Food & Drink

Why More and More Top Bartenders Are Going Sober

Courtesy of The Happiest Hour

Whenever I take a break from drinking (but not bartending), I make sure to mix up a mocktail with fresh lemon juice and cold-brewed green tea. If a customer ropes me in on a round or a co-worker demands a post-shift shot, I simply pour myself a measure of that vibrant, non-alcoholic mix. It’s not only tasty and refreshing, but it also gives the illusion that I am drinking—and that’s important. Because, unlike pretty much any other job in the world, doing shots is part of a bartender’s job description.

When Jim Kearns, bartender and owner of New York’s Slowly Shirley and the Happiest Hour, quit drinking, he knew it was crucial from him to maintain the level of hospitality his guests expected from him and a sense of camaraderie with his fellow bartenders. So, rather than simply turning down guests’ imbibing invitations or (worse) explaining that he was sober, he replaced his former go-to shot, the Hard Start (a mixture of equal parts Fernet Branca and Branca Menta), with Stumptown cold brew coffee concentrate. It had everything he needed; Strong and bitter, with a good whack of caffeine, cold brew is “not really something you can drink all the time, so a shot of it now and then is a nice pick-me-up,” Kearns says. “Once you remove alcohol from the equation, you have enough clarity to realize that it's more about having that moment with your guests or your co-workers than it is about getting drunk.”

When you’re a bartender, you’re surrounded by booze—and people happily drinking it—every day. At most bars, bartenders take at least one or two shots over the course of a night with customers and colleagues, and drinks are doled out at the end of the shift as reward for a long night’s work. But these days, many bartenders are choosing to abstain from drinking alcohol entirely, while remaining firmly (and successfully) behind the stick.

Grant Murray, a mixologist from Inverness, Scotland, has been sober for over a year now. It happened when he first started working as a manager: Suddenly, his workload increased and his responsibilities grew. His productivity, meanwhile, suffered due to drinking, which, in turn, led to even more drinking to deal with the stress. “It was scary how easy it was to fall into that cycle,” he says. Murray originally intended to only take a hiatus from drinking, but after seven months of being sober, he decided to quit for good. “Quitting drinking wasn’t easy,” he says. “But I battled it by diving fully into my work—and life as a dad—and took on even more responsibilities with my company. This gave me so much to focus on that I didn’t need to worry about not going to the pub.”

While it’s one thing to swap out shots of fernet for coffee, tasting drinks at work puts forth a whole new hurdle for bartenders looking to stay stone cold sober. Bartenders who sling beers, shots or simple, two-ingredient cocktails might not need to taste every cocktail they make, but bartenders like Kearns and Murray, who both work at high-volume cocktail bars, need to taste drinks in order to maintain both quality and consistency.

“There’s a very distinct line between drinking and tasting,” says Murray. “If I am tasting lots of drinks, I will spit them out. But I find it difficult to be as creative as I need to be without tasting.”

When developing new cocktails or making menu changes, Murray works out as many of his ideas as he can before actually tasting through the drinks. “I have bartended at a certain level for long enough that I can work with flavors and ingredients largely on paper,” he says.

Kearns takes a similar approach: “Being a cocktail bartender, I need to taste what I make. Whether it’s a new cocktail or a drink that I’m serving a guest—I still taste everything I make behind the bar,” he says. “I’m human; I forget things. You need to make sure you’re serving something that’s the highest quality. The difference now, is that I don’t sit down with a drink. And I don’t drink at all when I’m not working.”

Kearns believes this growing trend of abstaining bartenders signifies a change in how people think about the field as a whole. “There’s been a seismic shift away from the notion that bartending is a part time job or a side job as a means to an end,” he says. “Once you start to take on more responsibilities, and bartenders start to involve themselves fully in their bartending careers, it doesn’t really add up to drink everyday—before or after your shift.”

Whether or not they choose to go totally sober remains a personal question for bartenders—but it’s apparent after speaking to a few professionals that their lives and their careers are better for it.

“It’s ironic that once I quit drinking that I started seeing my biggest successes,” says Murray. “The clarity and focus that I gained when I stopped drinking, I can wholly attribute to where I am today.” Kearns agrees that it’s helped him with his successes. “It’s a natural response to want to do something to take the edge off—but it’s a law of diminishing returns,” he says. “If a drug or a vice isn’t making your life any better, why continue to do it?”

Bartending is an incredibly hard profession. The hours are opposite the rest of the working world. It’s mentally stressful—not to mention physically exhausting (shifts tend to be 12 hours or sometimes more). And, for some, drinking on the job just makes everything worse. “You’re not only dulling your reaction time, you’re damaging your senses and your ability to think analytically and solve problems,” says Kearns. “Ultimately, it doesn’t work long term and it’s not a sustainable way of living in the service industry.” Kearns finishes by saying, “Would you want your dentist to have a hangover or the shakes? So why would you want your bartender to suffer from the same?”

As the public’s perception shifts away from the notion that everyone who works in the service industry lives this debaucherous, drunken existence, and begins to think of it as a serious career, the more common it will be to find professionals in the industry that abstain from alcohol. Soon, the idea of a sober bartender won’t be an oxymoron. And although doing shots is (and will probably always be) part of a bartender’s job description, they won’t always have to be alcoholic.