Set ’em Up, Joe
The holidays, particularly New Year’s Eve, used to conjure up scenes of boisterous partying, particularly at drinking establishments. Things have toned down a bit over time, but always at the center of it all—whether it’s a crowd or one patron—is the bartender. Part M.C., part sheriff, part counselor, the bartender is—or hopes to be—in control.
So, what’s the job like in the Hub City? Aberdeen Magazine reached out to bartenders at many local bars for a picture.
What got you into bartending?
Burckhard: I applied to bartend as soon as I turned 21 because it’s something I felt like I would always like doing. It always seems like interesting job learning all the different drinks and serving customers.
Olson: I started with a second part-time job to my full-time office job, then it became full-time after the office job ended.
Andrus: It was really good money and taught me good people skills.
Sidener: When my family decided to start a brewery, I thought it would be a perfect chance to work with people.
Schulz: I simply got the opportunity to become the bar lead and create drinks as well as be the one trying all the cool and, sometimes, weird liquor that exists in the world. Honestly, I was looking for a change from my previous job. Not terribly different from a bartender, I was a barista before. One thing I loved about being a barista was my regulars. It’s fantastic that a lot of my coffee patrons are now my bar patrons.
Stahl: Seemed like a job for me. Cheers is my favorite show ever, and I wanted to be Sam Malone growing up. I started applying for bartending jobs the day after I turned 21.
Swain: My first bartending job was the Roncalli Ball at the high school gym in 1982. I got my first taste of bartending. It was a fun atmosphere: just open, pour the drinks, and enjoy.
What do you like about it?
Andrus: I’m rarely bored, and it’s faster paced compared to most jobs.
Sidener: What I like about working at the OLP is I get to meet new people from all over. I also get to hear the stories of people who have lived in Aberdeen who may be visiting or moving back.
Olson: I like being able to visit with people from locals to visitors. I have met a lot of people from all over the country.
Schulz: I love finding the way all the pieces fit together. From the classic cocktails to the beers currently in demand, to figuring out the perfect combination of a base spirit to a liqueur—it’s a ton of fun!
Knight: I like being out in the open around people instead of having to be behind a counter or desk. I like the challenge of trying to provide a good enough experience, that they will come back on a regular basis.
Burckhard: I love the history of alcohols and how they tie into the history of man. I also love the science behind it, so I study up a lot and watch a lot of documentaries.
Stahl: All the co-workers I’ve worked with, bar and kitchen workers are the best people in the world. I love talking to the customers also. People think bartenders have the answer to anything and it’s fun to listen to them.
What do you dislike?
Knight: Even though I would consider myself a night owl, after about eight years of working until 2 AM five nights a week, it can get old. But that is where the money is. You take the good with the bad and make the most of it.
Schulz: Sometimes, customer service/customer facing jobs are simply chaotic. Sometimes, people are rude. Customer service is sadly still looked upon as “not a real job,” so I get to come up with creative answers to those questions—about when I’m getting a real job—every so often.
Andrus: People can really, really suck.
Every bartender has stories…
Schulz: One time I was muddling some mint for a mojito, and I was using my left hand to steady the highball glass while using the muddler with my right hand. A server asked me a question about what type of IPAs we have, and I almost dropped the glass, so I quickly grabbed it and crushed it in my left hand. Didn’t hurt myself, but it was kind of neat crushing a glass. The mint did not survive the encounter either.
Sidener: My favorite stories are when people come to the brewery to have a few beers but find themselves interacting with old friends or old babysitters or old neighbors. I once had two groups of people come in, a young man and a couple. When they started talking and found out the last name of the young gentlemen, the woman recognized it and realized she went to prom with the young man’s father many years ago. He called his father, and she was able to talk to an old friend from many years ago. This young man was only in Aberdeen for work and happened to come in to the OLP at the perfect time.
Swain: Waiting on professional baseball players, celebrities or music people who performed in Aberdeen, travelers, and local town people. Asking Kent Hrbek about pulling off Ron Gant off first base in the ‘91 World Series (between Winstons and Windsors, he said he’s a clumsy guy), talking with Tom Brokaw, chatting with country musician Terri Clark after I closed the bar, waiting on Brewer and Shipley and asking them about their One Toke over the Line song, talking baseball with the Oak Ridge Boys at the bar (they are part owners of the Nashville Sounds Triple A club). I’ve seen a variety of fights—one started in Brass Rail, moved into the lobby, and ended there. During hunting season, you can still get an occasional altercation, like it’s the wild west. The Budweiser traveling hypnotist was a fun guy some of my customers and I partied with at the Brass Rail. That’s all I can say on that one.
