On this episode of “Cocktail College,” host Tim McKirdy is joined again by Eric Alperin, author and co-owner of The Varnish in Los Angeles, to mark a special occasion by discussing one of his favorite topics: etiquette. Tune in for more.
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Tim McKirdy: Hey, this is Tim McKirdy and welcome to VinePair’s “Cocktail College,” a weekly deep dive into classic cocktails that goes beyond the recipe with America’s best bartenders. So, Webster’s Dictionary describes etiquettes as — shut the hell up McKirdy, you’re better than that trope. But listen, you might rightly be thinking, “This is a cocktail podcast, so what on earth do manners and protocol have to do with things?” Well, everything, according to our guest today. Because viewed through a cocktail and bar lens the idea of etiquette encapsulates everything from the correct way to dispose of an empty bottle, how to hold stemware and mixing glasses, and how to control the ambience of a bar room as the night develops. Now the reason we’re taking this slightly left-field detour today is because this is a very special episode for us and we wanted to bring back an equally special guest for whom this is an extremely important topic. You’ll meet them in just a second. Hell, most of you have already seen their name in the show notes, but do let me just say one final thing. This is the “Cocktail College” podcast and we might be halfway to triple digits already, but we are just getting started. I’m going to say this, here we go, guys, it’s a big one. 50, the big 5-0, the half-century, which was I believe my batting average back in the day at cricket, and I tell you, here’s a guy that knows a thing or two about cricket, it’s guest No. 1 and guest No. 50, Eric Alperin. Welcome back, man.
Eric Alperin: You know I really appreciate this, Tim. However, you made me feel incredibly old when you texted me six days ago, when you said, “Hey, man, I know this is last-minute, but No. 50 is coming up and I want to bring you back.” I was like, “What are you talking about, how many do you do in a week, like three?” Yeah, I just thought it was so recent that we did the first one, but when I looked back at the episode dates, it was Sept. 9 that we did the Old Fashioned episode.
T: That’s incredible, isn’t it? It’s incredible how time flies and I thought, we’ve got to mark this occasion, and you are now contractually obliged to do all of the important numbers from here on in. You’re just in this thing for eternity, 100, 150.
E: I’ll do it, you’ll bring me back. You’ll bring me back for 100. I’ll see you at 100.
T: I’ll see you for the hundy, but we’re doing 50 today. So let’s get into it, because you had a great idea for this episode, and having read your book, having spoken with you before and enjoyed a drink with you on one occasion, I know that what we’re going to get in today really matters for you and I think is the meat and bones of this industry for you. So tell us about what you’re thinking today and where we’re going to go with this one.
E: Absolutely, Tim. I do enjoy talking and listening to episodes about cocktails, but really what gets under my skin and drives me is the theater of what we do, what guests don’t necessarily see, but the details that we really slave over. Etiquette is really what came to mind when you asked me about what I would like to talk about, and it really is a driving force for what I enjoy in our industry.
T: What does etiquette mean to you? What does that encompass? We’re going to get into it, but I guess just if you could summarize that in a sentence or two up top here.
E: Absolutely, yeah. Etiquette is a sense of self, and a sense of self within a room and a sense of self in relation to others. There’s a great quote, actually, and a lot of what we’re going to discuss is from the evolution of the Milk & Honey manual that started with Sasha at Milk & Honey, and through Attaboy, Dutch Kills, Violet Hour, The Everleigh, The Varnish, has evolved and has grown with the contribution of all the Milk & Honey family members. So there’s this really wonderful quote, it’s in the book, but I also use, I have an etiquette chapter to my training program, and it’s from an anonymous swordsman in 16th-century Japan, and the quote is, “Needless to say, the moment any pleasure is taken at demonstrating one’s skill at swordsmanship, all possibility of true swordsmanship is lost.” To me, etiquette aligns with that in the sense that etiquette is not something where you smash your cymbals and wave your arms and go, “Hey, look at me.” Etiquette is very much the magic, it’s the subtlety, it’s not necessarily what, I don’t know, 75 percent of our guests can actually intellectualize when they come in. It’s really a feeling that they experience, and yes, of course there are seasoned nightlife people that go out and can see all the details that are being paid attention to. I’m sure you can go to a place and you’re there and when the lights change automatically at 7:09, and you know exactly what’s happening. Either it’s the GM or it’s on a timer, so many of these little details are what make the magic happen, and I just wanted us to jump in with some of that, the stuff that I love to talk about.
T: I think that’s amazing. Yeah, I think hearing you talk about that reminds me of my experiences as a diner, one of the first things I would always think about when I was a chef was what temperature is the butter coming out at? Because if it’s room temperature, easy to spread, I’m like, “Okay, these guys are on it from minute one, from the food perspective.” I’m not waiting 15 minutes or I’m not tearing up some well made bread with some very hard butter. Again, that’s not etiquette, but it’s the things that maybe 95 percent of people miss, but when you have some experience and you go in there and you see it, that makes you feel comfortable, that makes you feel excited about what’s to come.
E: I would actually say that it is etiquette, because to pull out the butter, I love that you brought up this example because I have a coffee shop I go to every day, I love them, it’s Verve downtown. And I don’t get a chance to cook at home as much as I want to, I also believe that I like going out and getting out of the house in the morning, but there’s some mornings where the butter with the biscuit comes out hard and I’m like, “Ah, man. Somebody came in late today or somebody didn’t pull the butter out.” With the intention of knowing, you know back there if you’re a server or a runner and that butter is hard, you know it shouldn’t be. You know that you are serving something that is going to be difficult to apply to the experience. It’s so many things. I have one huge example where I know if a bartender gets it, and that is always placing an empty bottle in the trash as gently on the next bottle in the bin, and they never throw a bottle in the trash so that it makes a jarring sound. I absolutely f*cking hate that. It doesn’t have to be a fancy f*cking cocktail bar, it can be a dive bar, there’s no reason why you have to smash your cymbal and go like, “Hey, look at me. I’m bartending.” It just doesn’t have to happen. Sometimes they’ll clank and tink and make some noise, but if the intention is to place the bottle in the trash and not throw it, you don’t need to hear that jarring smash, it pulls you out. It’s not kind and it’s selfish. Right there is an example of A) either being irreverent, or B) not understanding the subtleties of etiquette. So when I do go to a bar, I know people are like, “Well, can they make a Daiquiri? Can they make a Negroni?” I’m sitting there going like, “Can they properly place a bottle in the trash so that they’re aware about the guest experience?”
