The Bartender as Rock Star

Wine Enthusiast talks with filmmaker Douglas Tirola, whose documentary Hey Bartender explores how both modern cocktails—and the people who make them—became cultural icons.

Wine Enthusiast: What  drew you to the mixology world?
Douglas Tirola: I started out wanting to make a movie about corner bars. At the same time, my mom sent me an article about a place in my neighborhood, called Employees Only.

So, I started going there once a week, and it exposed me to this era of mixology and mixologists.

It all happened at once, and I realized that the story that’s happening right now is the story of cocktails and mixology. I just immediately knew this is the movie.

WE:  What’s the key takeaway from the film?
DT: For previous generations, a lot of people thought bartenders fell into this line of work—they were trying to make it as an actor, and it didn’t work out. For me, a key takeaway is showing people that this era of bartenders absolutely had choices beyond being bartenders, and they really look at this as a craft. They’ve chosen this bartending life, and there’s something very, very  special about that. 

WE: What was the most surprising thing you learned while making Hey Bartender?
DT: How much time goes into making a cocktail. At some bars, they don’t open until six, but they’re coming in at noon to cut all that fruit and spend all that time making drinks. That they go to the farmers’ markets and spend their own money and bring the fruit to the bar. Hopefully the movie shows some of that process.

WE: Your 2009 documentary,  All In was a look inside the poker industry. Did you find any parallels to the drinking world? 
DT: Drinking and gambling? Certainly, they go together! But seriously, there are definitely similar themes. They’re both about a unique part of American culture. Both have experienced a boom and renaissance in the last decade or so, driven by a small group of entrepreneurs—and there’s another theme of people taking risks in their work life in a positive way. Now, you have people asking gamblers for their autographs.

You go to big cocktail conventions, people are asking Dale DeGroff and other bartenders for autographs. Who would have thought this would happen? But here we are.

WE: What’s your favorite drink?
DT:  I really love Tequila.

WE: How do you like to drink it?
DT:  It depends. I’ll go in and ask the bartender, ‘what’s your best drink? What are you known for?’ The good ones will ask me what liquor I like. I say Tequila. And then they make the drink. I love that.

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