Bartenders and other hospitality pros are attacking Jon Taffer of Spike TV’s “Bar Rescue” for his answers in a HuffPost Q&A published this week. Many of his responses don’t sound like the bar business as we know it today. But in defense of Mr. Taffer, they are not as random they might seem. To decode where some of his more hotly debated comments come from, we have to get into the Wayback Machine and head back to the 1980s. Here are some of the responses people are attacking, and how they made more sense “back in the day.”
The Mezcal / Mescaline Thing.
In the interview, Mr. Taffer claimed that tequila is made from the same raw materials as the drug Mescaline. This is not true now nor was it in the 80s. But there is an “80s reason” why someone could have made this mistake. Eating the worm in a bottle of Mezcal became wildly popular in the 80s and it was said to have psychedelic properties (the worm not the booze). I think Jon just mixed up this old school tall tale with the origin of tequila and made a little word salad out of Mezcal and Mescaline. The Mezcal remarks have been removed from the HuffPost story (something that would never have been tolerated by editors in the 1980s BTW).
The drink everyone should be able to make is the screwdriver.
As a 20 year old bartender in the 80s, I do remember this was a go-to drink for people who didn’t know what to order and very easy to make. The vodka cranberry of the Miami Vice era. There were many popular juice based drinks back then such as the Tequila Sunrise. Of course orange juice drinks pretty much vanished in the 90s so you have to be pretty old (ouch) to even remember the golden age of washing pulp out of glasses. As for Mr. Taffer’s story about how oil workers chugged vodka/OJ in the 1920s, I can’t explain that. Somehow I doubt orange juice was something you always had around back then.
An overlooked drink everyone should try is the “Old Fashioned.”
Today of course it’s a mainstay and granddaddy of cocktail culture. But the 80s was the era of beer tubs and drink factory bars with lightning service, simple drinks, bottled wine coolers and flair bartenders juggling bottles. The Old Fashioned was considered a pain in the ass drink to make and about as complicated as you got in the big high energy bars which dominated the Me Decade. “Mixologists” was our name for slow bartenders in the places I worked. In the 80s we buried the Pink Squirrel and Grasshopper 70’s drinks, and kept it simple. Shots exploded in popularity and bottled beer peaked. It would take the mid-90’s lounge culture to start bringing cocktails and mixology back. Of course none of this makes sense to a millennial or even a young Gen-Xer. Netflix Tom Cruise’s 1988 movie classic “Cocktail” and you’ll get it.
You should tip all at once at the end of the night instead of with each round.
This almost never happens now unless you are dining or at the bar in a super empty joint. But bars and clubs were more intricately organized for service back in the day. You were more likely at the bar and even at a table to have the same server all night (not 100% as Mr. Taffer does note). Clubs took a lot more care to make sure everyone was constantly being offered drinks and no money was left on the table. “Never have a customer waiting to give us money” as one of my mentors emphasized. Big places used a “zone defense” where it was impossible to stand, sit or lean anywhere in the bar without a server coming up and offering a drink (or hassling you to buy in some cases). It was the norm in the 1980s but nearly extinct today to have cocktail service covering not only tables but every area of the floor throughout the bar. Believe it or not if you stood by the wall or by the dance floor a waitress with a big tray would come up to you and insist you buy a drink (not just a shot, a drink order!) We even had a waitress who worked “point,” which was the end of the first bar when you come in the door. This server’s entire job was to hit everyone that walked in the door and get a drink order. Believe it or not even if you moved around a bit, these incredibly skilled servers would find you with the drink you ordered (and a full tray of drinks for others). This is a long lost art. Today you are almost always either at a table or walking up to the bar for every drink. This simpler system actually costs bars a lot of lost sales that would have been money in the bank in the 1980s. Back then it was never easy to stand around in a bar or club not spending money. Some of these ideas might be due for a resurrection!
It’s not OK for bartenders to drink with their customers.
In the 80s there were widespread bans on drinking while working in the corporate bars and many entertainment oriented places. Not everywhere of course but it was much more prevalent. Also there was a lot less free pouring and more bar supervision in general. I worked at a place for a bit where we hit a button and a pre-measured shot came out of the wall. From the mid-nineties on the trend shifted to free pouring and “have a drink with the customers.” As someone who was a bartender for years I do agree with Mr. Taffer that the best policy is don’t drink on the job!
It’s not rude to signal a bartender. You should sip a cocktail before paying.
Two things common in the high energy 80s, but now seen as uncool. Times change.
But some things don’t change!
Mr. Taffer is 100% right that even today you can tell a bad bar by bad smell, don’t go to a loud bar for a date or business meeting, DON’T EAT FROM THAT BOWL OF BAR SNACKS, and the only way to prevent a hangover is don’t drink too much!
Here’s an attack article or here’s another one, where industry pros go off on Mr. Taffer.
And here’s a new one (update).
And here’s a local one. (update) “Who was that character that woke up after a 30 year nap?”
Read the edited HuffPost interview here.
Full disclosure (ouch): I started my career as an 20 year old bartender and DJ in the 1980s and did that full time for 8 years before getting into management.
Cheers! – Tim