When Dean McHone first heard the phrase “behind the stick,” he had to pretend like he had any clue what it meant.
McHone, the general manager of Comfort Station cocktail bar and Circle Hospitality Group in Cincinnati, Ohio, first heard the term in 2017, when he started stepping behind the bar. “I think it was a coworker who just casually referred to it, saying: ‘Oh yeah, it’s been a minute since I’ve been behind the stick,’ or, ‘It’s fun to be behind the stick with you,’” says McHone, “And I just replied: ‘Oh yeah, the stick! Right! I love the stick!’”
Encountering this confusing slang is almost a rite of passage for bartenders across the United States, but the actual origins of the phrase remain ambiguous. According to a New York Times Magazine article written in 1981, the phrase comes from the usage of beer tabs to pull drafts, with one bartender positing that the phrase is a metaphor: “’Wherever you work, you are ‘behind the stick,’ whether there is one or not.”
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“Behind the stick comes from being behind a wooden bar,” says McHone. “As far as I understand, it’s when you’re behind a big, massive log that was traditionally used as a bar top. At a couple of our bars, we do have a wooden bar top — and we are very much behind it.”
But there are many different versions as to what the “stick” actually is, whether it be the tabs, the bar itself, or the bar spoon used for stirring.“It really means being able to roll with the punches and work as a group collaboratively,” says McHone. “In the best sense, there’s kind of an us-versus-them mentality where when you walk behind that bar — it’s you and maybe one other person. You are about to be really busy. You’re about to make a lot of drinks and you’re going to really focus on making as many people happy as possible”
Being bamboozled about “behind the stick” is something of an initiation for young bartenders, who might have to do their own covert little Google searches in the middle of service. To McHone, weird terms like this are important to pass along, and he hopes there will continue to be a shroud of mystery surrounding it so that it feels like a special piece of information. “It isn’t exactly a ‘precious’ term; anyone can use it,” he explains, but what is important is the sense of camaraderie that lingo like this brings.
“Occasionally, I will walk behind the bar, and I will just casually take one of my new bartenders and say, ‘Hey, you know what, I really like being behind the stick with you,’ or, ‘It feels good to be behind the stick with you.’” says McHone. “And they just look at me and nod, and we go about our business.”