T: That really brings me back to that quote that you shared earlier of being like, “Nothing about this is supposed to be about me as the bartender.” Or the person serving, the person who should be following the rules of etiquette at this point. Those examples where people are throwing things around — I saw it in the kitchen too — it was almost, like you said, the person is trying to say, “Look at me, I’m the bartender.” Or maybe they’re saying to their colleagues, “Look how fast I’m working, I’m working really hard.” Oftentimes, it’s less efficient and like you said, the bottle example, it’s always jarring for the guest, though.
E: It’s not playing with routine. I would say let’s use, because I very much think of all of this as theater, let’s use actors and acting. People that over-act, it doesn’t resonate or it’s not as well received by the audience as somebody who really just does the action at hand. I think again, that is what that quote is saying. It’s saying if you have to crash the cymbals and wave your hands and arms and say, “Hey, look at me.” If you have that mentality, then I don’t think you’re really doing the real deal.
T: 100 percent.
E: You’re making it about yourself, and it’s not that you can’t have a good ego behind the bar, but that intention, that etiquette, it speaks a lot.
T: Yep. So here’s an idea for you, because I do have a copy of some of these notes here that you’ve kindly shared with me beforehand and you have the quote in there and the bottle. I’m sure we’ll get into more, but I’m thinking a good way for us to really frame this conversation is what if we look at it through the lens of a standard night at your bar? It might be a little bit before, we don’t need to get into the technical stuff like the preparation of ice, which we did in the last episode, or more mise en place things, which are a little bit more technical, but maybe it is something that comes up before service that you’re thinking about through this lens. But why don’t we go through a shift and you can talk about the various things that are happening throughout the night and really why they’re important to you and what they show?
E: Oh, I love that. Yeah, let’s make it active. I think we just use this list, because so much of it will be the catalyst for conversation here.
T: 100 percent
E: Yeah. If you want to start from the top, and by all means, just jump in there and throw any ones that really resonate with you. But the first one on the list is always hold stem glassware by stem, or with thumb and forefinger on the foot. Always hold mixing, rocks, and highball glasses by the absolute lowest point. Now, what does that mean? Two things: One, people would consider that hands carry germs, and also that your hand is a 98-degree heater. So as we know, we want to serve cocktails in the coldest state possible, so holding a stem glass or a highball or rocks glass from the lowest point, furthest away from the rim where the guest will be drinking, imbibing from, and also with the least amount of warmth from your hand is the proper way to handle a finished drink.
T: Also no fingerprints there, either, which is just not something you ever want to see in your drink that’s just been placed in front of you.
E: Totally. That’s the thing, serving a drink in its coldest state possible is the intention. It’s like when you deliver a plate from the kitchen, I always remember this lesson, thumb off the plate. You’re using the meat on the outside of your thumb to just keep the plate in your hand. But thumb or not, it’s just that intention of like, “No, this is for you, this is not mine.” All these little things are subtle, but they mean a lot. I learned that lesson working at a coffee shop when I was a kid, my first job; we had food there and I was serving water and there was an older woman, elderly lady, and I put the glass down. Because I was tall and gangly, I grabbed the top of the glass and I put it down in front of her, and she said, “Please take that back and bring me a new glass.” I didn’t get it, I was like, “What do you mean?” She was like, “I don’t want to drink your fingerprints.” I was like, “Okay, ma’am.” But that, she was absolutely f*cking right, and I never forgot that and I never did it again. So I learned that lesson before I got into the Milk & Honey family. But yeah, that’s a big one there.
T: That’s a big one right there, yeah.
E: The next two are understanding hygiene behind the bar, and can you maintain your uniform all week? That’s just a personal point of pride. Can you look good for your shift? Can you make sure that your shirt is pressed, clean, ready to go? But also with hygiene, your hair might fall in front of your eyes and Sasha always taught this lesson, but instead of using your fingers to push your hair out of your face, you just use the back of your hand. Or if you have an uncontrollable itch on your nose, you aren’t going to take your fingers and start itching your nose. You might just use the back of your forearm. That was just all that intention of like, “Hey, I’m working here.” Yes, I’m cognizant of the fact that I am creating things and building things for other people. There’s a great place called Found Oyster here in L.A. that good friends of mine run and own, and it’s an oyster bar and the shuckers, and everybody has to shuck there, but when you’re shucking, I even saw that kind of behavior just the other night when I took my parents in for the first time, they are very much, their hands are their tools and if they need to scratch their face or move their hair, they’re doing it with their forearm. So yeah, those are good etiquette intentions.
T: That really strikes me as the kind of duality of this conversation, because on the one hand, we are talking about almost being invisible, and on the other hand we’re talking about being very aware that this is theater and you’re on show at all times.
E: Oh, yeah. Oh, 100 percent. You really know when somebody cares the way they place the bottle on the bar. I know this is very Japanese style, when you pour, make sure the label is out, and I’ve always been like, “Yeah, as you’re working you’ll understand how your bottles are sitting.” You’ll probably place your bottles in a situation when you grab with one hand and then palm it with the other from the bottom, the label will be facing out towards the guest. But if you put a bottle down on the bar, that again is another telling sign of how aware a bar team is. Again, it doesn’t matter if you’re in a craft cocktail bar; it doesn’t matter if you’re in a dive bar. There’s no reason why, if you have to put a bottle down on the bar top, that the label shouldn’t be face out. I don’t remember if it was Sasha or who, wherever it came from, but it was like, if the bottle wasn’t face out, it’s like, “Oh, my God. The boat’s going to flip over.” It’s like the whole ship is going to go topsy-turvy. Actually, no, I remember. I worked on a fishing boat in Alaska and we always, always coil the ropes clockwise, and you never did it counterclockwise. The joke was if you don’t do it clockwise, the boat’s going to flip over. But guess what? The truth of the matter was that it’s an intense environment, the seas can be really rocky and dangerous, and if everyone knows that the ropes are coiled a certain way, then they can act accordingly. So it’s not just an intention to be fussy or to be fancy or even to be like, “Oh, look at how specific they are.” It actually has intention.
T: It’s like those, and again, maybe this gets a little bit more technical, but it’s like when you’re in those shifts that seem to be slower, it’s still acting as if you’re in the busiest shift of the week in terms of everything goes back into its place once it’s been used, everything gets cleaned, the process is the same all the time. Because you can get slammed straight away and suddenly things aren’t in the right place, you haven’t topped up certain ingredients, and suddenly you’re screwed.
