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.