Spirited Discussion

"Hey Bartender" Serves Up a Sloppy Cocktail Doc

A new documentary on the rise of craft cocktails forgets there's still a long way to go.

By Katharine Shilcutt June 25, 2013

In your average movie theater, the lights go up when the credits start to roll. It's your decision to stay and watch if you like. Not so at 14 Pews last night, when the lights in the old converted church remained off, the room dark through the very last frame of the credits, everyone in attendance forced to watch as the seconds ticked down.

It was a fitting end to the screening of "Hey Bartender," a new documentary from New York-based filmmaker Douglas Tirola, a film which ultimately did a disservice to its own subject matter—the rise of the craft cocktail movement in America—by staring too long and too hard into its own fuzzy navel.

The documentary focused almost exclusively on world-class watering holes such as PDT, Pegu Club, and Employees Only in New York—bars in which cocktails made with freshly-squeezed juices, housemade tinctures, and artisanal spirits are the norm. Absent from the film was middle America or your average alcohol imbiber who's just as happy drinking a Shiner Bock as they are a Sidecar. The result was a lopsided documentary which presented the craft cocktail movement as a foregone conclusion instead of a revolution in the making.

It has only been a year since James Meehan of PDT won the the James Beard Award for Oustanding Bar Program, a category which didn't exist prior to 2012. Tales of the Cocktail—the annual cocktail convention in New Orleans which was featured heavily in "Hey Bartender"—celebrated its 10th anniversary last year, yet its attendance numbers only began to skyrocket within the last few years.

Longtime bartender Forrest DeSpain, who currently works the busy weekend shifts at Anvil Bar & Refuge, told me after last night's screening that the bar still receives a steady stream of guests who've never encountered a "classic" cocktail. "Every Friday and Saturday night," said DeSpain, "we get folks who still want a Bud Light or a vodka-soda."

"There's still a learning curve," DeSpain continued, despite Anvil opening four years ago and being celebrated for its groundbreaking cocktail and spirits program ever since. (And despite owner Bobby Heugel racking up his own slate of James Beard Award nominations, from Outstanding Wine and Spirits Professional in 2011 to Anvil's most recent nomination for Outstanding Bar Program this year.) The average American consumer still appreciates Bud Light and Chardonnay when drinking out, something that was seemingly lost on "Hey Bartender" and Tirola's East Coast provinciality.

More frustrating was the documentary's depiction of Stephen Carpentieri, the affable owner of Dunville's, an average neighborhood bar in Westport, Connecticut. Although early footage showed Dunville's packed to the porches with loyal customers who view "Carpi" as a member of their own families, the documentary veered sharply off-track to paint Dunville's as a failing bar that couldn't attract customers even with hundreds of pounds of free pork butt on the barbecue and Carpi himself as a schlub whose home was in danger of foreclosure.

This stood in stark contrast to the effusive portrait Tirola painted of Steve Schneider, the prototypical New York hipster bartender with a body full of colorful tattoos, a brash personality, and a studiously twirled mustache that belied his roots as a United States Marine with three steel plates in his head. Schneider, a young apprentice at Employees Only, was portrayed as the antithesis of Carpentieri—someone who "gets" that craft cocktails will save us all, a man who's somehow more dedicated to his craft than a lifelong barman who's owned his own place for the better part of two decades.

What will rescue Carpi and Dunville's from the doldrums, according to "Hey Bartender"? Sidecars and swizzles, of course. Which is how Carpentieri ended up completely out of his element at Tales of the Cocktail, donning a silly fedora and seemingly forced to bumble around until making brief contact with the "true" stars of the documentary: personalities such as the suave Dushan Zaric of the oversexed Employees Only, whose proudest moment was when a customer left "blow jobs" on the tip line of her receipt, or the all-powerful paterfamilias of the cocktail movement, Dale DeGroff, who founded the Museum of the American Cocktail and was clearly put off by Carpentieri's awkward requests for assistance at his little bar back in Connecticut. Juxtaposed with speed bartending competitions where Schneider was shown slinging drinks at Olympic-level times, Carpentieri's own experiences at Tales of the Cocktail seemed painted in an almost mean-spirited light.

What's ultimately most disappointing is that "Hey Bartender" could have been so much more than a cocktail sycophant sucking up to already overblown bartenders. This is a film made by a cocktail nerd for cocktail nerds, and as such leaves little else for a regular audience to enjoy. I loved learning about the roots of the cocktail movement, but we only had a few minutes each with such driving forces as Audrey Saunders or Julie Reiner. I loved learning about the original cocktail movement's peak in the 1880s, but was put off by the orgiastic, Gatsby-level parties celebrating the repeal of Prohibition each year, parties thrown by certain cocktail bars which featured far too prominently in comparison to the film's other, far more interesting subject matter.

A much more concise review of "Hey Bartender" than my own by Andy Webster in the New York Times called Tirola's film simply "ingratiating," which is putting it kindly. Webster also points out that "[u]nseen in the sequence are alcohol’s casualties: angry, aggressive tipplers and others who overdrink." I'd argue that overserving and overindulgence aren't unseen in the film; rather, they're celebrated, in that typical, tedious, navel-gazing stare of the lifelong, self-approbating alcoholic. That's not remotely what the modern cocktail movement is about, and the film's inability to convey this to the audience left the worst taste in my mouth of all.


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