An Open Letter to the Community From a Bartender

The holiday season is usually my favorite time to work behind a bar. Bathed in the red and green glow of christmas lights strung across the back bar shelves, the busy air of December drinking feels more sincere than other months. It’s a time when my favorite out-of-town regulars come home to see their family and always stop by for a gin martini and a hello. It’s when rich winter dishes fly from the restaurant kitchen, filling the bar with the scent of garlic, rosemary, and gravy as bottles of cabernet and primitivo are opened to fight back against the cold. It’s when a low-lit bar feels a little more like magic than reality. 

This year is different. Restaurant workers like me aren’t just missing our favorite traditions this year. We’re missing income that is crucial to surviving through the holiday season and the cold months beyond, and it doesn’t seem like there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Without holiday parties, crowded bars, or valuable amounts of incoming patrons traveling for the holidays, it’s difficult to imagine how smaller, independent restaurants are going to make it past January.

“It’s killing our business. We are doing $800 a night instead of $5,000,” says Rebecca Severs, co-owner of Bari Ristorante in midtown, about the difference in earnings. She says November to February are her restaurant’s busiest months—a time you can usually count on to carry the business through the winter even if the previous months were less profitable than usual. As we enter December with PPP loans drying up, case numbers climbing, and a possible stimulus package that does little to nothing for restaurants, your favorite restaurants are facing challenges that could be insurmountable without aid. “We need help from the City right now,” Severs says. “We need money in order to survive until Spring or Summer of 2021. A lot of places will close.” 

Her sentiments are echoed by Brian “Skinny” McCabe, owner of beloved Memphis bar and venue, the Hi Tone. “I’ve lost over $300,000 of revenue so far,” he says. The Hi Tone was one of the last bars in Memphis to reopen its doors after initially being closed, and McCabe has diligently worked to be sure his venue follows all restrictions and safety directives set forth by the health department to keep his staff and customers safe. However, being forced to close his doors for several months, and complying with the new restrictions from the Shelby County Health Department, has come at a high price. McCabe says his business revenue is down 76% from 2019, and he has taken to driving part-time for Uber Eats to provide for his family and keep his business afloat. 

I’ve noticed that the stress of working face-to-face with the public through a pandemic rarely comes up in debates about restaurants. Being a bartender long before Covid-19, I’ve had my fair share of frustrating nights and downright dangerous interactions with guests. One of the more tame names I’ve been called behind the bar was stupid bitch. I’ve had a man “joke” about punching me in the face when he saw his tab. I’ve been snuck out of the back door of the restaurant by coworkers when a guest couldn’t take no for an answer when giving me his phone number.

So often when we discuss hospitality, we bring up what it is to be a customer—what we expect from a staff or employee in regards to their tone of voice, to what they look like, and the way they handle our (inappropriate) behavior. Very rarely do we discuss that for too long the humanity of restaurant employees has been forgotten or disregarded because of their profession. 

Restaurants have an obligation to their patrons to provide a service as safely as possible. We always have before the pandemic, and we always will after it. But I wonder when the obligation of a guest to treat a restaurant worker with dignity and respect ended? When did people who were taking shots with their friends at dive bars and going on dates at taprooms in February suddenly forget that their bartenders and servers are human beings with feelings, fears, and rent payments in December? When did the social contract of respect between patron and establishment dissolve so that only the restaurant has to hold up its end of the deal? 

One study from One Fair Wage reports that there has been a serious rise in abuse directed towards front-of-house employees as tensions surrounding mask mandates have become more strained. According to the report, 78% of workers have experienced or witnessed hostile behavior exhibited from a guest in response to staff attempting to enforce safety regulations, and 41% have seen a noticable increase in sexual harassment from guests towards employees.  Over 80% of tipped employees have seen a dramatic drop in tips earned through the pandemic, with “nearly two thirds (66%) reporting that their tips have declined by at least 50%.” 

These reports aren’t just numbers, they are tangible events that have had disastrous effects on the quality of life of your neighbors. The emotional and psychological toll it takes on service industry workers to even go into work is incredibly high. Guests are pushing the boundary for what they can and can’t say and do to staff, such as when I had a guest tell me to my face that my high-risk partner’s life wasn’t worth the “effort” to wear a mask. Acre bartender Paul Gilliam estimates that his restaurant earnings account for over half of his family’s income and that without aid, he isn’t sure how much of the restaurant industry will be left to come back to after a vaccine is widely available. McCabe has set up a Relief Fund for his employees asking for donations to help pay for staff’s rent, groceries, and basic necessities because the money just isn’t there otherwise. 

I understand the points concerning the need to stay at home and the argument for shutting down restaurants completely. I have lost people to the disease myself, and I do not believe that the loss of human life due to Covid-19 can be compared to the loss of revenue. However, as a person who has served the people of Memphis behind the bar for almost ten years, I do not think the conversation regarding restaurants takes into account enough empathy surrounding the position we are in as an industry made up of real people. An estimated 100,000 restaurants have already closed permanently, and more will be on the way without the support of our community. The loss of local restaurants would mean the loss of almost 11 million jobs—that’s 11 million families without rent money, food, or heat in winter. That’s myself and a vast majority of my loved ones facing homelessness and crippling financial debt that could change the course of the rest of our lives. While I appreciate the thought behind the idea that restaurants should close, it cannot—and will not— work if the fight for federal aid to save restaurant employees is not equally as vigorous and aggressive. 

