Can Sobriety Make You a Better Bartender?


4 minute Read

Bars are usually places to consume alcohol, not contemplate sobriety. Yet at the Up & Up, a swank cocktail bar in Manhattan’s West Village, that’s exactly what bar manager Chaim Dauermann and I were doing. When I asked him what he, a career bartender, would never drink again, he responded, “All of them, because I don’t drink anymore. All of the drinks.”

He’s not alone. Jim Kearns, the beverage director at Slowly Shirley, had told me he was sober a few weeks earlier. The Dead Rabbit’s Jack McGarry, Tales of the Cocktail’s 2013 International Bartender of the Year, told the New York Post he stopped drinking because it “had become detrimental” to his health. The same was true for Adrienne Oakes, the bartender at New York City’s Upland restaurant. Others, like Sam Anderson of Mission Chinese, decreased their consumption to only the occasional drink.

The New York Times reported on the sober bartending trend in 2009, exploring the “quiet brigade of people who are trying to live a sober life in a business that is soaked in alcohol.” The statistics are sobering. Food service workers have the highest rate of illicit drug use and the third-highest rate of heavy alcohol use in major occupations.

“When I first started having thoughts of wanting to stop drinking, I presumed that it wasn’t an option for me, given my chosen career,” Dauermann tells me later. But then he “started to meet other bartenders who had chosen sobriety, but still continued to excel in their field.”

“I realized there was nothing in particular about what I did in my day to day job that could not be executed just as easily and effectively (if not more so) without imbibing alcohol,” Dauermann said.

A 2007 study by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that 12 percent of food service workers engage in heavy drinking, which it defines as five or more drinks at least one night a week. Heavy drinking in the general population, by comparison, clocks in at 8.8 percent.

For Kearns, alcohol had become a way of managing day-to-day workplace stress. Cutting it out was difficult but ultimately fruitful.

“I think it’s had a positive impact on my job,” Kearns writes in an email. “I’m not medicating stress with alcohol anymore, so that’s definitely a plus. Stress management, in general, has been one of the hardest things about no longer drinking, since I have always been an anxious, even anxiety-motivated person.”

And that’s just the workplace. Drinking doesn’t always stay at the job for bartenders. Relationships that are already strained due to late and irregular hours are further impacted by excessive drinking.

The aftermath of such consumption is familiar to anyone who has consumed one too many or seen a Zach Galifianakis movie between the years 2009 and 2011. Hangovers can last up to 24 hours, and symptoms that impair work ability include headaches, thirst, concentration problems, mood changes, and “a feeling of general misery,” according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

You probably don’t need to be told that working with a hangover is like trying to tie your shoe without using your thumbs. This is obviously not the ideal state for any of us to do our jobs. The same is true for bartenders tasked with executing complex recipes by heart, creating new ones on the fly, and managing the expectations and behavior of inebriated crowds.

Both Dauermann and Kearns said they couldn’t live the lives they wanted, or do their jobs professionally, if they continued drinking heavily. So they stopped.

It’s not a coincidence that ascendant sobriety coincides with the rise of career bartending. Just 10 years ago, bartending was largely a temporary job “until you get a ‘real’ job or get through college,” Kathy Sullivan, owner of Sidecar Bartending, told VinePair in 2016.

Today, aspiring bartenders aren’t seeking vocational work. They’re looking for gainful employment. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of bartenders is expected to grow 10 percent from 2014 to 2024, which is faster than the average increase of all other occupations.

“We have a ton of bartenders now making this a career,” Marcos Tello, the director of mixology at Mezcal El Silencio, told VinePair. In response to the rise of career bartenders, Tello created a wellness routine to keep his bartenders healthy that includes diet advice and exercise. It does not include heavy drinking.

“The ‘bartending lifestyle’ appears to involve consistent and routine drinking,” Dauermann says. “But that doesn’t need to be the case, and in many cases, it isn’t. ‘Bartending’ isn’t a lifestyle. It’s an occupation. Your lifestyle is still under your personal administration. Any lifestyle you lead as a bartender is a bartending lifestyle.”

Sober bartending does, of course, have its doubters. One Manhattan bartender I spoke to compared buying a drink from a sober bartender to buying a house from a homeless man, or buying a steak from a vegetarian butcher. Thea Engst and Lauren Vigdor, the authors of “Drink Like A Bartender,” told me that if you want to drink like the people who know drinking best, you need to constantly taste things. That’s a little more complicated when you’re sober.

There are ways around this, of course. Dauermann says he thinks about flavors more before making a drink, and when he tries them, he spits the alcohol out like people do when wine tasting.

“I’ve found that tasting analytically utilizes a very different part of my brain than the instant, id-level gratification of sitting down to have a drink,” Kearns says. When he mixed up a drink for me, he did what many bartenders do before passing a cocktail to a customer: He took a straw, dipped it in the drink, and tasted a couple drops. That’s all it took.

(The drink, which was filled with gin, Cognac, ginger, horseradish, and rice wine vinegar, was perfectly boozy and delicious.)

“One of the most widely held beliefs of a lot of dogmatic ex-drinkers, recovering addicts, and care providers in the world of addiction therapy and recovery is that any amount of alcohol will end sobriety,” Kearns says. “I have found, at least for myself (and I am the only person for whom I speak in these matters), that I can taste alcohol without going off on a wild bender.”

As the cocktail renaissance has evolved from an urban coastal movement to national (and global) phenomenon, drinkers have come to expect well-made cocktails wherever they go. To fulfill that demand, bartenders need experience balancing the flavor profiles, alcohol content, and economics of craft cocktailing. Well-made cocktails require expertise and training. Getting there without burning out is imperative.

Depending on where you live and your personal entertainment budget, there’s a good chance you’ve spent $11 or more on a cocktail prepared by a sober bartender. As cocktail culture continues to expand, expect to see more and more dry craftsmen behind the bar. Without sobriety, there might not be anyplace to get a decent drink.

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