Shaking Up the Beat: Music in Bars

Why music matters while enjoying a drink

Music can make or break the atmosphere of a bar.

During the many, many years I spent "going to college," I worked in restaurants, and music was always a big part of the job. I remember vividly the tension in one kitchen over our prep-work soundtrack — our chef would only play techno, our dishwasher would only play the Prestige sessions of the Miles Davis Quintet, the other cook would only play Guns N Roses. When we finally settled on vintage funk, the unity was palpable. We were as one, a galley crew on a pirate ship, chopping onions on the downbeat.

In bars, it’s no different: "I always take the hour or two before a shift to get my head in the right place," says H. Joseph Ehrmann, the owner of Elixir in San Francisco and a advisory board member. "I want to hear something rocking before I go out there. Something that has me in a good mood, ready to smile, talk to people, and create an atmosphere that rocks." That often means Led Zeppelin II, the Doors’ self-titled debut album, Radiohead’s The Bends and, lately, The Black Keys.

Allen Katz co-owner of Brooklyn’s New York Distilling Company and its bar, The Shanty, as well as another advisory board member, was even more specific, insisting that for opening, nothing will do except for George Jones’ classic "We Can Make It."

And sometimes, the song selection is ritualistic. "Every night at midnight, we play ‘Took My Lady Out To Dinner’ by King Khan & the Shrines and do a shot of Old Grand-Dad [Bourbon]," says Colin Shearn, the general manager of The Franklin Mortgage and Investment Company in Philadelphia. "It’s called team-building and is essential to staff morale."

Joanna Leban, longtime drink-slinger at the down-and-dirty New York honky tonk Doc Holliday’s reports that the right tune can also make patrons thirsty. When she puts on "Straight Tequila Night" by John Anderson, she says, "it usually gets people thinking Jose Cuervo!"

It’s time to hit the jukebox…

Max Watman is the author of Chasing the White Dog: An Amateur Outlaw’s Adventures in Moonshine.

This article was originally published at Shaking Up the Beat. For more stories like this, subscribe to for the best of all things cocktails and spirits.