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From Programmer to Bartender – My Experience and Reflections

Let’s start with a little background. I worked as a programmer in an Internet company, and then after I experienced layoffs, I had a period of “organizing myself” because I was wavering between my ideal and the reality, during which I wrote the article “Organize Yourself When You Don’t Have a Job: Look Ahead, Don’t Look Back”. After that, I traveled for a while, went to many places, Shanghai and Japan, and finally came back to the U.S. and got a job as a bartender in a cocktail bar.

It looks like a big change, but it wasn’t really a whim. After all, drinking cocktails is one of my hobbies, and I like to go to different cocktail bars in different cities to drink different cocktails. But after being a drinker for a long time, I naturally wanted to learn more about it. I’ve read some cocktail articles before, and I’ve learned about cocktail structure, whisky origin, etc. But I’m still itching to learn more. But I still had the itch, and now that I’m at the Gap, I’m trying out a new career path, which is also a way to reacquaint myself with the world.

Being a bartender these days is definitely a different experience because the type of work can be so different from the programmer job I did before. I learned some of the science about cocktails on my own by reading some articles online. For example, the six base liquors, common liqueurs, cocktail architecture, the choice of glass, etc..

Familiarize yourself with the flavor of the liquor
Theoretical knowledge requires more familiarity than memorization with the brain.

For a drinker, a good drink is a good drink. What a bartender needs to do is to make this standard of ‘good taste’ acceptable to more people.

During the memorization process of base wines and liqueurs, you actually need to taste them yourself to familiarize yourself with the flavors. And when introducing a wine such as whiskey to guests, you also need to familiarize yourself with the origin and flavor of the wine.

Before I came to the bar to work as a bartender, I had only mixed Whisky Sour and Gin & Tonic at home. The tools were limited and the techniques were crude, not professional. The bar I work at, however, I’ve had a few drinks at before and I really recognize the drinks, which is one of the main reasons I chose to come to this store to learn. My boss seems to me to be a very talented person in bartending. The talent in bartending is reflected in the creation of cocktails, from the one-of-a-kind herbal list, to the seasonal limited list for different seasons, to the exhibition specials that are averaged once a month. It’s clear that a lot of thought and effort has gone into the creation of the cocktails. I don’t think you can learn to create cocktails overnight, it’s more about experience and inspiration. What I can learn is the cocktail making techniques, there are three main cocktail making techniques, namely shake, stir and build.

Shake is actually the skill that I have been learning for the longest time. I’ve seen a video of a Japanese master mixing cocktails before, and a good bartender can accurately tell how much water to make after shaking, which is based on long-term experience.

Let’s briefly talk about the principle of shaking. The main purpose of shaking is to blend, aerate, and dissolve water. First of all, take the classic cocktail Whiskey Sour as an example, you need to fully integrate the whiskey, lemon juice and sugar syrup together, otherwise the drink will be wine is wine, lemon juice is lemon juice and sugar syrup is sugar syrup. Plus aeration and watering down, because after the shaker is snapped tight, there are actually still gaps that allow air to enter the shaker through the gaps, and the ice cubes will break up when they meet the air and then water down. A cocktail that can be produced can’t be watered down too much, otherwise it will be too watery, and a sip will only feel like drinking water.

I’ve been trying to learn how to shake because the bar I work at still uses mostly Boston jugs, not Shaker jugs, and I’ve watched a lot of videos to learn how to do it, including Kazuo Ueda’s hard shake. I’ve been watching a lot of videos on YouTube to learn how to shake, including Kazuo Ueda’s hard shake, which is different for different people, and I’ve been trying to find a shake that works for me and produces a good drink. The way I shake now is completely different from the way I did when I first started working at the bar.

Service Awareness
“Before you bartend, learn respect, respect the bar, respect your customers, and be sincere with every drink and every person. Whether in the bar or in life, by respecting others, you are respecting yourself.” Because my last job was a bit far from the users, naturally I didn’t exercise a sense of user-first. But after working as a bartender, every day is directly facing the guests, ordering or chatting, service consciousness is naturally a must exercise. From the initial face of the guests to speak in a small voice (i people are like this), to now be able to take the initiative to ask the guests whether they need to recommend, as well as will introduce the concept of the wine list, and sometimes also chat with the guests.

