On Hiring a Bartender For Your Parties

Bartender serves drinks at a home party
Very recently, New York Times writer Tim Murphy penned an article entitled Mixing Drinks, Adding Class that simply took my breath away. It is genuinely difficult to cram this much casual douchebaggery, from so many sources, into one article. Even the Washington Post, in this age of media lockstep, felt compelled to take a swing at this piece. (They miss for the most part, but I’ll get to that.) What makes this particular collection of pretentiousness worth my time to write about however, is that its central piece of advice is completely sound.
It hurts me to hear advice I agree with, given for reasons that are utter horsecrap. It undermines the chance that people will listen to it and take it to heart when they should.
[UPDATE: I’m not alone in my opinions of this piece. I’ve embedded a bunch of links at the bottom of the post who share some or all of my position here.]

The article details a party given by a Claudia Argiro, in her tiny Brooklyn apartment, for about two dozen friends. She served a punch and an eggnog. And she hired a bartender for about two hundred beans, plus tip, to stand in a corner of the room and ladle out said punch and eggnog.
This is all simple enough. And as I’ll get to below, more than reasonable.

But then the discussion begins about the reasons why she hired poor Eric Villani to stand in the corner and be a charming, automatic spoon.
Oh. My. God.
Are there often puff pieces in the Times that make people all over the country want to fly to New York, just to shake some sense into the subjects mentioned therein?

The article is wall-to-wall idiocy, and you should read the whole thing yourself to really “appreciate” it, but I’ll pull a few quotes to whet your appetite. Here’s the epicenter quote, from Dustin Terry, who has now replaced The Situation as the biggest douchebag to make his home on Long Island:

“In my opinion, if you don’t have a bartender at your party, you’re a loser,” said Dustin Terry, who lives a floor below Ms. Argiro and said his job was to get models and Saudi royalty into hot clubs. “The bartender brings class and sophistication.”

“If you can’t afford to hire a bartender,” he added, “you shouldn’t be having a party.”

I find it hard to like Claudia, just because she invited Dustin to her party. She gets what she deserves though, I guess, since “Mr. Terry” raids her private liquor cabinet without permission later in the party because he wants something stronger than what she chose to serve. If the bartender brings class and sophistication, why hasn’t he served any to this clown?
There is a lot going on in Dustin’s attitude. And while it isn’t spoken so uglily by anyone else interviewed for the article, it is shared by every last one of them, including it seems, the author. The purpose behind having the bartender, this (hopefully) professional person, is as a prop or accessory that says something about the host, and the guests.

On the face of it, they all want the bartender there to say they have arrived.

“I’m an adult now, living by myself, and this is my sh-bam, my moment,” said Ms. Argiro, who runs a clothing boutique nearby called Charlie and Sam.

(By the way, see what I did there, NYT? I added a link to her business. Here I am slamming the snot out of this poor woman, who I’m guessing is a heckuva nice person in most ways, and I still take time to add a link to your quote that you should have put there yourselves.)

You see, thirty-something New Yorkers, if you are having to think of ways to say, “I have arrived!” then you haven’t. You are an arriviste. People who have actually Arrived will see you instantly for the poser you are. And the sad thing is, Claudia has clearly really arrived. She has a nice home, and is a solid, middle-class shopkeeper. An American entrepreneur. America was built and is refreshed by people who have achieved as she has.
Live your life the way that makes sense for you, not the way you think people expect you to live your life, and everyone will know you’ve actually arrived. As it is, I’m not sure which is more laughable, the 17 year-old who shouts, “I’m a grown-up!” to his parents, or the 33 year-old who asks, “I’m a grown-up, right?” to her friends. (Not to mention how pathetic a society we have become when any thirty-something is not automatically assumed to have grown up some time ago!)

The thrust of the article, as with all trend pieces like it of course, is not to inform the world that Claudia Argiro has grown up, but that this is how more and more folks like her are announcing their alleged maturity.
I say “alleged” because there is a second layer of immature stupidity discussed in the article. It doesn’t apply to Claudia’s party, but clearly, lots of these bartender-hiring hosts have absolutely not grown up.

Such gigs can also carry minor humiliations that may not be so common at larger, more formal affairs…. David Shiovitz, who … sends out Columbia University undergraduates and graduate students, said that, were his bartenders asked, say, to strip or dance, “They have the right to say, ‘That’s not in my contract,’ ” he said.

“They have the right to say?!?!” The fact that this sort of treatment clearly happens often enough that they talk about it in the article, and that there is such a rote way of responding to it is appalling.
Look, I’ve got no beef with having a stripper at your party, if that’s the way you roll. Just hire an actual stripper. And invite me if you like. But if you ask a professional bartender, or a professional anyone other than a Professional Clothing-Removal Engineer to dance on the table or remove their clothes, then no one will ever believe you have arrived or grown up.

