By Nathaniel Bauer Wine and spirits columnist Published Oct 10, 2009 at 4:05 PM

What's so special about bartenders? They're just people cowering behind the safety of a 4-foot barrier who tip a bottle of liquid upside down and pour it into a glass. Your total interaction with them can be as little as a minute or two. How hard can it be?

Well, with all the average or below-average bartenders you've experienced, apparently it's harder than it looks.

What makes it so hard? Is it the long, late nights? The complicated drinks? The demanding customers?

No. Bar/restaurant people are night owls by nature. Anyone can be taught to mix a decent drink. Bar customers are often easier to deal with than diners.

Rather, I'm going to lay down some thick alliteration and present the two things that I think separate the few very good bartenders from the many really average ones: passion and a pleasant personality.

Passion and pleasant personality don't seem like lofty job requirements, do they? These characteristics I write of are the kind that are evident the minute you belly up to the bar. The man or woman behind the bar is acutely aware that first impressions in a bar/restaurant can set the stage for the entire evening. Consequently, he/she smiles infectiously at you, instantly making you feel welcome. They welcome you and ask how you are. They introduce themselves and all this before the topic of a libation even comes up.

So, if all it takes is a pleasant greeting, a smile and welcome, why don't more bartenders employ this simple tool to make you feel comfortable and well taken care of?

Because, they don't have to.

The average bar transaction goes something like this:
1. You enter an establishment
2. You sit at the bar or bar table
3. The bartender saunters over and asks, "What can I getcha?" or some variant thereof
4. You order - he/she pours liquid from a bottle into a glass and serves it to you
5. You pay
6. The end.

The likelihood that you are going to leave at least a dollar for a couple of drinks is pretty high. So most bartenders are banking on quantity rather quality, especially in busier establishments. Why should they exert the extra effort when they don't have to?

It's really unfortunate, if you think about it. There is something almost mythical about a great bartender. This individual instills an almost cult-like following and his/her patrons are exceptionally loyal. When the decision over which bar to go to comes up, the thought of who is bartending is the very first thing that enters many minds. Sure, beverage selection, atmosphere and maybe food play into your preferences for the evening, but when you think about going out for a drink, you automatically think about the individual who is going to pour that drink for you. So, what specifically makes you think about those few, select bartenders with such fondness while all the nameless, faceless others fade into the background?

Let me insert a brief anecdote to illustrate the point. I remember more than 10 years ago, my friends and I used to frequent the County Clare. We went there partly because the atmosphere was cool, partly because they had good whiskey and good beer and good food, but really we went there because of the man behind the bar, Jaime O'Donoghue.

For you old timers reading this column, the name O'Donoghue goes way back when Jaime's old man owned the original O'Donoghue's in Milwaukee. Now the legacy of O'Donoghue's lives on in Elm Grove. If you haven't been to see Jaime in a while, be sure to stop by.

Forgive me, I digress. As I mentioned, the real reason we went to the County Clare was to see Jaime. When you walked into the crowded bar and Jaime saw you, the whole world suddenly became invisible and you were the only thing of importance. He wiped down the bar top in front of you whether it needed it or not, placed a fresh bowl of snacks in front of you, asked how were you, how was your significant other, how was your job, friends etc., all by name, and then asked which of the several drinks he had made you over the last month, if any, you would like to start out with.

For just a few minutes, nothing else in the world mattered except your interaction with Jaime.

Then Jaime would flit off to the next person who was anxiously awaiting his attention and you might not see him for another half hour or until you needed another drink, whichever came first, but it didn't matter. Because being made to feel that special for no other reason than sitting on a bar stool and ordering a drink was all worth it.

This is what being a phenomenal bartender is all about. It's about passion for what you do, how you treat your guests and how you make your drinks. It's about taking the time to really remember who your patrons are and what they drink. And, it's definitely all about the details. The clean bar top, the clean ashtray, the beverage napkin facing the same way, the refill on water without being asked, the smile, the introduction. And mostly, it's about making people feel special.

I would be willing to bet that at this point you are all recalling with fondness the best bartender you ever had and how pleasant he/she was while you sat at their bar. I would also be willing to bet that those one or two individuals you conjured up in your memory banks are far outnumbered by the surly, inattentive, void of life drink slingers you encounter with greater frequency.

Since the goal of this column is to see if we can't have more fun with wine and spirits and the establishments in which they are served, I wasn't about to single out any establishments or individuals who perhaps need a little polish behind the bar. So, I apologize if the title of this column was misleading and you got all excited to see who I would publicly crucify. Instead, I wanted you to think about which bartenders you have enjoyed most, why they were so special, and maybe even how other bartenders and the places they work for can improve their game a bit.

Instead of condemning the worst bartenders in the city, we should celebrate the one's who really shine. Next time you see them, let them know how they added to your experience. Chances are they already know -- of all the bars and all the bartenders in the city, you come back to see them. And of course, healthy monetary compensation for entertainment and experience they provide is always the best way to show appreciation.

Hopefully, the great ones will feel some pride, and the bad ones will rethink why they bartend and how much more fun bartending would be if they could enjoy the time they spent with their guests.

Who do you think are the best bartenders in town?



Nathaniel Bauer Wine and spirits columnist
Nathaniel Bauer has spent the last 10 years as a wine buyer for some of Milwaukee’s finest restaurants. Two standouts include a six-year tenure with Bartolotta’s that culminated at Bacchus as a manager and sommelier, followed by two years as the General Manager and certified sommelier at Dream Dance. Finally late in ‘08 he hung up his wine key to start a family. Even though he is now the Marketing Director for a local software company, Big Bang LLC, wine keeps calling his name. The steady chant that kept him in the restaurant business for more than a decade, even after his several attempts to ignore its call, keeps him up to date on current vintages and producers around the globe. Bauer still visits many Milwaukee establishments, both retail and restaurant, to stay a part of the fantastic wine community in this city. Now, after more than a decade in the wine and restaurant market, he is glad to have no direct affiliations and looks forward to offering an experienced and impartial opinion on how local wine purveyors can be even more successful.