E: Yeah. Tim, you know this, but it’s when it’s not as busy is when sh*t goes south. So much so, man. It’s almost like instinctually when things speed up, as long as you’re running a tight ship, then things are going to work in step with each other. But if one is slow, you don’t regard these details as important parts of the process, just because it’s like, “Ah, it’s slow, whatever.” Then when you get hit hard, that “whatever” attitude is just going to get the best of you. Let’s bomb through some of these other ones, because I do love them and I’d love to, I know we explained why they’re important. I think we hit on them, they’ll just make sense to people. So, you can greet and serve customers at the bar, saying hello, acknowledging. Even if you’re busy, you go like, “Hey, how are you?” “Tim, good to see you.” “I’ll just be a couple of minutes.” “Oh, you just want a beer, let me just grab that for you.” I call the three pillars lights, music, and temperature. They are huge. So understanding the appropriate light levels in a room and adjusting as necessary throughout the night, that right there is huge intention. I just can’t tell you how when you walk into a place and these three things right here are the three things that when I walk into any bar that I work in or own, or any place that I’m visiting — and granted I can’t do anything about the places that I’m not an owner or operator — but just understanding the level of the lights. Understanding the appropriate volume of the music in relation to how many customers are in the room. How is their conversation affecting how we hear the music? If there’s two parties in the room, the music doesn’t need to be that loud. If there’s 12 parties in the room, then yeah, the music probably needs to be up a little bit just to balance off with the jovial conversation that’s happening at the tables. Of those three pillars, the last one that’s so important is temperature. That’s not an easy one, either, because you can be behind the bar and moving and grooving and you’re a little hot under the collar, but that doesn’t necessarily mean people that are drinking your drinks are as warm as you are. So there’s that tricky balance of working with your team, communicating. I love the idea of like, let’s say you and I are working together at the bar and I’m behind the bar, you’re on the floor, I might be like, “Yo, Tim. Can you go over to the other side of the room?” I don’t even have to say that, I can just look at you and point to my ear or grab my collar to say, “These are signs of how we communicate on the floor.” And you’ll be like, “Yep.” You go over to the other side of the room and then you’ll look at me and you’ll give me a wink or a nod or you’ll be like, “I know I need to make it cooler in here or we need to pump up the music.” All that stuff, all that dancing that we do together, it’s f*cking magic. The point of view that we’ve all gotten behind, the sandbox that we’ve chosen to play in and share with our guests, that’s where it gets really exciting for me. Sh*t, I can even feel it right now in my voice and in my energy; you should see my arms right now. This is the sh*t that really turns me on, and I want more conversations about this.
T: If I can jump in here for a second…
E: You’re looking at the list too, you tell me what else you want to chat about.
T: So I just want to jump in here a quick second too, and before we move on from those three pillars, just once again, emphasizing them. Lights, music, temperature. A couple of followup questions here maybe for folks that haven’t worked in the industry. A) Is this something you can, because I know for example, I do believe you’ll have your playlist and whatnot, but is this just a case-by-case basis? Is this something that’s being personalized every night? Or can you have a template on what you’re working off? Ultimately, you said that’s an interaction between me and you behind that bar there, but is there one person taking the lead on this stuff?
E: That’s a great question. I think it also depends on what kind of shop you’re running. I do want to make it everybody’s responsibility, I want your antennas to be up with this. It doesn’t matter if you’re the person that’s able to go adjust the lights or the sound. I think it’s important not to be oblivious to these things, even if you’re the one who’s going to be affecting it or not. Like at The Varnish, we’re a small little postage stamp of a cocktail bar and a lot of it budget-wise was put together on a shoestring. So these days, they have audio systems that automatically adjust their sound level. Forgive me, I’m not a sound engineer. You know what I’m talking about. It autocorrects in terms of how it’s peaking on the decibel monitor. Those things are amazing. It’s the same thing with lights, too, where you can set the lights to automatically dim, because they have these light systems that are all controlled by an iPad, to dim at a certain hour. But again, the same for temperature, we have these advanced systems that will auto- set a certain temperature range. I don’t think ever, even if we have all these digital ways of handling this and automated ways of handling light, music, and sound — I’m sorry, light, music and temperature — I really think every person needs to be aware, because there could be a night where you’re going like, “Wow, we decided to let people in and having standing room at the bar and all of a sudden it’s raised the temperature by five degrees.” So I think it has to be something that every person working in the establishment needs to be aware of.
T: That sets up a really nice segue when we’re talking about technology here, because I’m looking at one that I’m really interested in and would love to learn more about here, and I think technology might have changed this, which is understanding the importance of bartender/customer confidentiality. I’m wondering if you can also tell me about that through the lens, it might not be related, but of these platforms like Resy, because I have an anecdote to share after that, but I’m keen to hear more about this point.
E: Sure. Well, to address that head on, what kind of f*cking person do you want to be? There is nobility in serving people, there’s also nobility in being someone that is able to listen and to regard people’s privacy. I know now we’re living in a world, I remember, when was it? It was the last election or whatever it was, “privacy is dead!” It’s like saying chivalry is dead, that’s bullsh*t, it’s really bullsh*t. Just because we have Instagram and all these platforms now that take our information. Yes, yes, privacy is a little more difficult to contain now, but on a human level, on an absolute human level, that shouldn’t change. You should respect, especially, I know we’re not doctors, but if somebody’s having a sh*tty day or you can see, I’ve seen somebody crying at my bar and I’ve just held space for them, then they decided to tell me that they lost their mom. We’re all going to lose our parents at some point, and the fact that if I didn’t regard that privacy and if I went around and started saying or sharing this information, maybe it’s not a great example, but it’s disrespectful to the person, and it’s also disrespectful to yourself and who you want to be. So I would say on a human level, yes, respecting someone’s privacy, knowing what they need, what they want to talk about, what they choose to share with you, that it’s really their business and now it’s been made your business. It’s nobody else’s business. Now in terms of things like Resy and Instagram, well, I do think it’s cool that we can take notes about guests so that we can use them as tools to enhance their experience. If they’re a person that doesn’t love to announce that it’s their birthday and you know that already, but you put it in the notes and Tim comes in, he really doesn’t like his birthday, but for dessert we don’t need to put a candle in the dessert, we just bring it out and we give him a little wink and we go like, “We’re really glad you keep coming here.” That kind of information, that’s pretty cool. But to say something like, “Hey, I saw your Instagram blah blah blah,” it’s like, “F*ck you.” I talk to my friends, and as you get older you get busier, you don’t get as much face time, I talk to my friends, I go like, “Oh, god.” I was talking to my friend Ari, I was like, “Oh, dude, sorry, man. I feel like a jackass saying this, but how was this?” Because it was on his Instagram and he laughed, he was like, “But of course, man.” I know, I know, I know, it’s all love and I’m your friend, but it’s like, “Why don’t get to catch up in person and talk about this? I had to see it through your Instagram.” But with guests, it’s really important, because I think it just reinforces how noble what we do is.
