How Has Bartending Changed in the Last Three Years?

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2016’s Eater Young Guns class featured a stronger than usual crop of spirits and beverage professionals: Dorothy Elizabeth, principle bartender at the Standby in Detroit; Marie-Louise Friedland, assistant wine director at State Bird Provisions and the Progress in San Francisco; Alex Negranza, bartender at Houston’s Anvil Bar & Refuge; Julia Momose, head bartender at GreenRiver in Chicago; Matt Welch, head bartender at Atlanta’s Amer; and Daniel Pucci, cider director at Wassail in New York City.

The three years since, perhaps not surprisingly in a tumultuous industry, have seen a share of changes: GreenRiver, Amer, and Wassail have all since closed, and among the alums, there have been moves to new cities, new projects, career pivots, and even exits from the industry. (After GreenRiver closed, Momose moved on to Kumiko in Chicago, channeling her Japanese heritage through her drinks. With Wassail now closed, Pucci is writing a book about cider. Welch has left the industry, which happened sometime after Amer served its last cocktail.)

The paths forward for this Young Guns class signify the direction that bar culture is moving in, toward bartenders expressing themselves in a true and genuine way: They want the opportunity to sell drinks that they believe in, and to help tell stories, much like chefs have been doing for years. They want to run places where people want to spend their time and their money. And they’re interested in working smarter instead of harder for career longevity, making innovations while keeping their spaces friendly and accessible, and in educating people and creating safe spaces in the era of divisive politics and #MeToo.

Marie-Louise Friedland has done several of those things, making a career pivot with a new project. Shortly after her Young Gun recognition, Friedland and her husband traded San Francisco for Houston to be closer to family (she’s originally from San Antonio), where she’s been since 2018. She’s now moved from behind the bar into a general manager role at Nancy’s Hustle, Eater Houston’s 2018 Restaurant of the Year.

“The goal for me was always to push myself, my knowledge, and develop my skill set in a larger market outside of Texas and then bring that experience back home where I could help the restaurant culture grow and shift,” Friedland says. Moving from assistant wine director to a general manager position is helping her understand the bigger picture. “It’s super important to understand the whole operation of a restaurant,” she says. “You can’t somm in a bubble.”

Friedland says the biggest change since 2016 is how many bars and restaurants prioritize creating safe spaces not only for guests, but also for staff. “When I was coming up, we were always told to be neutral,” she says. “And as a beverage professional, we’ve always been told that we’re there to get the party started and to be flirtatious and fun. Now, we’re allowed to stand up for ourselves. At Nancy’s Hustle, if someone says something that crosses a line, we’re allowed to ask them to leave. It’s made me feel safe, and your staff’s safety should come first. It’s really wonderful to be a part of that shift.”

Dorothy Elizabeth, meanwhile, left Detroit in 2017 and moved to New York City, where the opportunities have kept coming. “It’s been a little bit of a pressure cooker,” she says. She helped open L’Avenue at Saks Fifth Avenue, Straylight, and the now-closed Henry at the Life Hotel. She’s currently working on Lyaness, the new bar from Ryan Chetiyawardana of the top-ranked London hotel bar, Dandelyan. As a former chemist, she champions the use of molecular gastronomy, which she’s kept up. “In 2016, I was at the forefront of molecular mixology and modern food science in cocktails,” she says. “This has led to a lot of educational opportunities for me; I’ve taught a lot classes about how to use modern food science in beverage programs all over North America. I teach people how to use vacuum sealers and sous vide, taking the mystery out of it and focusing on safety and following proper food protocols.” She’s gotten to work with chefs, some of whom she met through Eater Young Guns, and earned herself a spot in Tales of the Cocktail’s Dame Hall of Fame.

For Elizabeth, 2016’s other major events have similarly affected her outlook. “The restaurant industry has always been a hub for people who may not have their documents in order,” Elizabeth says. “Since the 2016 election, I’ve seen some businesses crack down on paperwork, causing staff to leave, and heard of ICE raids on restaurants. It’s really scary.” She and others have become allies to their undocumented co-workers, helping them to know their rights and support them in tenuous circumstances. “We’re doing our best to not let anything bad happen,” she says.

Others, like Alex Negranza, have grown within their companies. Negranza, who came to bartending through the coffee world, has risen through the ranks, going from bartender to beverage director to operations manager at bars like Anvil, the Pastry War, and Tongue Cut Sparrow, all owned by the same group. (Though he left the company in October of this year, he put in five years there.) He’s worked advocacy into his priorities, serving as “Fitness Master” for the Drink Chicago Style conference in 2018 and 2019, and presenting on the “Queer Communities Revealed: Turning Allies into Advocates” panel at the 2019 Tales of the Cocktail conference.

For those who will inevitably follow in these Young Guns’ footsteps, Elizabeth and Friedland have some advice. “There are going to be a lot of projects that come your way,” Elizabeth advises. “Be selective and don’t jump on the first opportunity that looks good on paper. Also, don’t go into business with people you don’t know.” Friedland has found the importance of balancing work and her personal life, which often involves taking time to read. This has informed her words of wisdom to incoming classes. “Work hard but stay humble, be kind, and be approachable. The industry will benefit from it,” she says.

Shanna Farrell is an interviewer with UC Berkeley’s Oral History Center and is currently working on a book about the connection between the environment and spirit production.