I’ve one last piece of snark, this for the guests of parties like this.

Another guest, Eric Carson, 32, a stock trader who lives in nearby Greenpoint, agreed that the bartender added class. “I feel very sophisticated at this party,” he said. “And I usually feel like a complete dirt bag.”

Dude, if you need a bartender there to keep you from being offensive in the home of one of your friends, and if a bartender is all it takes to keep you from being a dirtbag, you need to stay home. That, or, I dunno, learn to grow up yourself.

Now, as I said, Washington Post writer Jason Wilson (author of Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits) responded with an article entitled Cocktail parties don’t require hired help, but guests deserve more than jug wine. (Note to the Post: You capitalize titles.) Jason joins me in disdain for Mr. Terry, wondering, “Do models have a hard time getting into clubs?” Beyond that, he mostly misses the real mark here. He concentrates on Claudia’s offered libations. He notes that you don’t need a bartender for naught but pouring punch. But his main complaint is that if you are having a cocktail party, you should serve cocktails. And he wants the kind of cocktails that would satisfy Jason Wilson, or Doug Winship for that matter, and not leave us raising our supercilious eyebrows. He further notes that your average Columbia grad student doing temp bartending for less than the price of a single textbook is unlikely to be able to produce Pegus, Sazeracs, or perhaps even a decent Martini.
But most parties will not be populated by Jason or me (this is sad for us, but there you go). Even in today’s cocktail resurgence, most parties, even on the Upper West Side, will have few if any guests who would recognize Pegus, Sazeracs, or perhaps even a decent Martini.

Now, after all that abuse laid on Tim Murphy, his hapless interview subjects, and most of New York City apparently, for believing that you should hire a bartender for your private parties, may I finish with some advice?

Hire a bartender for your party.

Yes, hire a bartender for your party. Don’t do it because you think your guests will be impressed. Don’t invite guests who will think a bartender is the equivalent of big boy pants, for that matter. I’ve had perhaps two parties of my own in the last fifteen years where I didn’t hire at least a bartender, and both were simply too small. I provide entertainment at cocktail parties for a living. I’ve been to many hundreds of them over the years. Good bartenders are always worth the money.
As I see it, you have three options if you intend to offer drinks to your guests at your party. You can hire a bartender, you can set up a self-service drinks station, or you can mix and serve your cocktails yourself.

I hire a bartender because I like parties, and I see no reason why I should not enjoy my own. The Times article touches on a few of the good reasons to hire staff for your event, but misses a few others. I’m going to outline most of the good reasons to hire someone. You’ll note that few relate to benefiting your guests, at least directly. Your bartender works for you, for your benefit.

First, your bartender saves you from serving your guests, unless you want to. You can have conversations that last as long as you want. You can talk to the guests you want to, and avoid those you want to. In short, you can enjoy your job as host.
Jason Wilson’s WaPo article is skeptical that your bartender will be able to produce drinks that are up to the standards of, well, Jason. To be fair, I have pretty high standards about the drinks I want my guests to enjoy too. Your standards are your own, but it doesn’t matter that much for the purposes of this discussion, except to note that if you want your guests have real cocktails, the most elegant of self-serve presentations is out.

If you hire a college student who at most has waiting tables on his resumé, then indeed, you won’t have the option of serving the finest in the cocktailian art. (Again, depending on you or your friends, this may not matter) If you hire a pro from a caterer or professional staff agency like I sometimes do, you will have more to work with.
I maintain good relationships with a variety of professional, full-time bartenders, however. (This will surprise no regular reader.) Depending on your bartender, and the date of your party, you may well be able to hire one of them to work your event. No agency fees means more money for them, which they deserve.
Chances are, you won’t be hiring Dale DeGroff, so even the pro will likely not know all your fancy cocktailista drinks. This is still no problem. I create a nice cocktail menu for each party, with about 8 to 10 cocktails on offer. (Here’s what I had last time.) Any moderately experienced pro can use a cheat sheet you provide to produce these well. You make your joint feel like Clover Club, and you have great control.

Second, your bartender will keep the drinks area (at least) clean. Few things are worse than the wreckage of your home the morning after a party. Cups, bottle, napkins, etc are scattered everywhere. Dishes and glassware need to be cleaned. A good bartender will keep this mess to an absolute minimum. If we are having more than 30 guests, I add a server in addition to the bartender. They move around the house, keeping things clean as the party goes on.
If you aren’t at least a little hungover after hosting a cocktail party, you are doing it wrong. I vastly prefer, when experiencing The Morning After, going out for brunch and Bloody Marys over dragging a Hefty bag around the house, collecting napkins, cups, and bottles.
Additionally, if you are employing your full arsenal of glassware, and a wide menu of cocktails, chances are some dishes will have to be done during the party. I find it quite hard to be a charming host when I have dishpan hands, don’t you, darling?