T: I love that there are ways, though, in which technology can be utilized, like you said there with Resy. I think it can go too far, but I think there are ways where exactly like you’re saying, we have this available to us. Okay, there’s a romantic world where every bartender knows all their guests and they know these things by heart, but that’s not the world that we live in anymore for the most part, so why not let technology help us? I did have one where I’ve come across a new spot recently that I’ve been enjoying going to, and basically taking all my friends to have this new Martini. It’s not Verōnika, but we will talk about that later.
E: Oh boy, Tim.
T: I’m just going out and drinking Martinis, that’s what I do. But I came in and I said to my friend, “Oh, my God. You’re going to love this space or whatever.” I get up and they ask for a phone number at the door, and put the phone number in and they’re like, “Oh, my God. Tim, you’re back, you were just here the other day.” I’m like, “Well, way to make me feel like I have a drinking problem or something.” I’m just trying to share the word here, spread the word.
E: Yeah. No, that is a great one. I’m going to actually tell a little quick story here, but that’s a great one, because what if you were on a date and it was like your third different date.
T: You can’t have a date spot anymore.
E: You’re like, “Great, way to blow my cover, you f*cking suck.” The fact that I’ve been using this place because I feel really comfortable here, and I’m dating right now. I’m going to give my personal bar the Varnish props because my best friend Josh used it — he tells this story, he actually wrote, because the back of the book there’s stories of regulars — and he talks about the week that he came in three times with three different dates and Anthony, our host, every time he came in was like, “Oh, my God, Josh, it is so good to see you. We have missed you.” Then the next night it was like, “Josh, it is about time you got back here. We’ve really been wondering where you’ve been. So good to see you. Who is this person who’s joining you?” The last time, just a big hug, never ever did Anthony let on that he had been there just the night before or two nights ago. So right there, that’s the magic.
T: That’s the pillar.
E: Paying attention, that’s what we are paid to do. We’re paid to have a point of view, to serve consistent products, food and drink, and then just to be aware of the people walking through our door and how we can make the special experience happen. If you can’t drink that Kool-Aid, then please don’t apply for a job. It’s too hard. It’s too hard to train people and then realize, “Oh, God. You actually, the part about caring, you just don’t have it or see it.”
T: I think in that scenario too it’s worth noting that it was said with good intentions, it was said as if to be like, “Oh, we’re glad that you’re loving it here and we love having you here.” But again, just like you say, there could be so much else going on at that time where it’s just like, the subtle acknowledgement between the two is maybe the better way to go in that one. I don’t know, I don’t know.
E: Yeah. If you’re coming in by yourself or with the same date, that kind of response would have been perfect. Listen, we are human, that’s what makes us all beautiful, we’re going to go right back to that quote, you’re demonstrating one’s skill and you’re never going to get 100 percent of your moments. You’re not. As long as you take note and you stay aware, it is all the way to jiggering and building drinks by the round and reusing a jigger. I’m always saying in my conscience, “Hey, hey, hey. You can reuse that jigger, but don’t beat yourself up for that. Just make a mental note.” It’s the same thing with service in terms of how you greet people, how you grab a glass, did you blow out the candle when you had a tray of dirties? It’s being apathetic and not thinking actively, that’s where I take issue. Mistakes happen, it’s again, what makes us human, and again what makes us beautiful. But I just take issue with not thinking through and taking action on your actions. So apathy sucks. If you’re actively thinking about how you can be better than great, so maybe you should write these people a letter and tell them how they f*cked up your night, Tim.
T: I can do that through Resy now as well, that’s the great thing. No, no. Absolutely not. All right, so here’s one for you. We talked about being active at the beginning there, we’re talking about the throes of service here, but what about when it comes toward the end of the night and that wonderful art, and that dance of somehow trying to tell guests that it’s time to leave without offending anyone, while maintaining the standards of the evening, but also having respect for your staff and being like, “These guys need to get out too.”
E: I would say stamina on your team, stamina and consistency are important tools to lean on. There are nights when they’re tough nights, there’s nights where you’re personally not in the mood, but you have to lean on your ability to see it through to the end of the night. By that, I mean communication is very important. If something gets screwed up, as you know, you always want to be the person that addresses it, not that ignores it. So when it comes to the end of the night and people are carousing, and as a team you have to have a cutoff point as to when last call is, when last drinks go out over the bar. At The Varnish, it’s 1:30, only because we really want to get those orders at the latest like 1:25, so that people can have those drinks and still have time to enjoy them. Because we don’t want to serve a drink and it’s 1:50 and then we’re like, “Okay, you’ve got to get out.” They’re $18 drinks. So being cognizant of how to stick the landing. I think they say, pilots will tell you that takeoff and landing are the two most difficult parts of their job, the rest, for better or worse, is actually, quite literally, cruise control, especially with the technology we have. But yeah, takeoff and landing both require focus, attention, communication, and again, I know pilots are human beings so I’m sure there are days when they’re like, “Jesus, I don’t feel like landing a plane with 200 passengers.” But they do it anyway. So when you’re getting ready to wind down, making sure the whole team is communicating, making sure that if your server or one of your bartenders has really gotten beat up that night with a lot of good service, just go like, “Hey, man, come on.” Encourage each other to just see it through to the end, keep smiles on the face, but communicate with the guests and say, “Listen, can I get you some water,” or “This is our last service. We do close at 2.” Then when it comes time to getting people out, I’m not really a huge fan of the “F*ck you” lights, I think yes, that does have to end up happening in the end, but I think it has to be a slow progression. Honestly, it actually never has to happen if people get the gist and exit on their own, while the lights are still low or even have come up a quarter or halfway. There’s no reason to throw up the lights and say, “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.” Come on, fine, maybe in a dive bar because it’s fun, but again, it doesn’t have to happen that way. You can be suggestive and people can get the picture. Of course there are people that aren’t going to hear all those cues and you can be forceful and loud in a very fun way, you don’t have to be mean. You can be like, “Come on, you guys, I’ve got to go home.” You can be playful with all of that. Again, it’s listening to the room, to yourself, with your team and to the guests.
