“Sober” is a term that doesn’t typically mingle with the bar industry—where the late nights and hard days are not just part of the gig, but in many ways a celebrated aspect of the culture.
Then again, being a bartender is a much more nuanced position than it used to be.
Now, bartenders are running beverage programs, managing bars, and in some cases, traveling around the country representing products and brands.
All three are pretty damn hard to do with a hangover.
That’s why you’re seeing more bartenders putting the bottle down once they’re off the clock.
We asked several local drink-slingers to shed some light on what happens when you stop sampling the office supplies:
Bartending: since 1995
Last drink: April 7, 2011
When I was 14 years old I got a job at The Brown Derby on Morse Road. I was a salad runner and busboy. One busy weekend night both dishwashers walked out; the manager asked me to stay and wash dishes. He gave me a $20 bill, the kitchen fed me free beers, and all the pretty girls talked to me. I staggered home around 3 a.m. and fell in love with the restaurant business.
The restaurant business was an excellent place to hide my drinking.
“I had a great night and made some money: Let’s go get f*cked up!”
“I had a terrible night and made no money: Let’s go get f*cked up!”
It’s a great business to bounce around. You can quit or get fired from one job and have a better job an hour later. That was my life—until it stopped working. During a period of sobriety, I quit working in restaurants, thinking that was my problem. Five months later I was still drinking, woke up in jail, and came to the realization that I am the problem, not restaurants—that was 10 years ago. I’m back working in restaurants—where my heart is.
In my sober time in the industry, I’ve found the old skill sets work, just better. I also get to wake up with all my money.
Restaurants and bars are an amazing breeding ground for us (drunks, alcoholics, whatever you call it), but they don’t have to be. In sobriety, I can create relationships that aren’t forged over a barstool after the shift. My restaurant family is simply my family, and opportunities to help others with a similar problem come up often. There are plenty of drunks in the industry, but there is also help if you ask.
Bartending: since 2004
Last drink: September 21, 2016
I did a lot of thinking about my life and drinking, and I read Jack McGarry from the Dead Rabbits (NYC) say, “I can drink or I can have a career, but I can’t have both.” I think you often see it as, “If I’m not drinking, who am I? Who am I in this industry?” But really, when you think of it, there’s not one part of this job that requires you to drink, so sobriety in work is not overly difficult. What gets difficult is the down time. No one tells you, but it gets really boring; you learn to fill time.
I would never moralize anyone’s drinking because I wouldn’t want people to hold my drinking against me. The thing that keeps me accountable is being public about my sobriety. If I take away enablers, I only have supportive people in my life. I got sober because I decided booze was taking way more than I was getting from it. I reached out to Giuseppe Gonzalez from Suffolk Arms in NYC, and he told me he would get back to me as soon as he could and asked, “Can you stay sober today?” I said I could.
I think sobriety is just doing that every single day. It doesn’t look the same to everyone, or mean the same to everyone, but for me, sobriety is like monogamy. You commit to it, and you simply commit again every day.
Gig: Little Rock Bar
Bartending: since 2006
Last drink: June 30, 2009
When I got sober at 23 I felt like my life was over. I was the type of drinker that the phrase “one’s too many, and a thousand’s not enough” applied to. At the time I was extremely lonely, had moved home to Columbus to attempt sobriety, and my only support system was 10 or 15 crusty old drunks in the shitty strip mall bar I was working at. I was miserable. Something finally clicked for me and I got sober.
It’s made me quicker behind the bar. I have more money in my pocket because it’s not going directly back into the register or into a dealer’s pocket. My sense of humor and perspective on things has changed for the better, too—both great qualities to grow if you work in this industry. But probably the greatest gift of being a sober bartender is my “spidey sense.” I can spot a troubled soul much quicker than I used to. It’s easier for me to tap into a sense of compassion instead of judgement for that person and not be a total dick when it comes time for me to cut off them off because eight years ago, I was that person.
