Where are all the Career Bartenders?
Updated: May 11, 2020
Bartending, and hospitality in general, is a very strange career choice. I don’t think I’ve met a single person who as a kid in school, when asked what they wanted to be when they grew up, replied with “I want to be a bartender”. Most people, like myself, fall into it and roll with it - but why? Let’s be honest, it’s a tough job. The hours are long and unsociable, the pays not great. Even with all this, I still think it’s a pretty fucking awesome career and I’m not the only one. The people that love it really love it, but we can dive into this more another day. Let’s find out where all the ‘career bartenders’ have gone, if they have gone at all?
What’s the difference between a bartender and a ‘career bartender’? Do you have to be behind the bar 50 hours a week, going to bed at 5am every night and have a strange obsession with shots or WKD Blue? For me, a career bartender is someone who’s in the industry for the long hall, whether that’s slinging drinks or moving into brand work, and a professional bartender just hasn’t realised that’s what they want to do yet. Let’s look at how the definition of a career bartender has evolved and changed over the years.
Firstly let’s go back to the good old days, when the majority of classic cocktails were first conceived. Our first example is Ada Coleman - the OG of career bartenders. She started her bartending career at the age of 24, becoming head bartender in the legendary Savoy hotel only a few years later. She remained as the head bartender for 23 years. During this time Harry Craddock join the team in 1920 and trained under Ada, until she retired from bartending when the Savoy closed for a renovation in 1925. When the Savoy re-opened Harry took the role as head bartender. This is when he wrote one of the most famous cocktail books ever written, a book that should be in every bartenders collection, “The Savoy Cocktail Book”. After being the head of the bar for around 20 years, Harry moved on to man the bar in The Dorchester hotel and finally finished off his career at The Browns hotel in 1947, tending bar until the ripe old age of 71.
Let’s jump forward slightly to the late 1970’s/early 1980’s and to another bartender that was at the head of a cocktail boom - the legendary Dick Bradsell. Dick invented some of the most iconic cocktails of all time including the Vodka Espresso and the Bramble. He put his stamp on a number of bars - shed loads in fact - including Fred’s Club and The Atlantic Bar and Grill, where there was a bar named after him. During his bartending career he crossed paths with countless young bartenders, passing on knowledge and advice, including Tony Conigliaro, who he worked with closely. Tony went on to open the world renowned 69 Colebrook Row, write multiple bartending books, and is still heavily involved in the bar scene to this day. What makes Dick stand out for this article in particular, is when his counterparts started leaving the hospitality industry to get “proper jobs” he didn’t. He stuck with it but diversified, moving into bar consultancy and writing articles for Class Magazine. He even had his own TV show in 2010.
In the past if you fell in love with bartending and wanted to make a career of it you needed to learn and grow your knowledge. You had to go to the source and learn from the pros. The epicentre of the cocktail culture at this time was London. Young bartenders would go to work under one of the career bartenders to learn all the skills they needed, then would either wait a number of years to take over the bar, move on to another bar, or open their own bar. But like anything, this changed with the times and you can already see the bartender career path start to change with Dick.
If you want to get into the bar industry now you don’t have to move to London to learn from bartenders at the top of their game (although there are a lot more award-winning bars in London and more job opportunities). The difference between now and the Ada Coleman and Harry Craddock days is the amount of resources learning resources we now have access to. The internet, social media and shit loads of bartending books. You can learn so much for free and find answers at the drop of a hat, through research or even just dropping a DM to someone in your network. On top of this, a lot of career bartenders left London. They moved out of the capital to their hometowns or to cities and forged an emerging cocktail culture there by opening their own venues or taking management positions in existing venues. This means there are award-winning bars and bartenders all over the country, running bars and training teams. As a young bartender you can learn anywhere.
On top of this, the way the public perceives a bartender is changing. Nowadays cocktail and drinks professionals are starting to move into the upper echelons, into the same realms as tv chefs. Cocktails are cool and sexy; they even get bartenders to make them on Sunday Brunch! Bartenders at the top of their game have creative input in multiple bars, write books and even have their own spirit brands. I’m talking about the Mr Lyans and Joe Schofields of the industry. They are in high demand and have worked hard to get to where they are, and deserve every ounce of recognition they receive. You’ve also got the innovators, the mad scientists. They aren’t as well known as the above, but they’re the ones developing new techniques or adapting chef techniques into the bar world, changing the way bartenders make drinks all together. Bartenders like Rich Woods, ex-head bartender at Duck and Waffle and now co-owner of Scout, or Iain Yanda McPherson aka the ice cream nerd, and his most recent mad scientist technique ‘Switching’ (look this up, mental).
You wouldn’t necessarily find the bartenders mentioned above behind their respective bars banging out Daiquiris on a Wednesday or doing a floor shift on a busy Saturday night. But they train their teams, host seminars and help move the bartending scene forward - not just the drinks side. They promote things like the living wage for hospitality workers, awareness of mental and physical health and proper training programs. This all makes becoming a career bartender more of an attractive option, and encourages people not just to join the industry, but to stay in it for decades.
Let’s not forget about the long-term bartenders - the ones still slinging drinks behind their bars on a weekly basis. Whether its bars they own/part own or just where they work, I’ve been lucky enough to have drinks made for me by some of the best in the business. Sometimes I’ve even had the chance to sling drinks on their bars by their side. Probably the most well-known bartender is the legend, Alessandro Palazzi. He’s been a bartender since 1975. Yep, that’s right - 1975! He’s made Martinis for some of the most famous faces from all over the world behind the bar/trolley at Dukes Hotel. Then you’ve got the bar owners still bartending in their bars. Some of my favourite bars I’ve ever had the pleasure to visit, like the Cocktail Trading Company, Homeboy, Filthy XIII, Couch, Dr Ink’s, (cough) Hideout (Cough) and countless others all other the country.
So, where have all the career bartenders gone? Well, everywhere. The days of bartenders working behind one bar for 30 years have mostly gone (but doesn’t mean you can't). There is a huge array of career paths you can take using bartending as a launching point, whether that’s going into brand work, consultancy or opening your own bar, it’s up to you. I don’t think career bartenders are disappearing - cocktails are more popular than ever which means more bars, more bartenders and more of everything that relates to the drinks industry. This means you don’t have to take the old linear career path of Bar Back – Bartender – Supervisor – Bar Manager anymore, but if that’s what you want to do you can. That’s the beauty of it, as long as you’re still sharing knowledge and supporting the hospitality industry, it doesn’t matter what your job title is. If their career is supporting bartenders, the career bartenders are still here, they just go by a different name.
When deciding this career path is for you, you can do a mixture of any of the above. You can be a bar back that’s researching a new fat washing technique, or a bartender who’s hosting a tasting at a local event. Mould your career so it fits you based around what you enjoy, but be aware it doesn’t happen overnight and you have to work at it - like anything that’s worth having.
So what’s next? What will the next batch of career bartenders look like? Will they have to have a huge Insta following or be placed in Bacardi Legacy to be considered a great bartender? Let’s be honest, the only opinion that matters are the opinions of the people you’re serving at that time. They don’t care how many followers you have or what acids you used for your milk punch, as long as they are having a great time and they leave smiling, you smashed it. As for the rest of your peers in the industry, as long as your supporting the community, helping the industry evolve and not being a pretentious twat, then you’re all good in my books. Let’s give bartenders a good name and make it a respectable career choice. Look after yourselves, don’t get twatted every night and look out for each other, so hopefully one day the answer to the question will be “I want to be a bartender”.