Both of those items were mentioned in passing as benefits, rather then reasons for hiring a bartender in the Times. Alone, they are really enough, but there’s more. A bartender serves as a gatekeeper to your booze. (Unless you invite Dustin Terry. But if you do, that’s you own lack of wisdom.)
The mere fact that you have a bartender, no matter how competent, will regulate the flow of booze at your party. At the start, and during any rush, he’ll slow down how fast drinks go out. When things are slow, guests get their cocktails faster than they would through hunting you down or even serving themselves. Overall, when compared to a self-service bar, your guests will drink a measurably smaller amount of social lubricant, without ever noticing.
This doesn’t mean you get to be cheap! Serve better booze.
A good bartender will help you out as gatekeeper in other ways as well. If you have a guest or two that you know is prone to having more than is good for him, or her, let your bartender be your friend and early warning system. I’m not suggesting that a private event bartender ought to be cutting off guests, that’s your job. But they can give you a heads up if heavy weather is brewing. Contrary to Eric Carson’s belief, Claudia’s bartender probably didn’t keep him from being a “dirtbag”. But he might have helped her ensure Eric got home safely.

Finally, it’s worth having your bartender hang around for a bit after the guests leave. Perhaps offer him a drink before he goes. It’s a nice way to decompress, and you get the benefit of a set of sober recollections from the event. You may get a few good stories of things that happened away from you at your party. Or you may find out about some things that went wrong that you can correct before you do all this again.
A good cocktail party should not be a once in a lifetime thing. It should be a once in a while thing, so do everything you can to do it better next time than you did the last. Hire a bartender, and you’ll be going a long way toward making both this party, and the next, better than it would otherwise have been.

I notice that I am not alone in my visceral reaction to the New York Times piece that sparked this post. Here are some of the more entertaining shots:

Curbed New York: “What is it with the people of Williamsburg and their troubling habit of saying dumb things to New York Times reporters?

Meg In Brooklyn intends to try to balance out Eric Carson’s new-found clean-baggedness.

The Gloss goes perhaps a tad overboard to follow this hot, emerging trend. If you read only one of these, read this one.

Gothamist: “You are a worthless P.O.S. if you don’t hire a bartender for your house party, say people who own catering companies and two random douchebags.”

BlackBook gives us a (sadly) somewhat approving insight into what the actual business is that Dustin Terry and partner Matt Assante have with Saudi Royals and hot models.

Bar Stool Sports: “Serious question, is Dustin Terry the biggest douchebag we have ever posted?” Probably.

About the author

Doug

I am 48 years old, married with two young daughters. My interests are tennis, reading, computers, politics, and of course cocktails. I run a murder mystery party business that caters to both corporate and private events, Killing Time, murder consultants.

5 Comments

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  • Great article….and I agree with you, Doug—someone who hires a “bartender” because they think it makes them look cooler to their guests is a total douchebag.
    In addition to my stint at M I also do private events and generally create some sort of signature cocktail depending on what the party is for. I find that people love not having to deal with making their own cocktails, and yes, if you hire me, I know how to make a darn good Pegu or Sazerac. :)
    –Cris Dehlavi

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  • If an article is in the NY Times Fashion & Style section, 9 times out of 10 its going to involve either douchebaggery, self-indulgent hipsterism, or both.

    Personally, I love bartending my own parties. Makes it easier to make sure I get to talk to everyone at my party! Course, helps that my friends are usually more than willing to serve in shifts as barbacks. I threw a May Day party this past year with what I swear was a 100 drink cocktail list (and unfortunately, for my arms, included Ramos Gin Fizzes). Was tons of fun and can’t wait till next May Day.

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  • Thanks Cris, and Happy Birthday!

    CN,
    I bartend my little parties, gatherings, really.
    I wasn’t able to find a good place to put this in in the main post, but even when I have a bartender, you’ll still find me behind the bar often during my own parties. One, I like mixing drinks, and showing off. Two, I can mix whatever I want a guest to have. And three, I can backstop whomever I have back there during serious rushes.

    All that said, RAMOS GIN FIZZES??!?!? You are deranged.

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  • Yeah, that article made me want to Donkey Punch everyone in the room. I’m totally in agreement with you here. I was thinking of something witty to add but I think you’ve said pretty much all there is to say.

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