T: I think one thing that’s very important to me as a guest, and I remember being told this my first job as a food runner, when someone asks for the check, they want out. Let them get out of there as fast as they want. “Okay, you want the check, you’re moving on. Great, I want to take care of that as soon as possible for you.” That’s something that really matters to me on the guest side here.
E: Tim, I’m so glad you brought that up, because I would say paying the bill is the dirty work, it’s the dirty moment. Yes, we don’t open places for charity. We have bills to pay, we have staff to take care of, so when people are paying the bill you want to make that as quick and effective as possible. So when you put the bill down, you have to be ready knowing that a credit card or a couple credit cards are going to go down very soon. You have to be ready to come back and grab it, and if you can’t you have to say to a coworker like, “Hey, can you keep an eye on table seven, I’ve got to take care of this, this, and that, but they have the check and they’re going to want to close out immediately.” So yeah, that again, that’s sticking the landing right there. It’s again like, I’ve got this pen rant in the book about f*cking pens that leak everywhere and tops that are lost and that are dry. That’s why I love these, if you don’t have custom-made pens, and I actually have one on my desk right here, it’s these Bic Soft Feel Fine Black Pens. I don’t know if you can hear that, me clicking, because it’s a click, and then they can sign and it’s never dry and it’s never leaky. You always want to provide the right tools so that, like you said, they can get out of there quickly and effectively and they appreciate that. Because when you ask for the check, you’re like, “Great, I’ve had a wonderful night.” Or maybe it was a tough night, you did the best you could, they want to get out of there. So leave them with the right impression.
T: I enjoy the fact that you describe paying the bill as the dirty point, because there’s something I struggle with and this is very much a part of this conversation, which is for bartenders to hit all of the points that you’re talking about here, they have to essentially treat customers as guests. This has been one of the fundamental pillars of perfecting hospitality. But on the other hand, I struggle with it because I’m not a guest, in terms of I wouldn’t expect to pay at your home if you have me over for dinner. I’d be more than happy to chip in with helping bus plates. Hey, maybe your dishwasher breaks, “Eric, I’ll stick around, I’ll help you out with that.” That to me is what a guest is about. I’m not saying this in terms of I want to be treated differently as a customer, but I just don’t know, I find it difficult for both things to coexist well. I think it’s brought up problems actually for people that work in service, rather than guests themselves. Does any of that make sense?
E: It makes sense. I actually have been, I’m on the hinges, on the sidelines of this debate, because I think it was a New York Times article about guest versus client, I don’t know. Are we just being semantic, dealing with semantics here? Yes, of course when you go out you expect to pay, and when you go to someone’s home as a guest, you’re not necessarily expected to do the dishes.
T: Of course not.
E: Of course not. You know what? If you go over a lot, then you’re like, “No, I’ve got this, Tim. You cooked an amazing meal, I’ve got the dishes tonight. Come on, it’s the ninth time you’ve had me over.” But can I tell you something, I’ve had people in the bars who are regulars who clear their own glassware. So to me, it’s semantics really. I want people to feel like they’re guests, and yes they do have to pay, because we are all part of contributing to a worthy cause, and this worthy cause is a safe environment, it’s an experience, it’s a point of view. We want it to be there for A) us, who go there all the time, B) for the new people that are visiting from out of town or they’re there for the first time, and C) for the people behind the bar and in the back of house that are making the experience happen. So I think again, like we’ve said, the nobility of serving people, I think when you’re a guest or a client, you are part of that whole brigade of how this works. We can’t do it without each other. So I want people to feel like they’re guests, but yes, they’re guests and that comes with a contribution to the cause. I know exactly what you’re saying, but I don’t get super wrapped up in it. I’d like people to just be kind, even when I’m serving people, I want to be kind and if you can become a good friend and a regular, you’re going to feel even more like a guest. But yes, for the most part, you will always pay. Maybe if you bring your parents and you’ve been a regular for a year, I’m going to be like, “Nope, it’s on me, Tim. Brought Mom and Dad. That’s a big f*cking deal.” You know what I mean?
T: Yeah. You know what it is? I appreciate your response there, because it’s basically the crux of every single matter, I think, these days, which is appreciating and understanding nuance. That nuance is there are subtly different definitions of what a guest can be, depending upon the environment.
E: 100 percent. Good, I’m glad we finally agreed on something, Tim.
T: So I’ve got one, when it comes to guests, though, I think this might be a nice place for us to look at another thing here and start to come into landing, as it were, pull out that landing gear, and that’s etiquette rules. Milk & Honey, of course, was known for this, but actually having customer-facing literal rules that were a part of that bar’s fame, and it’s so funny as well, we’ve interviewed other people from the Milk & Honey family on this show, and it’s so striking how you’ve all maintained these values that we’re speaking about today. But what about those rules of the original bar? Do you want to talk through some of them and also just how do they translate to 2022?
E: Yeah, sure. Totally, I love this. Listen, it’s inherent in what you just said, there are rules. They’re not theme-y. In the Milk & Honey family, since we’re using this as the example, we’re not dressing up in button-up shirts and suspenders and pressed pants and shined shoes just because we want to be theme-y. No, actually we enjoy that time period. Do we do it didactically? Sh*t, in some of my gear I would wear my studded punk rock belt. But in terms of rules, they weren’t just because we wanted to be a theme-y speakeasy. The rules at Milk & Honey, and of course they predate when I joined the family, but they were there for a reason. So, “No name-dropping, no star f*cking,” just meant come to the bar as a normal human being, and if there’s a wait or if we bring your bill and all the drinks are on there, don’t f*cking say, like, “I know so and so, or this famous person’s going to come and join me.” Come on. “No hooting, no hollering, no shouting or other loud behavior.” I don’t really know if I need to explain that one.
T: That one goes without saying.