Andrus: Well, I haven’t had to fight anyone on the job but have come close. Every once in a while, you get people that come in on drugs or have had a few too many that need to be thrown out.
What are your long-term plans?
Sidener: I enjoy being a bartender so I hope to do this for as long as my family needs me, and I also hope to learn more about the brewing process so I can do more to help.
Knight: I’ve always enjoyed being a bartender, so it’s hard for me imagine doing something plain and boring. I honestly don’t have a long-term plan other than to maybe hopefully own the bar someday
Stahl: I don’t have any other plans to do anything different in my life. I feel this work is what I was meant to do.
Burckhard: I bartend and play music for a living. There’s no retiring from those things.
Is there a community of Aberdeen bartenders?
Burckhard: I would say it’s not so much of a community of bartenders as a mutual admiration society. There’s definitely a respect amongst bartenders for each other.
Andrus: We all know who each other is and definitely look out for one another. It’s not just exclusive to bartenders but more just the bar wait staff in general.
Knight: It’s like an unorganized fraternity of service industry workers all around town. We probably don’t know a lot about each other as people, other than we both work at bars. But that alone is easy enough to strike up a conversation or figure out a way to bond. It happens quite often.
Swain: At Brass Rail, I’d stay open for some of the people who worked at bars and restaurants to have a place to go after work.
Stahl: Absolutely. There are some awesome bar workers around town that we all know who they are when they walk in. They are great customers and usually extremely respectful because they know the job.
How has bartending changed over time?
Swain: I worked nights for 20 plus years and then daytime bartending for last 15. I would say drinks like Rob Roys, Old Fashioneds, Manhattans, and Harvey Wallbangers were big when I started and have made a comeback now. Customers probably don’t drink as much as they did in the 80s. Aberdeen had many bar hopping stops on and off Main Street, and you could always find a pretty full bar on any night of the week. Live music was more common in different bars also. The Club 23, Depot Club, Brass Rail, Robbie’s, and The Zoo. The best thing that happened to bars was prohibiting smoking.
Olson: Drinks are more expensive, and customers seem to order fancier drinks like Old Fashioneds and Manhattans. If they drink beer, it’s the higher end IPAs and dark taps. Young and old.
Burckhard: The biggest thing is that bars are not as attended as they once were. It seems that people do not go out in the ways that they used to.
Schulz: I don’t think bartending has changed all that much. I attribute that to humans not changing all that much in the course of time. People like to drink, and they like to talk. Or sulk. Taverns, bars, pubs, they’re all the same—it’s a place to go to talk with friends or sit alone. //
What drink would you most want a patron to buy for you? (Even if they probably can’t drink on the job.)
Andrus: Probably a Washington apple shot or a beer.
Burckhard: Either a sidecar or a Vieux Carré.
Knight: Definitely a cold Blue Moon or easy shot.
Olson: Grey Goose water press.
Schulz: I highly enjoy my Scotch Whiskies! I love Glenfiddich 15 or anything from the Highlands and/or the Speyside region.
Sidener: I’m a big fan of sours, porters, and stouts.
Stahl: Anyone just buying me a good old beer is perfectly fine with me.
Swain: Bloody Mary or Dirty martini Bruise the hell out of it.
Playing for Tips
Music and bars go together. There are lots of songs about bars, drinking, and bartenders (extra points if you got the reference in the title here). None of our bartenders lives out that connection more than Joel Burkhard, a bartender for decades and a musician longer— “I was playing in bars before I was old enough to be in bars,” he says. While tending bar for Maverick’s, he also shreds guitars for The (aptly named) Barstool Prophets.
He remembers “doing shows in small towns on tour. We would go to a bar afterwards, and it would get busy, and the bartender would get in the weeds. I’d say, hey, I bartend; I could help. So I’d help out at the bar—in the middle of Wyoming or somewhere. Seems to happen about once a year.”
A songwriter too, he finds muses at the bar too, noting, “You hear something someone says at a bar and think it’s sadly beautiful. It would make a great song!” He adds, “It reminds me of ‘Here Comes a Regular,’ the song by The Replacements. It’s like the flipside of the Cheers theme song: ‘Oh s—, everybody knows my name!’ If you spend three days a week at a bar, you’ll get lots of inspiration.”
The bartenders didn’t happen to offer stories about working around holidays—they might be just one more night of thousands. Dave Swain had an interesting memory connected to his job. Both bartender and front desk clerk at the Ward Hotel, one holiday season, he checked in some exotic and burlesque dancers who were working at downtown bars. The Silver Dollar, Circus, and other bars that employed them were closed on Christmas day, but not the hotel. So he invited the dancers to the lobby, pulled out the game Risk, and played it with the dancers to celebrate the season.