In turn, restaurants should have to follow procedures that will keep their communities and staff as safe as possible. There should be restrictions to help guide us on public health policy. The bars and restaurants who choose to disregard regulations or say that restrictions are unnecessary are misguided, and drawing a line in the sand about procedure doesn’t help anyone in the long term when nothing can truly fix our situation except for real government aid. 

As a person who has been behind the bar for countless birthdays and weddings and graduations of guests, I will tell you that I feel forgotten by a large part of my community. As a person who has locked the front door and stayed hours past when I should have gone home because a guest needed a safe space to cry about a divorce or a death or a loss, I feel thrown away by my city and federal government. As a person who has dedicated my career to honing a set of skills centered around serving the community when they want it, I feel betrayed by the statement that I am selfish because I do not have the skills to pick up and leave my career to enter into a new job market. As Paul Gilliam says, “I don’t have the privilege of being able to stay home and still provide food and shelter for my family. I’m terrified of how this is going to end.”

If you care about your local restaurants, order take-out and tip well, but do it while you call your local lawmakers and command that they take care of us. Demand a mask mandate on a state and federal level so that we do not continue to be abused, berated, and humiliated as we are compelled to enforce what is right at the cost of our income. Wear your mask. Hold your loved ones accountable for the way they conduct themselves in public and how they treat workers. 

Your favorite restaurants will close without aid, and they will close sooner that you are expecting. Think of all the times a server or bartender has gone to bat for you at a dinner, on a date, or after closing time. It’s your turn to do the same for us. 


Three Cocktail Mezcals Under $50

If you aren’t familiar with mezcal, shopping for one to use in cocktails can be daunting. Much like scotch, these bottles can get expensive quickly and shopping for one can be intimidating for even the best bartenders. These three mezcal are my favorites to use in cocktails, and they aren’t nearly as expensive as other varieties.

A Word About Maguey.

Often called agave, Maguey (Muh-gey) is the preferred term for “agave” in Mexico. There are five different types of maguey used in mezcal production: Espadín, Tobalá, Tobaziche, Tepeztate, and Arroqueño. To make mezcal, the pits (or piñas) of these maguey varietals are harvested from their wild regions in Mexico and slowly roasted over coals, almost always in underground pits. We’ll talk more about Mezcal production in our live class, but you’ll find a primer on maguey types below!

Espadín: most common type of maguey used in mezcal production, with nearly 90% of mezcal using it. It is also the genetic grandfather to blue agave, which is used to make tequila.

Tobalá: Often referred to as the “King of Mezcals” this maguey is a rare, wild-harvested species. Thriving in rocky, shady soil at high altitudes, this plant relies on bats to help pollinate it.

Tobaziche: Wild-harvested; produces savory and herbaceous mezcal.

Tepeztate: This species takes up to 30 years to mature, so mezcal production is inconsistent with this variety. It can be spotted by its large canary-yellow flowers.

Arroqueño: Mezcals using this variety of maguey are newly available in the U.S. and is characterized by spicy, bitter-chocolate flavors.

Three Best Cocktail Mezcals Under $50

Montelobos (43.2%) $41.99

Montelobos is an unnamed joven (young) mezcal with lots of smoke and salinity. This is my top choice for mezcal cocktails because of its deep smoke flavor that can stand up to aggressive ingredients such as Chartreuse and Campari. This mezcal is also excellent in both sour and boozy drinks. the only drawback is that it is just under $50, so I use it sparingly if I’m on a serious mezcal kick.

-100% Espadín

-Roasted underground in stone pits/ wild fermented/ distilled in copper stills

nose: fresh-cut grass, honey, asparagus, smoke

taste: cooked/green maguey, nuts, fresh herbs, smoke

Del Maguey VIDA (42%) $37.99

Launched in 2010, Del Maguey’s VIDA has quickly become a favorite of bartenders across the globe. This is a mezcal specifically designed for mixing in cocktails, and it a beautiful introductory mezcal for a first-time taste. While the smoke is present, it is a less aggressive form of Mezcal that is ideal for drinks with citrus and softer ingredients. If this will be your first adventure into mezcal, this could be your new favorite bottle.

-100 % Espadín

-Very approachable; less depth than other varieties meant for sipping

nose: fruit, honey, vanilla, roasted agave

taste: ginger, cinnamon, tangerine, smoke

Los Vecinos Del Campo (45%) $31.99

When this mezcal was first brought into the restaurant for a tasting, I was almost prepared to dislike it. It’s a project by the Sazerac Company in partnership with Casa San Matís (one of the oldest tequila makers in Mexico) to create an ultra-affordable mezcal. Coming from such a large, brand-name producer, I was biased in my tasting, but I found this to be a truly fantastic mezcal, especially for the price. After researching the project, I found out why: 10 of the best Mezcaleros in Mexico were employed to create the recipe.

