It all starts mid-afternoon when the first employee enters the bar to handle the ice. This is the most important part of the day. It can differentiate a bar from a cocktail bar, which may not mean much to an inexperienced viewer, but it represents so much to those who call bartending a profession.
The craft of creating, serving and enjoying cocktails is at an all-time high after decades of obscurity and the attention to detail doesn’t stop with the ice.
In Hey Bartender, a biopic of contemporary cocktail culture now playing at O Cinema in Wynwood, director Douglas Tirola chronicles the rebirth of the bartender and the subsequent comeback of the cocktail.
The story of this resurgence is one of passion and dedication by a group of vibrant personalities who changed the way Americans drink, starting in the 1980s and exploding in the late 2000s.
“The film is about people, their lives and their choices. We follow the characters and touch on the things that bartenders care about … Things like innovation, fresh goods from farmers’ markets, level of service, premium ingredients, bitters and ice,” Tirola said.
Echoing the sentiment of the industry, the documentary suggests that a select group of pros is responsible for elevating cocktail culture to its current level — a tipping point that has undeniably trickled down to Miami nightlife.
The film features rare accounts from industry legends such as Dale DeGroff, or “King Cocktail;” Tony Abou-Ganim, the “Modern Mixologist;” Jim Meehan, James Beard Award-winning owner of PDT; Julie Reiner of the Flatiron Lounge, Pegu Club and Clover Club; and Simon Ford, also known as the “James Bond” of the spirits industry. These individuals, among others, inspired a fresh generation of bartenders who look at this as a career path and not a fallback or an intermediary phase on their resume.
Meehan, whose work and writings revolutionized the way bartenders take cues from the classics in a modern manner, says he found a way to make a difference in the world as a bartender. Like Meehan, today’s high-end bartenders thrive on interaction, always looking to see the expression on a guest’s face when they take their first sip of a cocktail.
“The bar is now the biggest stage in the world,” Abou-Ganim says. “It’s you and me baby, let’s rock and roll.”
Abou-Ganim and his colleagues describe the intimacy of the profession and Reiner agrees: “At the end of the day, it’s about the relationship between the bartender and the guest.”
Tirola and his team deftly gain access to the inner-workings of the world-famous and exclusive Employees Only in the Lower East Side. They explore the profession through the eyes of up-and-coming bartender, Steve Schneider, a former Marine who suffered a severe accident that ended his military career.
“Our goal over three years was to uncover what drives an individual to become a bartender; what the job entails technically, but also how it fits into each of our communities, how that has changed over the last century, and more dramatically over the past 5 to 10 years,” Tirola said.
Schneider’s success at Employees Only is juxtaposed by the struggles of Steve Carpentieri, owner of a neighborhood bar in Westport, CT that struggles without an updated beverage program.
“His service is great, but it’s not just one or the other anymore,” Tirola said.
While Miami’s popular cocktail scene isn’t highlighted in the film, local bartender John Lermayer served as a tour guide for the filmmakers. His insight informed many of the scenes, according to Tirola, including what was filmed at Tales of the Cocktail, known as the world’s premier cocktail festival in New Orleans, and even in Sweden.
In one of the more emotional sequences, the film captures the end of the night — after a long shift — and what it’s like to be the only person walking home on a quiet street. It’s a short reprieve from all of the people they live to please.
Galena Mosovich is the lead writer for cocktail culture for Miami.com and the Miami Herald.