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  • Writer's pictureAlex Barbatsis

Not Essential, Not Necessary: My career as a Bartender during Covid-19

Updated: Feb 18, 2021

Photo by Danny Liao

I learned how to make craft cocktails at a bar where our team was nominated 3 times for the James Beard Award for Best Bar Program. Another restaurant bar I managed was featured in the New York Times Travel section, along with my salmon pants. The first time my team and I got full creative control of cocktails, beer, spirits, fun pop ups, guest bartenders, atmosphere, music, and menu design, we won LA Weekly’s Best New Cocktail Bar. I always had my bar team, regulars, and fellow hospitality industry friends and colleagues to hold me up and keep us striving for “Tremendous Cocktails” -The Infatuation.

Now because of Covid-19, the James Beard Awards have been cancelled, safe travel for vacations seems all but impossible, and I don’t know when or if another new cocktail bar will be able to open. Now we can’t make you tremendous cocktails, or any cocktails. I can’t walk through the farmers market and smell the different citrus or sample different peaches to see what would be better in a shaken bourbon cocktail. I can’t explain to people why I love Love Rosé wine. I can’t be sarcastic and chatty and bring a smile to someone’s face. I can’t see them smile, and they can’t see me smile. It is hard to shout witticisms over six feet wearing a face mask and shield, and repeating jokes only kills them. It’s hard to be hospitable the way I’ve done since I was 16 years old, serving Jack & Cokes at my family’s restaurant. (I started working in the restaurant when I was five years old, peeling spinach leaves on an upturned 5 gallon bucket, but I started being somewhat charming around 19). It’s hard because my bar team, regulars, and industry friends are vanishing and I see myself disappearing too.

I still read cocktail books. I still thumb through Imbibe Magazine. I still listen to podcasts about Rum, Bitters, and old debates from 2018 about the best drinking towns, wishing I could be there shoulder to shoulder while trying to get a Frozen Irish Coffee or toasting with a shot of tequila. I still try to keep up with trends, although they seem to be all about To Go cocktails, Ready-To-Drink canned concoctions, or where and when unemployment is about to run out. I still buy Red Bitter like Campari, Aperol, Contratto, Cappelletti, Luxardo Bitter & Bitter Bianco, Mondino, Berto, and etc etc etc. Sue me, I love Negronis. Actually, please don’t. Monetarily, it would be a waste of your time.

In February, I helped implement a cleaning regimen that meant wiping every chair, handle, wall, step, mirrior, sink, bar top and underside with a bleach solution. In March, I told my bosses that based on Covid-19 trends, we might have to close down until June. We’re still closed for the most part. I haven’t been behind a bar in 6 months. Now it is August; I go for walks trying to figure out if I need to start training for a new career. The only cocktails I make are for people watching on Instagram Live *Wednesdays at 8 pm cst @bbats* The only people who drink them are my fianceé or me. Other days, it’s just me trying to recreate something that people once liked. Maybe a bit more spice? What if I used a more herbal gin? What if I just fall asleep on the couch?

I never thought I’d be one of those people that says they miss the little things. I miss when a liquor representative spontaneously walks in without a meeting and wants to taste me on yet another Horchata-inspired spirit while I’m trying to prep for a Friday night. I miss having to sweep under the coolers and finding pieces of glass, broken shifts long ago. I miss giving someone a free beer because the tap was messed up. I miss customers writing their phone number on the receipt, and my crew giggling about it as we enter the tips. I miss telling customers not to smoke inside or catching people with beer they brought from home.

“Oh I bought this Miller Lite at the bar.”

“Really, because we only carry PBR!!!”

I do think bars and restaurants will survive in the USA because people still haven’t stopped going to them. I will probably have a job in the future selling Spicy Margaritas on draft, Vodka Sodas, and an assortment of 58 beers. I’m not sure I’ll have my career though. I spent the better part of the last 6 years (and the worse part of the last 10) learning how to create bespoke cocktails for individual customers. Connecting with a singular person in a crowded bar. Leaning in to hear each other and taking a close moment to ask what they usually drink, what spirits they are interested in, if they like stirred and strong or citrusy and refreshing, and, most importantly, if they are allergic to any ingredients.

“I’m not allergic to anything you’d put in a drink.”

“Well, are peaches ok?”

“You put peaches in a drink?!?”

Well, I used to.

Photo by Beth Coller

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