Jon Taffer: Bar Rescue, Bar Backlash and Beyond

Jon Taffer is a divisive figure in the spirits industry. The 61-year-old host of Spike TV’s Bar Rescue makes his living helping bar owners save their failing businesses on TV and his popularity hinges on his (expletive-rich) personality and his business know-how (which also tends to be expletive-rich). But while the show has been popular with viewers since its 2011 debut (Season Five debuted on August 7), the host has consistently come under fire from the bar community over what they view as blasphemous views of barroom mores or, occasionally, outright incompetence.

In March, Taffer conducted an interview with The Huffington Post in which he expounded on his belief that bartenders should never drink behind the bar and said that mezcal was made from the hallucinogenic drug mescaline (it’s not). In April, he appeared on The Meredith Viera Show, where he incorrectly showed viewers how to make “the perfect Manhattan,” using muddled fruit and no vermouth. (Here’s how it’s actually done.)

But much as it might chafe his detractors, Taffer’s reign as the on-air face of the bartending industry shows no sign of weakening. Indeed, Spike recently ordered a pilot of a late-night talk show starring him which will air in October. We recently got the chance to chat with the man about the controversy and what comes next.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Supercall: What was the industry blowback like after The Huffington Post interview?
Jon Taffer: I thought it was sort of funny to tell you the truth. I was referring to an urban legend that tequila is hallucinogenic. And the question I was asked was, “What alcohol do customers believe will make them the drunkest?” So I was speaking to urban legend. Things don’t always communicate exactly as they should.

[Editor’s note: Taffer’s exact quote was “I’m not sure if there’s a definition of one gets you angry or not, but tequila is inherently made from mezcal, which mescaline, the hallucinogenic drug is made from. So tequila can have a hallucinogenic component, you might be talking to someone who’s not there. (Laughs)”]

SC: Is it upsetting when bartenders call you out in public?
I love bartenders. I started in this business as a bartender and they’re the backbone of my community. But I’m not a bartender anymore. I look at things as an owner. As an owner, I do not want people drinking while they work for me. If there are certain bartenders that don’t agree, it’s perfectly fine. God bless ‘em! But they’re not going to work for me.

[On Bar Rescue] I demand that owners treat their bartenders and waitresses with respect and dignity. I’ve worked really hard to gain the respect of my industry and I think the bartending community actually really likes and respects me. I think the rest of it is trivial B.S. to be honest with you. There’s about 20 or 30 snobby bartenders in America, and it doesn’t really bother me if they felt otherwise.

SC: What do you think you’ve accomplished with Bar Rescue after 125 rescues?
JT: When we started the show, its whole purpose was to have an intelligent view of an industry that wasn’t as respected as it should be. Every episode of Bar Rescue has takeaways that over multiple episodes teach the general public that this is not such an easy business and that mixologists and bartenders should be respected. They’re like chefs. I’d also like to think that after 125 episodes that maybe bar operators are a little more clean and a little more aware and that consumers will demand more. If Bar Rescue accomplished either of those things then it’s been worthwhile.

SC: Why do you think some of the bars from the show have closed?
JT: Bar Rescue tracks at about a 75 percent success factor. When you consider that these owners have told you they’re out of money, they’re going to close in weeks, they’re half a million in debt, they’re living in their parents’ basement—I’m starting in a deep hole. To achieve a 75 percent success factor with operations that are proven failures, I am very proud of that. So I have no issue recognizing the 20 percent or so that fail.

SC: You’re often compared to Kitchen Nightmares host Gordon Ramsay. What do you think of that comparison?
JT: Gordon Ramsay’s a chef. I’m a businessman. His orientation is the kitchen and food. My orientation is the business. I bring in a chef to work in the kitchen under my direction, I bring in a mixologist to work in the bar under my direction. I focus on the concept, on the front of the house, on the revenues, on the marketing and positioning. I look at it as a complete business. If closing the kitchen is what makes sense for that business and sending the chef home, I’ll do it.

SC: How is your upcoming late-night talk-show with Spike TV going?
JT: I’m a pretty well-bleeped individual, so the premise is that in a late-night show I can be a little more edgy. We’re working to come up with a talk show that isn’t me sitting at a desk with a chair—a different approach to having a little late-night edge, like a great bar. There’s a good possibility that it will air after Bar Rescue, which will be great.