E: That goes without saying, but also Milk & Honey was in a co-op, so they were neighbors in the area, they were neighbors, it was the only bar on the street at the time. Again, another one that’s inherent, “No fighting, no play-fighting, no talking about fighting.” Don’t f*cking drink and fight, that’s just not right. Then this one, which when we get to it, because I’d like to bring up The Varnish rules also: “Gentlemen will remove their hats, hooks are provided. Gentlemen will not introduce themselves to ladies. Ladies, feel free to start a conversation or ask the bartender to introduce you.” Right there is just a beautiful example of chivalry and etiquette. Nobody, and I know it’s changed now, but nobody, man or woman or person, however you identify, likes to go out and be accosted, or even be spoken to if they really just want to be alone. So I think that rule, beyond just saying like, “Hey, be a gentleman. Hey, ladies, feel protected.” I think it was a lot about shining a light on, respecting each other in this space.
T: So what about The Varnish rules there and also these concepts, because as you say there, certain things have changed on that front and they might be viewed in a different way by perhaps, we have multiple different generations that are drinking now, generations that weren’t drinking when you were starting out.
E: Oh, yeah. Totally. Also, Varnish is different, it’s a little more like Little Branch, it’s a little more lively, so it’s a little bigger. But I remember early days at Varnish, I was asking people to take their hats off and Sasha, this is week one, he came up to me and he said, “Eric?” I was like, “Yeah, what’s up?” “Do you want to spend all your time telling people to take their hats off?” I just looked at him, I was like, “No.” He was like, “Because that’s going to be really difficult here.” He was right, he was like, “We’re Milk & Honey pedigree here, but the room is different, so let’s read the room.” So we stopped doing that and we took that out as being one of our rules. But for example, we have our rule about respecting ladies and gentlemen, take your hats off. We say at The Varnish, “Disrespectful attitudes towards other patrons or our staff will not be tolerated.” Boom, that’s it. Plain and simple. We say right away, “We are first-come, first-served, and we don’t take reservations.” Boom, manage people’s expectations. “We cannot accommodate parties larger than six people.” Boom, so if you show up with eight, right away we can be like, “Hey, listen. This is just what we can do.” Then you address the dress code, cocktail attire is admired, but not required. So if you show up in shorts and T-shirt, hey, okay, fine. We’re in California, that’s cool. But you might turn around, look around the room and see people a little fancied up, and maybe that will give you an idea next time to put on some pants when you go out.
T: You know what? Can I jump in here with a somewhat related anecdote, and I think that really works for this? So I was visiting The Varnish, I want to say it was in May, and I don’t believe you were in town, but I stood at the bar and I had dinner happening later too, so that was why, again, at the end of the night when I ordered the check, the bartender knew we needed to be out of there by a certain time. Perfect. The service was exceptional. I stood at the bar and the couple who stood next to me, they had flown in from the U.K., they were in town for — I didn’t know them, by the way, we don’t all know each other over there — and they’d flown in and I think they were only in town for one evening then they were going somewhere else. They’d literally looked up a number of different spots that they wanted to drink at. This was before they even went to their hotel. I believe they might have been in your bar with their suitcases. So again, they weren’t in cocktail attire, but it meant that much to them to visit and to check out this spot. So yeah, in that scenario, if you’d said, “No, you have to be wearing something.” They would have missed out on that experience.
E: 100 percent. That’s really beautiful, thanks for sharing that.
T: It was nice, it was a nice moment.
E: That’s almost up there with bringing your mom or bringing your 21-year-old son or daughter when they turn of age. The fact that people regard and have read and want to have that experience for themselves, it’s important enough to just basically take the Uber or Lyft from the airport right to our f*cking door. That’s pretty cool. Yes, we’ve had those moments. I’ve definitely said, “Hey, let me just put your bag right back here.” That actually worked really quite well, because some of them had stayed all night and they’re like, “Now we really have to go.”
T: Uh oh, yeah. You’ve got to check in somewhere. That is never fun under the influence.
E: But yeah, going again to rules, man, and I think the whole speakeasy rules thing jumped the shark after Milk & Honey and other places opened. People felt they had to have rules, and I just think in this family for us is that a rule was a rule. That’s one of those funny words, you say it over and over again. It sounds weird, but a rule is inherently something that is necessary, not something that is meant to be theme-y or put, I would say, handcuffs on the experience. They were actually just necessary bullet points so that it’s like a little bit of a manual for the place.
E: Like the last, the one from Milk & Honey that I always think is really smart is, “Do not bring anyone unless you would leave that person alone in your home.” I know that sounds extreme, because I don’t know, I’m pretty OCD, so I don’t know how many people in my close groups of friends I would leave in my home, but I think the idea, think about it. Who are you hanging out with? You really are judged by the company you keep.
T: 100 percent.
E: I learned that from my dad growing up, there were a couple things, that was one of them. That’s always held really true to me.
T: Yeah, I love it, I love it. I love that idea as well that if you’re opening a place, then it should become apparent to you, if you’ve been in the industry for long enough, the rules that your establishment needs to have. You don’t need to go looking for them, so that it becomes thematic or tacky. But like you said, there are certain instances, like the idea of Milk & Honey being on that quiet street at that point in time, that make the experience better for everyone.
E: Yeah, absolutely. May I say, if the rules are really honed and thought of by the establishment, then I don’t think they need to be beaten over people’s heads. I think places running a certain way, like Milk & Honey and Attaboy still have this, but they have the curtain in front of the door after you open it. That right there is saying like, “Hey, you’re walking into another little world. Please self assess, bring your voice down.” I think rules inherently are alive in a place, and it’s not like, even though they might be posted on the door or in the bathroom, I don’t think for them to really be smart rules and effective rules that they need to beat people over the head. Just like you’re not beating people over the head with the mixology stick, which I think is a real trap, you’re not wanting to beat people over the head with these rules. I think the way you run your establishment should inherently just make those rules, not even just verbally, but in terms of the feeling, those things should be alive within the space.
T: Yeah. I think that’s a great reminder that all of these things, whether it’s rules or the etiquette, you’re talking about stepping into a new environment, the change of lighting and music and temperature, you’re in a new space. Everything you’re mentioning here comes with the aim of creating the utmost experience for guests. That’s something we all appreciate, I think, as drinkers and guests and probably even people working too, when you’re in an environment like that.
E: Yeah, that’s why we go out. We could make drinks at home, Tim.
T: Yeah, exactly.
