Thursday, December 2, 2010

Another Reason Too Many Cocktail Will Make You Sorry in the Morning


Prior to researching this article for the New York Times, I had for some time nursed the notion that I'd like to try my hand behind the bar. I know how to make a good drink, am versed in many recipes, have observed bartenders at work for years, like the idea of service and barside conversation very much, and own a vest and several hats. After hearing countless tales of physical woe from the best barkeeps in the nation, I'm not so in love with the idea. After all, these guys are having a hard time avoiding aches and pains in their 20s and early 30s. What would be the situation for someone like me who's, uh, not in his 20s?

The Bartender Appears to Be Shaken Up

By Robert Simonson

“WHEN we first started Varnish, we began sustaining a bunch of injuries,” Marcos Tello said. “I had a huge, constant knot in my forearm. Chris Ojeda developed tennis elbow. Matty Eggleston popped a tendon in his hand. We were all sidelined with all these injuries.”

Varnish is not a football team. It is a stylish, speakeasy-style cocktail bar that opened early last year in downtown Los Angeles. And the men Mr. Tello mentions are fellow bartenders, ranging in age from mid-20s to mid-30s. But in these heady days of behind-the-bar showmanship, when theatrical agitations of shakers filled with heavy-duty ice are becoming the norm, the mixologist’s physical lot is not so terribly far removed from an athlete’s.

“When they’re shaking a drink, it’s very similar to the motion of a pitcher, or a tennis serve or throwing a football,” said Lisa Raymond-Tolan, an occupational therapist in New York. “It’s the same motion, back and forth, back and forth, rotating up high. You have a heavy weight at the end of the arm, out in the air. It’s not just the shoulder. It’s the wrist as well.”

One of the bartenders at Varnish, Chris Bostick, shook his cocktails so vigorously that he ripped out the screws that had been inserted in his clavicle after a snowboarding injury. He was sidelined for weeks.

Bartending has never been an easy job. But in the past, tired feet, an aching back and possibly a bent ear or two were the standard complaints. Today’s nonstop bar-side ballets have caused the pains to creep northward to the wrist, elbow and shoulder.

Most professionals deal in some repetitive motion or other; bartenders contend with several. They tilt heavy bottles into a shaker each night; they smack ice with the bowl of a bar spoon to get the size and shape just right; they unleash the suction of a shaker with the palm of their hand, jolting their wrist again and again. “You get a group of bartenders together and at some point or other they’re all going to talk about what hurts,” joked Misty Kalkofen, a bartender at Drink in Boston.

“It’s a very physically demanding job,” said Joaquín Simó, a longtime bartender at Death & Co. in the East Village. “Any time you’re on your feet for 8, 10, 12 hours at a stretch with that amount of bending, lifted, constant movement, torquing your body around, it takes a toll on you.” And the fact that very few drinking establishments offer health insurance for their bartenders hardly helps matters.

Part of the problem has been the radical aesthetic shift in bar culture in the last decade. As craft cocktails became king, bartenders focused on serious stirring (at least 30 to 60 revolutions a drink) and propulsive shakes, all the better to chill and integrate the drink — but also parade your seriousness of intent. “I remember late-night arguments over how speed versus thrust versus torque versus twist or roll all affected the shake,” said Toby Maloney, who helped open the Violet Hour in Chicago and now helps run the bar consultancy company Alchemy Consulting.

Adding to the theatricality was the arrival of Kold-Draft ice machines, which become de rigueur at the top cocktail caves. Kold-Draft cubes are prized because they are bigger than average, chilling drinks faster and diluting less quickly. “I think that Kold-Draft itself made the very act of shaking head-turning,” Mr. Maloney said. “The sound is very similar to the 6 train leaving Astor Place — ka-thunk, ka-thunk, ka-thunk — speeding up to a cacophony. So once you were behind the stick with a giant rattle that made everyone’s head swivel like a doe in hunting season, what are bartenders going to do? Well, they are going to put on a show.”

The heft and clatter of that same super ice had a dark side, however. “If you’re shaking with that light, fluffy, thin ice, it’s a completely different animal than when you’re shaking with Kold-Draft,” said Mr. Maloney, 43.

Mr. Maloney — who described his former, above-the-shoulder cocktail technique as a “crazy monkey shake” — stopped bartending in 2007 when the pain grew too great. “I had tendinitis in my right elbow,” he said. “I had to wear big neoprene braces every time I worked. There were days where it was so painful to do anything. Shaking hands was out of the question.”

An unforgiving schedule can compound injuries — there is always another shift right around the corner. “How are you ever going to rest?” Ms. Raymond-Tolan said. “If you can’t rest because you have to work, you can never get better. It can only get worse.”

And there is the tendency to reach for handy self-medication. “When you are hurt in this business, what you do at the end of the night is have too many drinks and sleep wrong on it,” Mr. Maloney said. “You don’t think about the pain, so you’re injuring it.”

Eric Alperin, a co-owner and another bartender at Varnish, counters that urge with water. “Drinking water on the job is an important factor that bartenders sometimes forget,” he said. “Instead it’s a few shots of whiskey to take the edge off. Water acts as the body’s lubricant.”

The bartending community is beginning to realize that Advil can’t solve everything.

Mr. Tello is talking to physical therapists from the sports world, and plans to hire one to examine and correct the mixing techniques of the bar staff.

“The only reason I looked into it was because a lot of our bartenders were injured and we had no one to cover our shifts,” he said.

Mr. Maloney has incorporated health tips into his consulting work. “I very clearly tell them to think about their shake,” he said. “To try and get the maximum impact from your shake, but don’t let it impact your body. You should become ambidextrous. If you’re right-handed, try to shake with your left hand every other drink, so you’re not putting undue stress on one side of your body.”

Mr. Simó worked through a shoulder injury (and thus kicked a 1,000-milligram-a-day ibuprofen habit) by slowly shifting his work habits. “Eventually I had to drastically alter my shaking motion,” he said. “Now I’m shaking around chest height. If you have poor ergonomics and poor form, you’re going to be hurting the next day.”

Still, given the new style of mixology, perhaps you can rein these drink disciples in only so far. On a recent visit to Clover Club in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, Ms. Raymond-Tolan flinched after clapping eyes on a bartender’s rigorous double shake, tins in both hands. “Oh, that’s awful,” she said. “Oh, my goodness, that was so hard to watch.” She shuddered.

“But," she added after a moment, “I bet our drinks are going to be delicious.”

3 comments:

erik_flannestad said...

As someone who is also, uh, not in his 20s, or even 30s, it's pretty hard. Though, the big ice thing is not that big a deal. Jeez, wimps.

I do have a 40 hour a week Day Job, in addition to bartending, but I find any more than 2 bartending shifts a week is pretty painful.

Of course, the first week in a long time I didn't bartend, I hurt my back pretty much doing nothing.

Robert Simonson said...

The Kold-Draft ice is something almost every bartender I talked to brought up. Perhaps it depends on how you shake it.

erik_flannestad said...

Maybe it's because all the bars I've worked at have had Kold Draft ice, and at home I shake with tovolo cubes...

Spoiled.