BELFAST— A generational shift has elevated the working class bartender to celebrity chef status in recent years. No longer is the profession viewed as a “fallback job” or a waste of a good college degree. Hey Bartender, a documentary by Douglas Tirola, played in two local theatres last week, the Strand and Colonial, providing insight into the rise of the craft cocktail culture in recent years.
For those who never noticed the difference, a craft cocktail is not a pour n’ stir gin and tonic, or a slap of ginger beer into a glass of rum, squeeze a lime and voila, there you have it. About 10 years ago, the craft cocktail scene began to burble up in every part of the U.S. with an emphasis on pre-Prohibition spirits, fresh juices, herbs and added flavors like homemade bitters.
According to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, “Every ingredient in the drink and element of its presentation — down to the glassware — can be fresh, homemade and prepared specifically for the individual drink recipe.”
The art of the cocktail can now be found at number of Midcoast’s bars and restaurants such The Gothic, Three Tides, 40 Paper, Francine Bistro, Natalie’s Restaurant, Shepherd’s Pie, FOG Bar and Cafe and 3Crow Restaurant, to name a few.
If there is a negative, this culture does suffer a little too much from the hipster mustachioed suspender-wearing crowd and the self-professed mixologists, a term that seems to divide bartenders of every stripe. But at its core, it’s similar to the food scene; i.e., farm-to-bar, and intends to bring just as much care and attention to the design and presentation of spirits as one would expect a chef to bring to each plate going out of the kitchen.
Mike Hurley, co-owner of the Colonial Theatre, a former bartender himself, introduced the film to the small, mostly Baby Boomer crowd at the Colonial Theatre Aug. 21, followed by a quick introduction by director Douglas Tirola, who has been traveling the country promoting the film. Tirola, also a former bartender, made the film because he wanted to show the story of the rebirth of the bartender and the comeback of the cocktail. For him, it’s not just about the drink, it’s about the resurgence of the small communities that form at these places.
“I always think of having gone to these places with my parents growing up where you see the same people at the bar. And every time you went there, you had this special community and I said to myself I wanted to be part of that someday,” he said.
Tirola focused much of his film on the New York scene, where he himself, began frequenting certain places like Employees Only, a world-famous bar in New York.
“That led me into this world where people were becoming bartenders because they really just loved that life,” he said. “They said ‘Enough with 9-5 life. I want to interact with people; I want to do things with my hands and really turn cocktails into a craft.’”
Hey Bartender is an engaging film whether or not you’ve been in the restaurant/bar business. One of the primary arcs of the film follows a young guy in his 20s, Steve Schneider, an ex‐Marine turned mixologist. His story of how he got his head injury that led to his apprenceticeship as Employees Only bartender is the most compelling part of the film; you’re rooting for him. And because he is so hardworking and sincere about ascending the ladder to become a Principal Bartender, he begins to exemplify the honor of this profession.
A bartender doesn’t just sling drinks. The good ones are dedicated to giving their all 12-13 hours a day. The film shows the perks of this swift-moving culture nationwide from saucy Prohibition-style parties to the prestigious Spirited Awards Ceremony in New Orleans, an international event for cocktail professionals and enthusiasts, where Schneider and his fellow Employees Only staff compete in splashy competitions.
In attendance with Tirola on stage after the film were two local bartenders, Mike Casby, who used to tend bar for The Lost Kitchen before he and his wife became the new owners of the catering company, Trillium Caterers, and Chris Kenney, who tends bar for Front Street Pub, Delvinos, La Vida and FOG Bar and Cafe.
“The one thing I appreciated about the film is the way it portrayed bartenders making a place comfortable for people and giving good service,” said Casby. “Raising your game in terms of what you offer and provide for people for cocktails is a natural extension of that.”
A film like this will naturally garner a lot of opinions from bartenders, because there are a variety of approaches to take to bartending. Some, like Front Street Pub, Rollie’s, Cuzzy’s, Navigator Inn, Time Out Pub, and other neighborhood bars have their share of loyal, long-time customers, whether they’re slinging Budweiser on tap or Jack and Cokes. Kinney added, “I think it’s almost cool to be a geek and that’s where the mixologist comes in. But when they’re talking about a bartender, that to me, is just old school, where we just are the hard hat version of it. This is what we do behind the bar to get it done, not to be fancy, more the hard-nosed iron worker thing of bartending.”
In that regard, one of the minor characters Hey Bartender follows is Steve Carpentieri, this kind of salt-of-the-earth owner and bartender of a place called Dunville’s in Connecticut. Dunville’s went from being the “it” bar in town to a place barely staying afloat. In the film, Carpentieri first rejects, then entertains, the idea of craft cocktails at his bar by attending a few events at the Spirited Awards Ceremony, but the audience get the sense it isn’t his niche and maybe for a reason. It’s not a look for everybody and not all bars need to go that route.
In any case, the craft cocktail scene is alive and well in the Midcoast with more restaurants and bars opening each year using the best ingredients Maine has to offer. As for what defines our local bartenders, it depends on who you ask. Doing one’s job well, caring about one’s customers and giving excellent service — no matter what bar you go to — has been pretty much the norm in just about any place you’ll set foot into around here. We’re lucky that way.
To see what kind of craft cocktails Midcoast establishments have been serving up, follow Stephens Penobscot Bay Pilot series “What’s In That Cocktail” on Pintarest.
To see more articles on local filmmakers, check out: ‘Anatomy of the Tide’: Raising money in Maine and getting a major motion picture made in Maine
Kay Stephens can be reached at email@example.com