Being a bartender is strange.
In many ways, it is no different than being a server. Somebody makes something delicious—like a steak, or a bottle of wine, or a beautiful batch of single-barrel bourbon—and you simply give it to the customer.
In other ways, it’s closer to being a chef. At a place like Mouton, the allure of artistic creation is there. With the rampant propagation of mixology as a way of life and competitive professional arena, the idea of there being more to it than sticking a speed opener into the back of one’s denim cutoffs has more legs than ever before.
But what of those heady days when tending bar was a simpler pursuit? Sometime between the old men with oily mustaches and arm garters…and the young men with oily mustaches and arm garters. Back when slinging drinks was about one thing and one thing only: having fun. And paying for business school. Okay, two things. Having fun and paying for your MBA. And getting tail. Yes. And saving up—okay, wait…four things. And saving up to open your own bar so that you don’t need an MBA. Back to just three things, then.
It’s all a little confusing, and I even worked as a bartender for over a year. I needed help decoding the profession’s seminal cinematic work, Cocktail, so I brought in Mouton bar manager and longtime friend Colin Northrup (who looks a lot less like Tom Cruise than we’d all hoped), head bartender Logan Demmy, and Special Intern Katie Toomey, whom you’ll all remember from when we watched Don Jon.
About Colin, Logan, and Katie
Colin and I met four years ago bartending together at Mouton, the glittery little Short North cocktail hotspot that sits across the way from Northstar Café. Since then we’ve both gone on to bigger and better things. I now write for (614) Magazine instead of UWeekly newspaper, and Colin is the manager of the same bar, which means he gets to decide his own schedule and leave early to go to Crew games if he wants to.
The Bexley native aspired to more, of course. But like Cruise’s character in Cocktail (an Irish guy named Brian O’Patrigradagan or something), he found that being behind the bar is like being in a black hole. It’s small, dark, and has an incredible gravitational pull. And like a black hole, theoretically, it can help you travel through time. That is, it allows you to act like and comfortably associate with people young enough to be your children. [Cris Dehlavi of M and Travis Owens of Curio were unavailable for comment.]
“When I’m 60 and still bartending, I’m going to blame you,” Northrup might have said, right before he poured us all a glass of some godawful Italian amaro or another.
Logan and Katie also met at Mouton, though their relationship differs from Colin’s and mine in ways irrelevant to the contents of this article. Suffice it to say that when we sat down together to watch Cocktail and gauge its relevance to the world of bartending, sparks flew.
About the movie
One of the best things about Cocktail is that it is unabashedly bad. The plot is face-meltingly simple: a young man (Cruise) fresh from finishing a stint in the Army waltzes into a couple dozen interviews on Wall Street with zero qualifications and is surprised when no one will hire him. He decides that the best course of action is to enroll at a community college and get the kind of degree that working part-time as a bartender can pay for (in the late 1980s).
Brian manages to get himself hired by Doug Coughlin (Bryan Brown), a gin-soaked but handsome old tavernkeep who either (A) sees potential in the kid, (B) is lonely and has had no other applicants, or (C) has no motivation provided for his actions by the script. I posed the question seriously.
“He hires [Brian] with no experience because he sees how he interacts with people,” a very austere Northrup explained. “Their relationship developed almost solely on Brian’s charisma and Doug’s jaded wisdom.”
Brian’s first several stints behind the stick are inauspicious to say the least. The waitresses hate him because he’s slow, the customers hate him because he doesn’t know how to make the drinks they want, and none of the women want to have anonymous sex with him at the end of his shift.
A customer in these woeful moments asks him for a martini, to which Brian responds, What’s in that?—a question we all agreed did require some degree of clarification.
But as Brian gets his sea legs, the duo starts to turn things around—so much so that a non-descript fat cat in a luminescent suit shows up, plucks the two studs out of obscurity, and installs them in a sort of Thunderdome-style, prison-themed bar in Manhattan. (That’s how I like to remember it, anyway.)
Everything is perfect until the two wind up bedding the same ethically wayward freelance photographer (Gina Gershon), and Brian bolts for Jamaica. Like I said: it’s a tale as old as time. We celebrated the emotional high point with Hamilton Black, a pure, pot-still Jamaican rum.
What follows is actually a somewhat sobering analysis of the industry and of the vices that plague many of its greater talents. (Spoiler alert: one of them drinks himself to death.)
“I’ve seen lots of people in this line of work with tremendous potential end up in really dark places because they didn’t have a foundation and didn’t know who they were at their core,” Northrup said. “At least Doug went out enjoying one of the world’s finest Cognacs.”
At this depressing notion, I could only think to have another drink—goaded once again by a bartender into overconsumption. The irony was as caustic as the Meletti.
“It’s a good flick,” Northrup offered. “In terms of authenticity, it’s a caricature. I can appreciate that it had to be that way. But Brian and Doug’s relationship is very realistic. Six and a half ounces of Jägermeister out of ten.” •