E: We go out to experience other people’s point of view. I’ll end it with this, there’s a philosopher. Oh, my God, I think he’s Hungarian, but Csikszentmihalyi, and I remember reading one of his early lectures in a book; I was young, but there was one line that said, “We only exist in relation to other people, places, and things.” For me, and I know for a lot of us, the reason why we A) go out, and B) create spaces where people can come be our guest, that’s our reason for existing.
T: I love it, I love it. That’s etiquette right there.
E: Yeah. I’m so glad you asked what I wanted to talk about, so thank you, thank you kindly for giving me that opportunity. A lot of fun.
Getting To Know Eric Alperin
T: Well, thank you kindly for rejoining us and how do you feel about now exploring five new quick questions to finish the show, given that you were the first to answer our first five, our original five?
E: Yeah, I knew this was coming. I knew you were going to do this again, so I had to rack my brain and think about what you’re going to ask me.
T: All right, okay. Let’s start, let’s do it. Question No. 1 here: Which spirits category are you currently most excited about from a personal and/or professional perspective?
E: Well, I have to say I’ve been working a lot lately, so personally I’m always a sip mezcal and a Topo Chico kind of person these days when I’m at the house. But professionally, I’ve been working a lot with pisco, and there’s this great cocktail that we have at a place called Verōnika, which I recently just worked on and helped open, it’s the Acholado, which means mixed or blended. So we make our own in-house Acholado, and I discovered this Marnier Lapostolle XO Pisco, and it’s from the Grand Marnier family, because they grow grapes in Chile. So there’s this aged pisco that they have and we do a 50/50 blend with Singani 63, and I know Singani, the easy way to say it is it’s a Bolivian pisco, which it’s Singani, you’re like, “No, it’s not pisco, it’s Singani.” But it’s made from Muscat grapes. But we do a 50/50 and create this Acholado and then just do a traditional build.
T: I’ll jump in here and I’ll say you have three Pisco Sours, I believe, on the menu there at Verōnika, and they are wonderful and also, I feel like we’re having a little Pisco Sour moment at the moment. I see them cropping up everywhere, and I’m here for it.
E: Yeah, it’s exciting. There was something about that menu, we went really bold and we were like, “What are our lead drinks? Pisco Sour and Espresso Martini, awesome. Let’s put three of each on the menu.” I’ve never thought that, I was like, “Okay, that’s bold.” It’s just been fun, and I think that’s the time we’re living in right now, people are ready to get back and party. Give us Espresso Martinis, give us ’90s classics. I want blue sh*t in my drink. I know I’m not the first one to realize this and I know Punch just recently had an article about why all that stuff is coming back, but I think people really just want to have a good time without the hangups.
T: 100 percent. I’ll say, just in case we don’t cover Verōnika again in this conversation. Wonderful Martini that you have there as well with, there’s a little caviar service that goes with it. It’s a vodka Martini and people know here that I’m regularly a gin Martini drinker, but this is the one that’s finally, this is the vodka Martini that’s finally conquered my heart. So thank you for offering that to the city.
E: I will say that I’ve very much enjoyed it too, because of the vodka we’re using, it’s the Chopin Family Reserve made from young potatoes. From the world we come from, we don’t play with as much vodka, but if you know or not, really it was Chopin and Belvedere were the early ’90s, they were the ones creating the vodka. The Chopin Family Reserve, it’s pretty exceptional.
T: It’s a wonderful vodka.
E: Can we just plug some of our friends here? Two other things that I love using right now is Ford’s Sloe Gin, the little Ford’s team, go Simon and team. Then also, this little nutmeg liqueur called Myris Nutmeg Liqueur by Jim Ryan. I had one of the Espresso Martinis at Verōnika that uses the Myris Nutmeg Liqueur, so if you haven’t had a chance to taste it, head over to Verōnika, or definitely pick up a bottle.
T: Wonderful. Those are two plugs I can get behind as well. Great products there. All right, question No. 2: What was the last, ideally alcoholic, drink you had that really wowed you?
E: I don’t know if you’re going to love me or hate me for this answer, but it’s historical and it’s because of someone I love and it’s the fact that it is served with no frills, no ego, and it’s a Cosmopolitan at The Long Island Bar. Toby, we’ve known each other over a decade now, and he paved the way really for Tribeca in terms of Cosmos, and I remember my first shot was at a place called the Spinning Room, which was six blocks north of The Odeon, and I didn’t know Toby back then, but I was f*cking shaking up Cosmos with sour mix out of the gun. So the Cosmo and the fact that I can get one from Toby? It’s historical, it does bring out those memories and the fact that I can get one ice cold and not feel like I’m being that guy ordering a Cosmo, and the fact that they’re coming back, and secret wink-wink on the DL: I’m actually dropping a menu in L.A. that will have a Cosmo on it. So again, that ’90s anxiety is coming back.
T: Can I ask you, did Toby make that for you or did you go for the frozen one that they have on offer there at the moment?
E: Oh, no, Toby made that for me.
T: Toby made it, wow. You guys go a long way back and that’s nice to hear that he will do that. I know he will do it for any guest that walks in and asks for it too, but I know there’s some trepidation there where people know because they’re like, “This is the guy.”
E: Well, you know what’s funny? You have interviewed him about this, but he refers to the Cosmopolitan as his Albatross. One of the first times, years ago, I was in Long Island Bar, I was like, “Hey…” I was there with my co-author Deborah Stoll, and I was like, “Hey.” He was like, “Hey.” I said, “Can we get two Albatrosses?” What an inside joke, but you get it.
T: Nice, that’s what I’m going to need to do, because I think Toby’s still holding out on me on my Cosmo, but I usually order it in jest. I don’t want to bug the man. But yeah, next time I go, I’m ordering an Albatross, we’ll see what happens. I shall report back.
E: Please do, you’ve earned it.
T: Question No. 3: What one book would you recommend that every alcohol and cocktail enthusiast should own a copy of?
T: I hear you, tell me about it.
E: Well, come on. All right, listen, there’s a couple others I’m going to suggest. But when you’re a writer, when you become a first-time writer, you really learn very quickly how difficult the book world is and selling your book. For any of us in this industry that have written a book, I would applaud and champion that. Everyone should go out, especially if you’re an enthusiast, and support the cause. “Unvarnished” was a book that I co-authored with Deborah Stoll, and it was published by HarperCollins Harper Wave. The publish date was June 23 of 2020, so I know nobody really wants to go back mentally to that time, but it was a really difficult time to drop a book. Right during the pandemic. During what was a point of the important civil rights movement of our lifetime, so far. So yeah, it wasn’t the stage to drop a book and it was a little difficult, so I say unabashedly I think it’s a good read and a great ride.
