pour a pint of beer or a shot. We expect them to make us feel at home, to maybe lift our spirits with a clever line or an insight, to somehow know what we want; and the drinks they make are supposed to please our palates and entertain us a little. And over the past 20 years or so, as the film makes clear, a cocktail revival has spread from New York and San Francisco and L.A. to pretty much every city in America. Proof of how far the trend has gone: even Boise, Idaho, we're told, has two cocktail bars. Artisanal, small-batch spirits, fresh infusions, boutique bitters, fancy ice, fresh herbs and all kinds of other eye-catching and tongue-tickling frills are now a part of the serious bartender's arsenal.

Hey, Bartender, in addition to featuring talking-head interviews with practically every famous bartender (there are lots), cocktail writer and historian, as well as several notable chefs and restaurateurs, focuses on two bars — New York's Employees Only, one of the most famous cocktail bars in the world, and Dunville's in Westport. Dunville's is presented, in contrast to all of the cosmopolitan mixological hot spots, as something of an old-school bar. A place that hasn't exactly changed with the times. The bar's co-owner and bartender, Steve Carpentieri, is shown grappling with the future of his struggling business, trying to come to terms with new trends and changing tastes.

In the process, Hey, Bartender tells some interesting history about the rise, fall and resurrection of the American cocktail: its golden age in the 1880s, the fundamentally American nature of its blend of elements, the deadening effect that Prohibition had on cocktail culture in the 1920s, and the emergence of 1960s counterculture and the way its reassessment of the numbing effects of booze, coupled with a contempt for straitlaced business culture, came to make mixed drinks seem square and old, putting what seemed like the final nail in the cocktail's coffin.

"In the 1960s there was nothing more uncool than a guy in a suit drinking a martini," says cocktail historian and Esquire writer David Wondrich.

But what changed? The rebirth of the cocktail scene is shown to be a counterpart to the transformation of American culinary culture over the last 25 years. A taste for handmade creations, local produce and fresh ingredients meant that more thought and care went into making mixed drinks, too. "America is getting its palate back," says one bartender. Whereas a chef can labor away at a pot of Bolognese sauce that will serve 50 patrons in a night, a bartender's every cocktail is a singular creation, ideally. And yet customers turn to bartenders for the same kind of "flavor experience" that they expect from a chef.

At this point, if you're not a gin-fizz-swilling believer in the cocktail revolution, you may find yourself saying "give me a fucking break." And for anyone who's ready to chart a cocktail-culture backlash, there's plenty here to object to. There are a lot of tattooed hipsters with twirly mustaches, retro suits and suspenders. Fedora-fatigue sets in. And the oft-heard claim that a good cocktail is "a journey" might strike some as a bit preposterous. (As inducements go, whatever happened to the good old, simple mind-clouding effects of a stiff drink? But maybe that's "a journey," too. The "road to perdition," "the primrose path," "going down the tubes" — they all take you somewhere.)

But just when Hey, Bartender seems like it might get over-sweetened by its own syrupy self-mythologizing mojo, the film throws in a bracingly dramatic element in the form of Steve Schneider, a young apprentice bartender at Employees Only, who is really the focus of the documentary. Schneider, a former Marine, brings a kind of military zeal and warrior's focus to his job, with a commitment that might seem almost pathological. "I was in the Marine Corps and it was my life," he says. "I loved it to death, well almost to death. This is my new platoon, and I have a role."

Schneider is a young hotshot, a star in the making, working his way up at Employees Only, trying to balance his taste for attention — of peers, the press and plenty of adoring young women — with his commitment to being a part of a team.

There is something about the spirit of hospitality — the desire to serve people and to create a warm convivial atmosphere for total strangers — that makes these bartenders seem almost like service-industry humanitarians. Many of these bartenders have advanced degrees in things like economics and theology. They chose to be bartenders, probably despite the objections and mystification of their parents. Though the subject of alcohol abuse is largely avoided and obnoxious drunks are mostly absent, what goes unsaid in the discussion about the booze revolution is that all of this attention to carefully concocting drinks invites drinkers to savor and nurse their cocktails a little more. These drinks aren't meant to be gulped down.

The film points all of its characters toward the annual Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans, the biggest and most prestigious of an ever-growing number of cocktail-industry events and theme weeks around the country. There we see potential cocktail-skeptic Carpentieri, of Dunville's in Westport, seeking business tips from the John-Malkovich-looking Dushan Zaric, one of the wizards behind Employees Only, and also from Dale DeGroff, the man said to be the father of the modern cocktail revival.

Will Carpentieri see the light and embrace the new cocktail craze to save his business? Will Schneider flame out on the 200-proof fumes of his ambition, charm and ego? Will Employees Only win worldwide acclaim? To tell would be to spoil most of the fun in Hey, Bartender, a film that's all about knowing how to supply just the right stylish delicious touch and how to wring the most pleasures from the night.

 

jadamian@hartfordadvocate.com

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Bartender Steve Schneider, of New York¿s Employees Only. (4th Row Films photo)

Douglas Tirola and Susan Bedusa. (4th Row Films photo)