I’ve been working at Little Rock since its opening in 2013. I joked with Quinn (the owner) that if I ever, God forbid, relapse to just go ahead and immediately fire me because it’s probably only a matter of a few weeks before I’m drunk on the job, not showing up for shifts or stealing. We have a really great team there and everyone has always been super accepting of me being in recovery, and I don’t feel ashamed of it. Earlier in sobriety, I wouldn’t disclose that I was a person in recovery with coworkers because of the stigma attached to alcoholics and junkies. Now I just don’t give a f*ck because I want to be open and available to the next poor soul who wants to get sober.
Loneliness is part of the human condition. We all are desperate to connect with other people on some level. Some people do that through book clubs, some people go to church, or play in softball leagues. I think a lot of people get a sense of connection through going to a bar to meet up with some friends or try to make news ones. For me, I go to church basements and I also tend bar. Bartending gives me a legitimate reason to socialize in a bar setting without feeling uncomfortable. Getting sober has allowed me to have a new experience with my peers who drink beers.
Really the only downside to bartending sober on a full time status is the bizarre hours. It’s downright impossible to maintain close friendships with people who work square 9-5 gigs. I think that this is a contributing factor to the depression and isolation a lot of us in this industry feel.
That’s why bartending is no longer my primary gig.
I still love it, but only in moderation.
Johanna L. Vissman
Gig: King Avenue Five
Bartender: since 2008
Last drink: February 22, 2016
I’ve been working in bars for nearly fourteen years and in recovery for less than two of them. Once upon a time I began nearly every shift with a Jameson and ended it with a blackout. I was outrageous and surly, horribly unreliable, and sort of a slut. Because of my disdain for small talk, I opted to break the ice with shots and the occasional tit flash. Making friends was as easy as making drinks until I sobered up and essentially became a social leper.
Sometimes I miss the cliques. In hindsight, I know that none of it was real. Bonding with people over copious amounts of booze is not the stuff that substantial relationships are made of, but being a sober bartender in a world of The Perpetually Intoxicated can be quite lonely. It’s like finding your way to the secret clubhouse but no one gives up the password.
It’s difficult trying to learn all over again how to interact without alcohol, especially when everyone around you is still using that crutch, but no matter how awkward being sober may be, at least it’s authentic instead of the sad little girl I used to be, just putting on a show.
Gig: 16-Bit Bar + Arcade
Bartender: since 2008
Last drink: 2013, 2017
The biggest challenge to bartending in sobriety is seeing people who can handle their booze like “normal folks” and thinking I can, too. I spent about two and a half years sober before wondering if I could drink again—spoiler alert: I can’t! It usually looks horrible and obnoxious and nothing I want to be a part of—that’s honestly how I remember my drinking days being. But sometimes I get a small inkling drink to cope with the dumbassery before I remember that that’s what brought me here in the first place: an inability to cope with life’s challenges. It was slowly but surely killing me, along with the myriad poor decisions I’d make in conjunction or as a result. As long as I put my sobriety first and remember where I came from, I’m golden. Working hard on the rest of the tough stuff makes it that much easier to keep sobriety forefront.
I’ve been really lucky to work with incredibly supportive people who love me and want to see me do well. I don’t know if I would thrive so well in another environment where partying and after hours were the norm. We keep it all business–we go in, do our jobs to the best of our abilities, and go home. We’re running a business and treat every shift that way.
My favorite part of bartending sober is still being able to talk about and recommend drinks, particularly craft beer. It’s extra satisfying to help someone choose the exact beer they’re looking for without ever actually tasting it. It’s kind of a game, really–a way to test myself and stay sharp at my job. And that’s what it is to me–my JOB, what I’m good at. At the same time, I’ve been doing it for so long, I have no idea what else I would do if I got sick of it or began to feel it was a real threat to my sobriety.
It’s always funny to hear the astonishment of “normies” to hearing about the semi-oxymoronic sober bartender… they can’t wrap their brains around it! There are a lot of us, though, and, if you think about it, it makes sense–we use our extensive experience in bars to run them efficiently and provide the service WE would expect… and we also have no desire to be free on weekend nights wondering what we should “get into” because we already know it won’t be anything good.