T: Great listen, too, if that’s your lane. Just want to point that out, too, as well, you’ve done the narration for it and that’s the one that I really enjoyed.
E: Aw, thanks. Yeah, I was going to say if you don’t like reading or don’t have time, then I do the audiobook. So yeah, please pick up a copy of “Unvarnished.” But if I would suggest a few others, Toby Maloney from Violet Hour, also from Milk & Honey, just dropped “The Bartender’s Manifesto.” A lot of wonderful stuff in there, and I love that he also cites that it was authored by him and the staff at Violet Hour. Then two other books, which I would suggest that are outside per se of the cocktail world. One is by George Orwell and it’s “Down and Out in Paris and London,” about him as a struggling writer. It’s really, really good, a fun read, a fun ride. Then if you’re into survival books, there’s a book called “Deep Survival” by Laurence Gonzales. That’s another great audiobook. It’s just about the human spirit and what allows certain people to survive very challenging circumstances, like a plane crash or being stranded out at sea. So yeah, that’s a really cool listen.
T: Wonderful recommendations there. If you will allow me to add on a little personal anecdote here on the “Down and Out in Paris and London” front. I think I was 18 at the time, had my first-ever restaurant industry job, which was working as a food runner, and I was also applying to university to study English. I was at this point in my life where I was like, “Do I go do the writer thing, or do I pursue this other thing that I had never come across and never considered before?” I just happened to be reading that book at the same time, so it felt, I don’t know, it felt very apt for the time. I’m happy with the way that I did it, though. I got the chef stuff out of the way first and then, yeah.
E: Life is art, yeah. That’s wild.
T: It was real fun.
E: Such a great ride and read, it’s a quick one too.
T: Yeah, it’s a little easier. It’s not going to keep you up at night for as long as say if you want to pay a revisit to “1984” right now, that one’s tougher.
E: I feel like “Down and Out in Paris and London” was a little bit more of Orwell’s, a little more Henry Miller.
T: Yeah. There we go, well, great books there. Yeah, just keep the art of writing and publishing and everything alive, folks, it’s good. Question No. 4, interesting one here for yourself: If you could appear in one movie scene where alcohol plays a prominent role, which one would it be and who would you like to play?
E: All right, well, because this is the theme, I’m not just giving one. First one that came to mind was The Dude in “The Big Lebowski” when he makes the first White Russian in the movie with his finger. The second is Jack Torrance when he, in the middle of “The Shining,” he’s down and out from just having writer’s block and he sits at the bar in the hotel and the imaginary bartender named, I think, Lloyd shows up and pours him a Jack Daniel’s. He just sits there talking to Lloyd, an imaginary, an apparition of a bartender, drinking Jack Daniel’s. Then the last one would be “Fight Club.” It’s the scene where Tyler Durden and the narrator, Ed Norton, meet at a bar for a beer and they’re talking about consumerism and then they go out in the parking lot and that’s the beginning of that part of the movie where he’s like, “Hit me as hard as you can.”
T: Nice. So those are the three movies, so you’re going with The Dude, are you playing Nicholson or are you playing Lloyd? You’re playing Jack?
E: Well, that’s an interesting question. I assumed I was playing, Jack, but I guess I could play the imaginary bartender.
T: I like you, Lloyd. What is it? That’s the first time in my life I ever heard the phrase, “Hair of the dog that bit me.” I believe I saw that movie when I was 10 or something, wildly inappropriate.
E: Totally, but we saw that movie at an age that was still probably wildly inappropriate.
T: Yes, 100 percent. Then last one, are you Pitt or are you Norton?
E: Oh, I’m definitely Pitt.
T: No hesitation there.
E: Let’s be honest here, that’s one of the best movies of a certain generation.
T: Incredible, incredible. Doesn’t miss a beat. I’ll tell you what, the script for that does not let up from minute one to the end. The pace of it, it’s incredible.
E: Yeah. I think just like “Pump Up the Volume,” which was a movie I’d seen 50 times over, that is one that I’ve seen many, many times. It doesn’t disappoint.
T: Never, I need to re-watch that one imminently. All right then, final question, which modern classic cocktail do you think is deserving of more recognition than it gets?
E: Well, funny question, because I answered this recently, I’m going to answer it the same way. I’ve been really into low ABV lately and the one I’ve always loved, suggested, and celebrated is Mickey McIlroy’s Rome With a View. It’s a simple three-quarter simple syrup, one lime, one dry vermouth, one Campari, just a light toss, strained, and topped off with club soda.
T: Wonderful drink, definitely one worth trying if you haven’t already.
E: I think it’s actually like, at least for me, because I remember the low-ABV world, obviously you had your Americano, but I just remember that was the one that I learned early on. I was like, “Oh, yeah. Okay, you want low ABV?” Now we have just a myriad amount of low-ABV options and it’s wonderful that that’s happened, but I really feel like this one was at the beginning of the whole low-ABV cocktail craze. It’s an OG. It’s an OG low-ABV cocktail, so hats off to Mickey.
T: He’s got a couple of bangers, and that’s one of them.
E: Yeah, true story.
T: All right then, Eric, thank you so much again for coming back for 50.
E: Wow, yeah. We went for an hour and 15 minutes. I hope your followers have the bandwidth to listen to us for that long.
T: I’ll tell you what, I hope so, too, because we’ll see you again this time next year for 100. Well, roughly this time.
E: That’s amazing. Thank you, man, I really appreciate it, Tim. Always a pleasure talking to you.
Okay, that was a lot of info, but here’s the good news. Every single episode of VinePair’s Cocktail College is also published on VinePair.com as a transcript. So you can check it out there all over again.
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Now for the credits. “Cocktail College” is recorded and produced in New York City by myself and Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director and all-around podcast guru. Of course, I want to give a huge shout-out to everyone on the VinePair team. Too many awesome people to mention. They know who they are. I want to give some credit here to Danielle Grinberg, art director at VinePair, for designing the awesome show logo. And listen to that music. That’s a Darbi Cicci original. Finally, thank you, listener, for making it this far and for giving this whole thing a purpose. Until next time.