Bright and approachable but still distinctly smokey, this mezcal is one I buy for the bar again and again, especially when I’m trying to save a little money without compromising on quality.

-100% Espadín

-Piñas crushed using stone Molino/ distilled in copper stills

nose: Spice, fresh fruit, herbs, smoke

taste: spicy up-front, tropical fruit, roasted peppers, savory

While these are some of my favorite affordable bottles, be sure to ask your local liquor seller if they have anything you should try! Mezcal is a booming spirit with plenty of new brands becoming available in the U.S. every year—so be sure to see what bottles might be unique to your state!

*All prices based off Joe’s Wines and Liquors in Memphis, TN. Prices and availability may vary depending on your local store prices and state.


You Should Be Drinking Jägermeister.

My meeting with Jägermeister brand rep Michael Titter went about how any meeting of cocktail minds goes in 2020: a mid-morning Zoom call that began with a discussion about bartending in a pandemic, the lack of federal aid for restaurants, and how working in any avenue of hospitality right now is, frankly, fucking difficult.

“It’s hard for anyone to focus right now, obviously for good reason, ” Titter says of bar accounts scrambling to pay their bills and the liquor distributors who are attempting to keep their products on those bar shelves. “At Jägermeister, our focus has really shifted from asking restaurants ‘what can we sell you?’ to ‘what do you need from us, and how can we help?” From European accounts having fees waived upon reopen to hundreds of thousands of dollars donated to organizations providing relief to furloughed bartenders, Jägermeister has been putting their money where their mouth is when it comes to helping restaurant workers around the world.

This conversation around Jägermeister’s Covid-19 relief efforts brought us the root of what our meeting, and Thursday’s live class, was about.

“I just want people to understand that Jägermeister is not the monster that people think it is,” Titter explains when I asked him what his biggest challenge was when reintroducing drinkers to the infamous German bitter liqueur. “Anything will make you sick if you take six shots of it in an hour. Jägermeister isn’t special in that way,” he laughs. “This is a third generation company that is putting out a high quality product. The family is deeply involved in the whole process, and it’s very important to us as a company that we not only make the best version of Jäger possible, but that we are also taking care of the people who actually work and make their living in this industry.”

This is all great, but I’m sure you’re still wondering why should I drink Jägermeister? Because it’s delicious, that’s why.

Comprised of 56 botanicals, with warm spices and a heavy licorice nose, Jägermeister is more suited to be the bitter liqueur of your dreams, not the bottle lurking in the corner of your nightmares. Rich caramel notes dominate the first sip, and they’re followed by a dry bitterness that tastes suspiciously of gentian—arguably my favorite ingredient in other, very popular, bitter spirits. Jäger leans a little sweeter, but I don’t think that’s a mark against them. Its caramel notes reminds me of the warm sweetness I love in sweeter versos fo Italian Amari like Nardini. (And nobody I know has the guts to talk shit about Nardini.) It makes beautiful cocktails. (Like the ones we made in class, a Jäger Negroni The Buxom Bounty Hunter and a strawberry and Jägermeister sour The Red Death Wet Dream.)This spirit is complex, bittersweet, and herbaceous: all the hallmarks of a bottle bartenders should be clamoring to put on cocktail lists. So what gives?

Michael argues it could be a cultural problem. “In the US, it’s all about taking shots and getting fucked. We over-do things here. I mean, look at the shots with the worst reputations for partying hard: Fireball, Rumple Minze. One dimensional and mass produced without much thought to layers of flavor.” Jägermeister never expected to be on the list of shots people take just to get drunk and forget that they have finals the next day. “That was never the intention behind the spirit,” he says. “It’s not how the rest of the world enjoys Jägermeister.”

What I took away from my conversation with Michael was that the problem with Jäger is about image, not taste. Even the most loyal attendees of my cocktail class were skeptical about Jägermeister cocktails. Some people even chose not to participate at all, citing past experiences of hanging over a toilet all night and waking up with a blank memory. However, there were also a surprising number of people in class who had never had Jägermeister before yesterday, and their responses supported the idea that Jäger’s bad reputation isn’t deserved.

“I’m surprised at how much flavor is packed in here,” said one class attendee after tasting Jägermeister for the first time. “I was really expecting it to taste more like the stories I’ve been told, like pure grain alcohol. But this is very complex.”

“I would definitely drink this regularly,” said another participant, someone who had the stereotypical college experience but was willing to give Jägermeister another chance. “It doesn’t taste anything like I remember. It really reminds me of some of the Amari we’ve tasted in other classes, which I really like. This is good!”

The response was unanimous: Jägermeister is not only tolerable to a 2020 drinker, but something they would seek out again and again. Perhaps Jägermeister was ahead of it’s time when it first came to the US in the 1980s. Perhaps the inclusion of bitters and fernets on menus over the last few years have better prepared consumers for its licorice-forward flavor profile. Perhaps people have just gotten a little older and gotten over their college days. Whatever the reason, Jägermeister is slowly making its way into cocktails and home bars, not in the freezer or the pantry, but on on the front shelf, where it has always deserved to sit.