Emotional Intelligence
“If you are lucky enough to know a good teacher or master, you will find that he teaches you far more about being a human being than bartending skills.” In fact, these days as a bartender, what I gained the most instead is not bartending, but being a human being. About bartending, actually my boss taught me not much. But some truths about being a human being are indeed the most valuable thing I have gained these days.

Due to the years of science and engineering studies as well as work, I think my personal emotional intelligence needs to be improved. And the boss is I know people inside the emotional intelligence can be ranked in the top five people. Sometimes embodied in the art of speaking, such as the face of the guest’s request, how to answer to make the guest feel more comfortable, sometimes embodied in the ability to pre-judge the guests want to see the wine list or buy a single, sometimes embodied in the sensitivity of the guests, for example, the boss can directly guess the guests are also the store. These not only need to be good at observing the eyes and listen carefully to the guest’s conversation, but also years of experience in the industry.

“There’s still a big difference between inside the bar and outside the bar.”

The biggest impact of the identity shift is the change in perspective. As a drinker, I used to sit at the bar, study the wine list, ask the bartender questions about the list, and observe the bartender mixing drinks and writing drinking repo’s, but now as a bartender, I observe the guests and try to see what they want.

In the past, I used to go to a bar to drink purely, after studying the wine list, I would be very happy if I didn’t step on mines and order my favorite wine. Now, when I go to other bars to drink, I also study the bartender’s bartending moves, the design of the wine list, and observe their service.

Similarities and Differences between Bartenders and Programmers
Comparing bartenders and programmers, there are actually some similarities between the two seemingly different careers.

The similarity is that they are both creative professions. Programmers create new features through code, while bartenders create new cocktails through shakers; the tools change, but the inspiration remains the same. Differences
But there are many differences. The biggest difference is that as a programmer, I used to talk less, and except for daily meetings, the rest of the time I sit alone at my workstation and write code, and when I encountered problems, I would give priority to solving them by myself, and then ask my colleagues for advice if I couldn’t solve them. Now as a bartender, in addition to mixing drinks, in fact, also need to communicate with the guests, such as wine list recommendations, or chat with the guests and so on.

Compared to the previous two jobs as a programmer, which were considered medium-sized factories (500-999 employees), the bartender now works in a small store with no more than five employees, including the owner and part-time employees. Naturally, the experience is very different. Small businesses have their own way of doing things, and the rules and regulations are really not as strict as in a big factory, but the flexibility is not comparable to a big factory.

Changes in Drinking
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about myself since becoming a bartender, it’s that I don’t like to drink as much as I used to. I used to love exploring stores, by myself or with friends, and enjoying the feeling of rolling up a wine list and writing a repo. Now I realize that cocktails can’t escape the same structure, and it’s hard to come across a drink that wows me at first sip. For example, when I recently went to drink at COA in Hong Kong, which is ranked number one in Asia, I didn’t like it as much as the first time I went there.

In fact, I now prefer to go to a Japanese bar, drink some classic cocktails, and finish with a Dry Martini, or choose to stay at home by myself and have a highball or whiskey on the rocks, whatever is easier.

Bartending is fun, but as I write this, I’m leaving the industry. Considering my future career plans, I decided to go back to being a pure drinker and turn drinking back into a hobby instead of a profession.

The other thing is that I still don’t think I love the industry enough. When I attended Speak Low’s 9th anniversary event in June, drank at COA Hong Kong twice this year, and chatted with bartenders at different bars, I could feel their love for the industry.

Being a bartender may look cool, but it’s really just a normal job. With different working hours, upside down biological clock, and long nights, it’s not as good as people think. But there are still so many bartenders who work at night with a smile on their face all the time, with excellent products and respectful service, which is enough to see their love for this industry.

A good bar is like a home, able to smooth out the troubles of work and life.

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