SXSW Film Review – Hey Bartender
Once, a long time ago, I tried my hand at mixing drinks. I bought a book with a large assortment of alcoholic recipes, got all the tools I thought were necessary, and stocked my shelf with ingredients, mixers, liquors—you name it, I had it. I believed I had everything I needed to begin my newly adopted hobby successfully. After one, two, three failed attempts at making drinks, I started to realize that this wasn’t as easy as I believed. After another handful of unsuccessful stabs, my career as a drink maker came to a crashing end, mere hours after it supposedly began. I can’t imagine what it is like to be a bartender—not only do you have to consistently make fine-tasting drinks at a fast pace, you also have to be a people person, making sure the customers you serve want to come back.
That is at the heart of Douglas Tirola’s documentary, Hey Bartender (2013). Delving into the world of fine cocktails, Tirola’s film reveals the culture of the people behind the bar. We see how they come to work in such a hectic environment, often with long shifts ending in the wee hours of the morning. But this is not simply a movie about people who pour drinks, but about those who take their craft seriously—who respect their history and treat making cocktails as an art form. Time is spent examining the development of bartending, from before Prohibition to its recent reemergence in modern society. Many people (including myself) enjoy a fine drink every now and then, and there are (obviously) many scenes showing exotic beverages being made.
Several characters are introduced and interviewed, from the established top dogs of the food chain to the new up-and-comers. Two storylines particularly stand out from the rest. The first is the story of Steve Schneider, a young ex-Marine who now works in one of the best bars in the world, Employees Only in New York City. Schneider joined the military and was determined to help fight overseas, but when a terrible encounter left him permanently scarred and unable to serve, he found himself in search of direction. The discipline he learned in the Marines contributed highly to his success when he discovered bartending, as time, patience, and dedication were all aspects that helped him excel. We first meet him as an apprentice, but his talent and versatility are apparent. He’s so good at what he does and loves it so much that one could mistake him for something of a rock star, basking in his glory as customers cheer, as if he’s performing at a concert.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Steve Carpentieri, owner of Dunville’s, a small bar in Westport, Connecticut. Steve seems to be a good-hearted, blue-collared, stand up guy. Everyone knows him by name, and he knows everyone by his or hers. But Dunville’s has fallen on hard times. His bar is one that you could possibly describe as a “hole in the wall,” where personality and substance takes precedence over style and presentation. There are no fancy cocktails made here, as Carpentieri believes that is not the kind of bar he runs. But unless he learns to adapt to changing times, he could very well face the possibility of having to shut down. One of the sadder scenes is when Carpentieri plans a big barbecue in front of his place, with tons of meat and drinks provided. Unfortunately, as the event commences, barely anyone attends.
All plot threads come together at the annual Tales of the Cocktail event, a national convention and competition held in New Orleans. Everyone involved in the cocktail and bartending business sees it as the major opportunity to learn from the best, and even compete against one another at the appropriately named Spirited Awards. Carpentieri attends to gain tips on how to keep his business afloat, while Schneider joins in, as Employees Only has been nominated as one of the top bars in the world. It’s always interesting to get a glimpse inside a world I’ve never seen before—well, maybe only as a customer. Here we get to see people from different backgrounds come together for one purpose, and when there’s alcohol involved, you know some craziness will ensue.
Hey Bartender is an entertaining look into a profession that may not be taken seriously outside its own circles. It’s briskly paced, and provides nice insight into some of the more interesting characters. We don’t delve into the darker recesses of the world, as bars can quickly become the refuge of alcoholics and deadbeats. This is a missed opportunity, as Tirola settles on romanticizing the culture with his nostalgic longing for the past (some people even look like they stepped right out of a different era). But for those that are interested, I think this has something to offer.
Final Grade: B