Nosh Pit

The Nosh Pit: Speed back in the mix behind the bar

Whether it’s the craft cocktail mecca of Cure in New Orleans or Sacramento’s own Shady Lady Saloon, the menu comes with a disclaimer. That is, please exercise patience while waiting for your cocktail.

Craft cocktails have been pegged among the most high-maintenance of drinks, given their numerous ingredients and exacting techniques for creating them. These are no simple rum and Cokes, but finely tuned blends of artisanal spirits and house-made mixers that sometimes require a “hurry up and wait” aspect for customers.

But some Sacramento bartenders and watering-hole owners are trying to shed this stereotype. Pre-batched cocktails have become an important component of many bar efforts to speed up service, and a proper mis en place has become as valued behind the bar as hand-carved ice. Cocktail lists have been scaled down in many cases, to ease the burden both on bartenders and the wait time on customers.

After all, saying, “Hey, let’s go to that place where it takes 20 minutes to get your drink,” just doesn’t fly with most folks.

The past five years have seen a boom in cocktail culture but have been a learning curve for bar owners as well. Staff members at Shady Lady, which was named in May as one of Esquire magazine’s top 25 bars in the country, will pour upward of 1,000 drinks on an average Friday night. That could be a simple glass of chardonnay, or a housemade Jalisco Sunrise with Insight cold-brewed coffee, tequila, cream, sugar and egg white served meticulously over a large ice cube and garnished with an orange twist.

“Three years ago we had some crazy stuff,” said Jason Boggs, co-owner of Shady Lady. “There’d be a drink that needed two types of syrup and a pomegranate molasses, even though we already had our own grenadine. It got a little hairy, and we saw our ticket times ticking up. You’d see a service tab for eight drinks and think, ‘Shoot.’ ”

Boggs says that bringing the cocktail culture back down to earth has helped the cause. He admits to carrying some attitude in the early days of Shady Lady, sniffing at any requests for a vodka and Red Bull, and playing into a haughtiness that’s sometimes permeated high-end bars.

Side note: Don’t call a bartender a “mixologist.” Any bartenders worth their house-made bitters cringe at the term, and will want to send you back to 2009 for saying it.

Back at Shady Lady, Boggs puts more of a premium now on creating a welcoming vibe and expediting orders.

“One of the things that steps up speed is a lack of pretentiousness behind the bar,” said Boggs. “Back in the day someone would say, ‘This is my craft cocktail, and I infused it with all this stuff, and you’re very privileged to have this.’ This new generation is all about service. It’s been a process over the past five years to get our speed without sacrificing quality.”

Andrew Calisterio, the Hook & Ladder and Golden Bear bartender who’s the focus of today’s Feast cover, has even taken jobs specifically to improve his efficiency. He can wax about the various flavor profiles of aged rums and make a mean Negroni, but all that craftiness doesn’t amount to much if the customer isn’t happy.

Part of the allure of taking shifts at Golden Bear on Friday nights was to learn how to handle packed, thirsty crowds who expected their drinks ASAP.

“My biggest fault was my speed,” said Calisterio. “I’d ask bartenders I respected, ‘What’s the problem with these craft bartenders? Nobody knows how to get anything done quickly.’ You can make this beautiful masterpiece of a cocktail, but it takes you 15 minutes to make it. It looks nice in pictures, but in service nobody’s happy.”

Over at Hook & Ladder, beverage director Chris Tucker understands that need for speed. He’s developed a cocktail menu that shows a reverence for time-honored favorites and house specialties that don’t get bogged down in fussiness.

“I think a lot of the bells and whistles were unnecessary,” said Tucker. “The classics are great as they are and don’t need a lot of updating. Let the spirit express itself and do its thing.”

Tucker also created a program for popular cocktails on draft, including a barrel-aged Negroni, to keep service running smoothly. The need for speed applies to both ends of the bar. The more cocktails that go out, the more tips a bartender receives.

Spots like Shady Lady still haven’t eliminated their disclaimer for patience, but around Sacramento, that balance of quality and timeliness seems to be getting closer for cocktails.

“It’s registering that, yeah, this isn’t your typical vodka cranberry and will take a few more steps,” said Tucker. “We’re constantly learning better and more efficient ways to do our tasks. But a slow bartender is still a slow bartender.”

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