Review: Hey Bartender… I Mean, Hey Employees Only

Hey Bartender
Hey Bartender

There has been much written on the cocktail revival in America, but until now, there really hadn’t been a film that’s captured it. A new film by director Douglas Tirola called “Hey Bartender” struggles to capture this dramatic change in the way we drink and find a way to communicate its relevance.

Running just over an hour and a half, “Hey Bartender” manages to feel long and drawn out, even at at the hour mark, where we swear it seemed (and perhaps hoped) that it was going to end. One of the major problems of the film is that can’t quite decide what kind of film it wants to be. It jockeys between presenting the history and context of cocktails in America while simultaneously trying to tell the story of Steve Schneider, a bartender at Employees Only in New York City, and his journey from Apprentice to Principle Bartender. Neither story quite comes together and we’re left with a film that feels like it’s stumbling around in a drunken meander.

While “Hey Bartender” does quickly flirt with some non-New York based bartenders (including Tony Abou-Ganim and Philip Duff), it spends most of its running time myopically focused on New York bars and bartenders, and mostly with Employees Only. “Hey Bartender” only briefly ventures out to a neighborhood bar in Connecticut to show the other side of the bar world (non craft), as well as to Tales of The Cocktail in New Orleans, but more in service of the Steve Schneider and Employees Only through-line.

Although Employees Only is a very significant bar in the American craft cocktail scene, and Steve Schneider is clearly a talented bartender, it doesn’t come off well in “Hey Bartender.” Employees Only co-owner Dushan Zaric comes off poorly in a way that doesn’t relfect who he is, and that ultimately undermines Steve Schneider’s story arc. By the time we get to the bar’s End of Prohibition/birthday celebration, we’re left wondering why we should care, and feeling like director Douglas Tirola picked the wrong bar. I’d argue that Tirola shouldn’t have picked any one bar. Cocktails became a movement in America not because of one bar like Employees Only, but because of bars and bartenders throughout the country who took risks, worked together to learn, and shared their passion with their peers and customers.

“Hey Bartender” does have some nice points – a segment focused on Dale DeGroff and his journey from actor to bartender is engaging and interesting. But for every solid moment, there’s another that feels shoe-horned in to try to make a point. Also, with such an amazingly New York centric view, key elements in the craft cocktail revival have been lost, especially the major influence of the UK cocktail scene on American craft cocktails and bars.

Perhaps drinking stories are best left to be told across the bar, and “Hey Bartender” is a sobering reminder of why we have shows on TV like Top Chef, but not Head Bartender.

“Hey Bartender” is currently playing art house theaters across America and can be downloaded via iTunes.

  • Tim Cooper

    Mentioned in the review is that not one bar should have been focused on, yet the film had a very large selection of bartenders from all over highlighted, not sure how the respective bartenders showcased don’t carry the flag of their particular bars in your view.
    In addition, you mentioned “bars and bartenders throughout the country who took risks, worked together to learn, and shared their passion with their peers and customers.” Kind of what this film highlights, someone (Steve or the bar owner from Connecticut) who took a risk to be better at their craft, worked to learn and shared their passion with their peers and customers. These guys took the risk to be filmed and allowed themselves to be subjected to review. They pretty much showcased everything your criticism points out.

  • LL Kool-Aid

    @Tim Cooper, just a hunch: you are a bartender, or a liquor brand ambassador, or both? Or neither? Geoff Kleinman is acting as a film critic. The two phrases you reference are odd, as the Colonel’s view is not at all contradictory. Douglas Tirola has muddled his favorite corner bar with his new favorite top shelf. (Interviews with talking heads dont come with flying flags.) Yes, Bartender ‘highlights’ and ‘showcases’, but that’s double-speak for what it really is, given that what we’re discussing isn’t even a documentary: Hey Bartender is a corporate reel that has been paid for and marketed by liquor brands and championed by their representatives. This equates to a conflict of interest, and is dishonest. That’s its real failing. (So any criticism makes Geoff a target for squashing.)

  • Tim Cooper

    His view is quite contradictory and there is nothing odd about my references. They clearly back up my point. The review comes across as a bit jealous. You state “interviews with talking heads don’t come with flying flags”. Yet, Geoff makes it a point in his review to call out Employees Only as overly showcased because Steve & Dushan were focused on too much in his opinion… ..Feel free to state which liquor brand had its paw prints all over this. My memory could be a touch off but I don’t remember any branding at all… Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion obviously but coming to the defense of Geoff and his review because I disagreed with some of his written view points is suspect on your part. Just as Hey Bartender can be reviewed and critiqued, one can do the same for Geoff’s review… If you ever make your way to New York, stop over to Employee’s Only and visit Steve Schneider. And let me know if you think theres a dishonesty about him or his bar… I am indeed a bartender & brand ambassador. And as someone who has worked in every type of bar imaginable in New York City for the past 15 years I found ‘Hey Bartender’ to be an enjoyable film that did a solid job of showcasing the growing cocktail movement that has been taking place across the country. Was it a great film? thats up for ones own personal interpretation and I have no problem with someone not liking the film. All I was saying is that I felt Geoff’s review had quite a few contradictions.