Cocktail batching horror stories

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Batched & bottled Negronis from yesterday’s event at Grape & Grain.

This past weekend, I visited with the Jacksonville, FL chapter of the US Bartenders’ Guild (USBG). The game plan was to talk about Cocktails for a Crowd — but although much of the book is informed by advice from bartenders, I was worried:  what could I possibly tell these USBG pros that they didn’t already know?

So I prepped for the event by turning to other bartenders, asking them for their craziest stories about batching cocktails. Here’s what they told me (names removed to protect the innocent & lightly edited). In general, I learned three lessons in particular:

Lesson #1: CLEARLY LABEL AND, IF NECESSARY, LOCK UP YOUR STUFF.

“We were batching cocktails for an event once for the Kentucky Derby in a hallway outside the main venue, and had about 35 gallons of cocktails picked up and locked in a closet by a janitor because he thought it was paint left out. We went for sandwiches before the event started. We came back and thought someone took them all. Had to come up with something on the fly. Found out a couple of days later what happened.” –Louisville, KY-based bartender.

“Spent a couple of days figuring out how to clarify lime juice for a pre-batched Moscow Mule.

Ended up making about a half gallon of clarified lime only for it to be thrown out because someone wanted the cambro to make ice-tea. [NOTE FROM KARA: A Cambro is a plastic storage container, aka. “restaurant size Tupperware.”] Two days work literally down the drain right before a busy weekend where the drink was supposed to be featured.

For awhile we would tape down the lids of the cambro with descriptions, dates, and death threats.”  – Oakland, CA-based bartender

Lesson #2: IF YOU’RE OFF SITE – IF POSSIBLE, BATCH AHEAD & BRING IT TO THE EVENT

“A former boss hired me to come to his 10-year college reunion & make drinks & give a talk. About 500 people where scheduled to be there. I got the specs, the menu, and prepared a talk related to historical drinks to the school.

I planned to make 60 gallons of cocktail. I got there at 1PM, the event started at 8PM. I showed up, and the prep kitchen is a porch. There’s one electrical outlet, and it’s as close to the floor as you can get. And the juicer is a $20 Black & Decker for grannies to make juice in the morning.

I made three to four gallons of citrus juice squatting down in a catcher’s stance, then standing up and emptying the container. By the end of the experience, the juicer was broken.

During the event, out of 500 people, maybe 12 had drinks. 98% of the drinks were thrown away. There were maybe 10 people listening to my talk. But one turned out to be one of my best regulars. So I’d say it was 100% worth it.” –NYC-based bartender

Lesson #3: BE AWARE OF YOUR SURROUNDINGS

“I watched a large frozen spider fall into my punch (frozen inside a large chunk of ice). Out in Arizona when I worked at the Scottsdale Princess Hotel as a chef… Spiders would make their way in from the desert just outside because it was cool inside. they would eventually get into the ice block machine and end up quite frozen.” –MA-based author

About a decade ago I ran a Tequila bar. It was a busy joint so I used to make large batches of the many *flavored* house margaritas.

One day while I was doing the deed I had two batching containers on the floor with tops on them. I had a drink in my hand *quality control* when I decided to step over both buckets. My foot got caught on one of the lids which popped it open– my foot fell into the large vessel with a giant splash!

I reflexively threw my hands in the air from shock/surprise throwing my full drink into my face!

Thankfully there were only a few people at the bar to see one of my proudest moments. I proceeded to work the rest of that evening with a red stain up to my right knee.” — New Orleans, LA-based bartender

“I was helping prep for a major consumer event in Chicago and had to squeeze about three cases of limes. The hotel we were staying in was nice enough to let me use their professional juicer – otherwise it would have to be done by hand! – and I was set up in a corner of the kitchen with my cases. Even so it took a few hours, and ran into dinner service. As the kitchen was getting busier and busier, a chef walked by and accidentally bumped into the nozzle where the lime juice was being collected. A slow drip of lime juice started falling on the floor. Luckily we caught it after a few minutes, but still, sad.” –NYC-based PR rep

“Friend of mine dropped her new iPhone in a batch of Bloody Marys — wet and corrosive. Got her a case that is waterproof down to 7 feet, No problems so far anymore.”— New York state-based spirits blogger

6 ways to fast-track from bartender to mixologist

I’m not a mixologist, but I have access to insight from some of the best and brightest in the biz. This shortlist is based on intel gathered from conversations with those mixologists and other experts, as well as what I’ve observed first hand.

And yes, I know some people bristle at “mixologist” used as a fancy-pants term for bartender, but in this case I mean it to reflect someone who has achieved professional success in the field, sort of an as-chef-is-to-cook analogy.  From what I’ve seen and been told, success follows those who take some or all of the following steps:

1. Enroll in BarSmarts. A disclaimer up front:  I’ve not personally taken this course. But I’ve heard from smart people I trust that it’s a worthwhile educational program, and a far cry from crappy “Bartender School” programs that teach you to mix Apple-Tinis. The introductory “Wired” course opens for registration on July 1, and it’s a prerequisite for the more advanced programs that follow.

2. Join the US Bartenders Guild, or better still, a local chapter. The point is to get involved, build contacts, avail yourself of educational opportunities….and cocktail competition opportunities! Winning a few cocktail contests builds your visibility fast and makes you highly marketable.

3. Apply for the Cocktail Apprentice Program at Tales of the Cocktail.  It’s competitive, but it’as also a networking hot-button. Personally, I think the term “apprentice” is misleading — it implies that the individual is a newbie who is “apprenticing” him or herself to the masters. Most of the CAPs, as they’re known at Tales, are up-and-comers who already have considerable skill and experience.  A year from now, they’ll all be celebrities in the mixology world, so if you’re at Tales this year and meet someone in the CAP program, be nice to them. (Besides, they’re doing menial labor and making your drinks and likely nursing a wicked hangover, all of which is reason enough to be nice to them anyway!)

4. Build a website or write a blog. Or better still, do both. One of the big differences between a “bartender” and a “mixologist” is the marketing. The world is now online, so put yourself out there and build a presence and a platform for yourself. (If you’re looking for an online resource to help you get started, I recommend ProBlogger.)  Which takes me to my next tip…

5. Write a book. You know you have expertise and great drink recipes to share. Plus, a book gives you a product to promote besides yourself , and can help catapult you to the next position. (If you have an idea, but don’t have the time or inclination to write,  email me, and let’s talk. This is what I do!)

6. Practice your craft. Wait, did you think the headline promised 6 EASY ways to fast-track? There’s still no substitute for knowing what you are doing. Even if you don’t consider yourself a master yet, get out there and be the best bartender you can be, at any level. Take a leadership role if you can. Learn about your ingredients, practice great hospitality, and just plain make amazing drinks.  Tips 1 through 5 above might help you add to your knowledge, personal network, and visibility, but only you can make yourself into a great mixologist.