The documentary Hey Bartender, now open in New York, as well as on itunes and Video on Demand, traces the revitalization of the cocktail scene through the personal journeys of two bartenders. One is a former U.S. Marine whose second act finds him climbing the ladder at one of New York City’s premiere cocktail bars. The other is the owner of a Connecticut neighborhood pub who reluctantly learns to embrace the world of mixology. Director Doug Tirola chatted with TIME about the cocktail community and the thrill of watching a craft bartender at work.
Do you view the corner bar and the artisanal cocktail movement as being in competition with one another?
I don’t necessarily see them in competition with each other. What we associate with the corner bar—which for better or worse, probably reminds people of Cheers, the home away from home–is that continuity, that idea that you go to the same place a couple times a week and that’s your place. The value on that continuity and that community is something that I think younger people and society in general today cherishes less. People aren’t as loyal to things the way that they used to be. For people under 35, it’s much more about what’s the latest and the greatest, and not developing a long-term relationship.
The movie focuses in large part on New York. Are there other cities you’ve noticed that have a great cocktail scene but are under the radar?
There might be one or two people in any city—certainly more in many cities—that have really embraced classic cocktails. I think that spreads when they bring that knowledge to their city. For places that you don’t expect, Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio have great bar programs. Portland, Maine has people making great cocktails inside restaurants and at bars. It’s starting to become more prevalent everywhere.
What do you consider to be the golden age of cocktails?
Some people think the 1880s and 1890s were the golden age of the cocktail because they were inventing a lot of them then. I think this will be considered a golden age right now, this last ten years, when we look back at it. You need some perspective to be able to identify it as a golden era, but I think what’s happening now will be considered a special moment. Places like PDT and Employees Only and Clover Club, they are collectively the Studio 54 of now—meaning they are the places to go at this moment.
In the movie, Steve Schneider of Employees Only seems to bristle a little bit at the term mixologist. Do craft bartenders tend to shy away from the mixologist label?
Soon after we started filming, within the cocktail community it seemed like two camps were being set up. One was bartenders—whether that’s a corner bar bartender or a guy that’s making classic cocktails and wants to be called a bartender. And then there were mixologists. I think the mixology term meant that you had more concern with the science of it, the technical aspect of it. And fairly or not, that also became associated with caring about your guests a little less. Then people [in the cocktail world] started to realize that going out is about having a great experience. The guest is the star of this show, not the bartender. So rejecting the mixologist term became a way of saying, I’m recognizing that this is really about giving people a great experience and offering them what they want. Over the time we were filming, those two worlds have kind of come together. Whether you call someone a mixologist or a bartender, bartenders want to make great drinks and mixologists certainly care about their guests.
Where do you see the movement going within the next few years?
I want to believe that the cocktail movement is going to follow the path of foodie culture and what happened with wine years ago. I don’t think the path for cocktails is that the corner bar that exists in every small town turns into a high-level cocktail bar like PDT. I think what you’ll see is, at your basic nice restaurant in every town, those places will adapt to much more of a contemporary mixology-influenced way of serving drinks. When you go into a corner pub, they’re not going to change everything they do. But they will offer some classic cocktail menu, or a local organic cocktail menu. In the same way that a chef is going to a farmers’ market to get stuff to make the specials for that night, a bartender might go to a farmers’ market and pick up some things they can infuse their spirits with and use to create a cocktail. Each place will adapt it to how it works for them.