Back in February, I stepped away from my keyboard to behind the bar for Small Screen Network‘s Barback Pro-Am. Conceived by Jim Romdall and Rocky Yeh, the Barback Pro-Am show features notable spirits bloggers and journalists (we at Drink Spirits are the latter, for the record) and throws them into the rush of a busy bar night to see if they’ll sink or swim.
While I’ve gone through the Bar Smarts training program and helped bartend a few private events, I’d never been thrust head first into the rush of a busy night. The Barback Pro-Am wasn’t just a test of my bar skills, it was also a test of my endurance, sense of humor, and most of all my tolerance to alcohol.
The event really started a few weeks prior, in cryptic notes from Rocky Yeh proclaiming, “We’ve got something big in mind for you,” and Jim Romdall asking me if “I had plans for Valentine’s Day”. Somehow I knew I was in trouble, but how could I turn down an opportunity to do anything with Rocky Yeh and Jim Romdall? Collectively, these two barmen were the talent behind Vessel, one of my absolute favorite bars in Seattle. Rocky was the guy who introduced me to Rhum JM (my favorite rum) and Jim Romdall shares my passion for Ardbeg. When these guys come calling, the answer is yes.
Once I agreed to the vague notion of an idea, I discovered that I’d be one of the first participants (victims) of their West Coast Barback Pro-Am. The task was explained fairly straight forwardly: spend a night behind the bar with Jim and Rocky and try to keep up. Of course at the time, I wasn’t quite aware that this would mean keeping up drink for drink, shot for shot, with these two heavy hitters.
The night began promptly at 6pm on Valentine’s Day. I met Rocky and Jim with the Small Screen Network crew at Clyde Common (the home bar of mixologist Jeffrey Morgenthaler). As we sat looking over the bar menu, Rocky exclaimed “Jager Bomb!” and I was quickly whisked off to Red Square, a gay bar across the street from Clyde. Moments later I was back at Clyde where Jim ordered us a round of beers from Upright Brewing. Rocky decided to up the ante and ordered a shot of Rhum Clement on the side. Jeffrey Morgenthaler made mine a double and said, “Welcome to the big leagues”. Rhum Agricole and I are notorious foes – I love the stuff, but it doesn’t always love me. Apparently Jen Heigel from Daily Blender had broken confidence and tipped the guys off to my Agricole weakness.
While Rocky and Jim and the Small Screen Network crew began ordering bar food, I knew in order to survive the night I’d need one thing – MEAT. I quickly ordered as much protein as I though I could keep down, which I had to quickly consume, as by the time we finally ordered and got our food it was almost time to open the doors at Pope House Bourbon Lounge and get down to business.
We arrived at the bar literally ten minutes before the shift was about to start. I was quickly shown where some things were and then informed that the dishwasher was broken, so I’d have to do all glassware by hand. One thing I wasn’t shown was the POS (Point of Sale) system, something which would become the most frustrating element of the night. “BARBACK”, yelled Rocky, and I snapped to. The night wasn’t going to be about ego or spirits knowledge, it was all about hustle – keeping up and getting it right.
I grabbed a quick moment just before the doors opened and started implementing my hangover/drinking survival plan. I applied a Zaca patch, something we’d proven both prevents hangovers and helps me feel better while drinking. I also consumed two pints of water with Nuun tablets in them to properly hydrate and get as many electrolytes into my system as possible. It was a great regimen, but it also meant I’d be subjecting myself to more drinking than almost any other Barback on the tour.
Once the doors opened, everything became a blur. Between taking orders, fighting with the POS system and getting drinks out to customers, there was very little time to think, reflect, linger or talk. For the first few hours it was one thing and one thing only – hustle! Well, it was two things. As I began to break a sweat and run drinks out to everyone, I was brought into the back room for the first of many “Safety Meetings”. As the night wore on I realized it was these “Safety Meetings” that would challenge me the most, as I was handed some sort of glass of something, toasted with the crew and knocked it back. After knocking back my shot, I quickly stacked the cups and ran them to the bar to hand wash them.
Taking orders, setting up glasses, fighting with a POS system, running out drinks and food to people, washing glasses and then running in the back room for a quick shot – there seemed to be a rhythm to the night that, once I found, I was able to ride for hours. Throughout the night people I knew came and went. I’d walk around the bar to give someone a big hug and then hear Jim or Rocky yell “BARBACK” and I’d be back in action.
Throughout it all the guys from Small Screen Network were there with cameras trained on my every move and with squeals of glee when something went horribly wrong. Of course “reality TV” only gives a slice of the pie of any given moment. I’m sure the final product will be more about my slips and foibles than the very cool moments that happened in between it all. Some of my personal highlights from the night that happened away from the cameras were tasting someone out on Eagle Rare who had never sampled it, pouring a glass of Parker’s Golden to someone who ordered it on my suggestion, and bringing a couple obviously on a date some fantastic food and seeing their night go very well. It was these little moments that really made it all worth it.
The spectacular show really happened after the shift was done, as we headed over to Teardrop Lounge to catch the end of an event with Jackie Patterson (the rep for Lillet). Even though I had managed to make my way through nine “safety meetings” at Pope House, I was now subjected to the cruelest series of shots I’ve had. Individually any of these would have been marvelous, but together, at the end of this evening, they were the ones that did me in. The series looked something like this – Smith and Cross Jamaican Rum, Fernet Branca, and Arbdeg 10. From that point I can only rely on the memory of others to fill in the night.
Apparently I did pushups. I went behind the bar, and in spectacular fashion I spilled a gin fizz all over Jackie Patterson (who ended up wearing Daniel Shoemaker’s shirt). And then the inevitable happened: I finished my night huddled over a toilet having a long talk with it about the night’s adventures.
I was told later that by the end of the night we had each consumed a fifth of alcohol a piece (the most consumed by the crew on their Barback Tour). I’m less proud of the alcohol I consumed and more that I had an opportunity to step out from behind the keyboard and get my hands dirty. You can write all day long about spirits and cocktails but it’s a different world when you’re actually behind the bar serving it to customers. I don’t think I could have picked a better crew than Rocky and Jim to barback for. It was one of those amazing experiences that I just can’t wait to do again, on or off screen.