In many ways, bartending has long been a position of little glamour. Historically, it’s suffered from fairly negative stereotypes. Restaurants as recently as 15 or 20 years ago used to have clear separations on the types of places you go to get a drink versus the places you go to have a good meal.
But that line has thinned in Columbia in the past decade, to the point where a bar program isn’t just a luxury, but almost a necessity for higher-end restaurants.
“Looking back, things like the Food Network changed people’s perception of chefs,” offers Josh Streetman, head barman at Motor Supply Co. Bistro. “Their opinion actually suddenly mattered to people, unlike before when they were just slogging back in the kitchen.
“Bartending is moving in that direction as well. People used to come for standard drinks, standard things that they ask for, and your job was to whip it out as fast as possible. But now there’s a creative aspect that’s expected out of the restaurant.”
Indeed, broadened interest among diners has spurred rapid evolution when it comes to bar programs. Unlike before, when drinks were in many ways just drinks, bar programs today exist to heighten the overall experience, offering something that can evoke an emotional response, whether due to a perfect pairing or some thought-provoking sentiment behind the mix of flavors.
“I’ve been recently trying to approach ingredients for drinks in a way chefs would approach ingredients for a plate,” explains Jason Davis, general manager and head of the bar program at Bone-In Barbeque. He previously managed the bar at Tallulah, an ambitious local eatery that closed last year.
“As opposed to saying, ‘I just want to make this plate of food,’ and then picking ingredients to go with it, I’m starting with an ingredient and saying, ‘What can I do with this ingredient in a glass?’” Davis says. “Back when I was at Tallulah I tried a few things there that were thought-provoking for me to make and for the customer to drink from as well. I like people to ask me questions not only before a drink but while they are drinking it to see what they get. Not everyone is going to like it, which is fine, but to see that moment when people go, ‘Oh wow,’ that really gets me.”
Davis is one of many bartenders in the city that has sought to push the boundaries of how we think about drinks, using inspirations such as history, personal experience and travel to develop drinks like his recent creation Say Cheese.
For this drink, Davis uses a technique known as fat washing to combine mezcal and cheese together, removing the cheese but leaving a rich, smoky flavor. It is balanced with citrus and a prickly pear simple syrup.
“The mezcal alone is amazing, but to get this oily, salty flavor out of mezcal and pair it with the antithesis of a sour acid and sweet, slightly savory note from the prickly pear kind of balances the whole thing out,” Davis says.
Davis finishes the cocktail by rubbing the glass with a raw piece of tarragon, giving the drink a nose that immediately tackles you.
To get there is a process of constant creation and refinement that is not that far removed from what goes on in the kitchen. Davis explains that a cocktail can go through countless trials and come out as something entirely different from the starting goal due to the variance that mere drops of different products could have on the final outcome.
It’s not just the creative process that stands out for bartenders but also the ability to take a creative bar program and merge it into the existing restaurant.
For Streetman — who has spent more than 20 years in the bartending business, the past nine as head barman at Motor Supply — the pursuit of refinement has played a critical role in his success.
“Working at a restaurant that is as innovative as Motor Supply is and has been so long, it’s really our responsibility as bar managers to put together something with that program that not only kind of puts my tag on things a bit and shows my personality, but also do something that appeals to the crowd,” Streetman says.
“I have to know the market, what suits our restaurant and points in the direction we are going. I don’t necessarily need to be innovative. I’ve made this mistake trying to do something way too intricate. What we’re trying to do is get the tires on the road and do something that matches each other and work together and I think that really shows when you can see all the pieces of the puzzle come together.”
In both their sheer creativity and the thoughtful way they integrate their programs into their restaurants, Streetman, Davis and others in the city are very much earning any comparisons they might get to chefs — something which even 10 years ago may not have been a thought.
“I totally think we are [chefs] and should be considered so,” Davis declares. “I think most chefs get that, too. I think our background and knowledge of product is comparable. There’s back and forth. It’s a cool dynamic we have because we are all playing with flavors and playing with people’s palates and minds. We are all working on a product for someone else to enjoy.”