Behind the Scenes with 'Hey Bartender'
What do you get when you combine footage from three years' worth of bar-hopping, bartending, and cocktail-innovating? A documentary filled with drool-worthy drinks, the history of bartending and cocktail culture, and the rise of bartenders in America.
If you geek out over cocktails, cocktail culture, and the ultimate cocktail bars in every city, it's hard to imagine you won't be geeking out over the new documentary hitting theaters, Hey Bartender. And even if you don't freak out over cocktails, well, this movie might change your mind. Director Douglas Tirola spent many late nights over three years filming and producing the documentary, which closely follows the trajectories of two bartenders — and two bartenders you might not expect. On one hand, there's up-and-coming mixologist (if bartenders like to be referred to by their heavily connotated profession) Steve Schneider, of the New York City hot spot Employees Only. And on the other hand, there's Stephen Carpentieri of Westport, Conn., bar Dunville's. And while the two may outwardly seem like two men with nothing in common but a glass in their hands, the two bartenders equally play as the heroes behind the bar — in some ways, a band of bartenders.
Tirola says the project at first was going to focus on the role of the corner bar. "Then two things happened," he told The Daily Meal. "First, I got an apartment two blocks away from Employees Only." It quickly becaome his go-to bar, where he met Schneider. Then, he met a friend who introduced him to the Roosevelt Hotel's Library Bar in Los Angeles. Those two bars exposed him to craft cocktails and reshaped what he pictured a bar to be. "Those bars, Studio 54, Platinum, those influential bars of the '70s and '80s — those bars today are Employees Only, PDT, Clover Club," said Tirola. It took the Jim Meehans, Julie Reiners, and the cocktail king himself, Dale DeGroff, to overhaul cocktail culture to what it is today.
For Carpentieri, he says, the production of Hey Bartender put him on the spot to see his life unfold through a fresh set of eyes: the good times, and the bad times. And while he was worried that Dunville's, a bar he bought after working a white-collar job, wouldn't succeed, he ultimately realized he wanted to provide a level of service and drinks that would make his customers want more. "I think I'm lucky to have my eyes opened [to cocktail culture] before it was too late," he says. "I realized that we didn't have to be a New York City bar, but that we could do exactly what they're doing: offer craft cocktails made right. We can make them a great drink." In that way, he says, any bar can bring cocktail culture to everyone. And he certainly loves making fresh margaritas for thirsty customers now.
The other hero in the story, Schneider, says he's thankful to have "grown up" through the process of filming Hey Bartender. (He even told us us he was shy when he first started filming, something we couldn't even imagine now.) The film follows Schneider's journey from apprentice bartender to principal bartender, a jacket he's still proud to wear nearly two and a half years later. He's since graduated to bar manager of Employees Only. "I'm just really lucky," he says. "It was a lot of hard work that paid off." Like his mentor, Dushan Zaric, who went from dishwasher to Employees Only owner, Schneider also has big dreams for his career: more competitions, more innovation. (He said they're "testing" out a shaker to be used in space at Employees Only — "because you know those rich guys partying up on the moon in 30 years will want one.") "Every day I remember that day [receiving my principal bartender's jacket] and prove myself," he says. "I want to do the best I can every day."
Scheider's parting words from his journey making Hey Bartender could easily be applied to both Schneider and Carpentieri: never give up. And it's why bartenders today are given the due respect they deserve, says Tirola. Tirola, after talking with just about everyone in the cocktail business, said he and his film came to this conclusion: bartending is a profession no one is ashamed to admit to. It's not a "backup" job anymore, "but a real craft profession using your hands, a real talent," he says. And in that way, it's why cocktails everywhere from Employees Only to Dunville's are just getting better and better. "Dunville's may never be PDT," Tirola says. "But it can still make really, really good drinks." Lucky for us.