Let’s Get Physical: Training for the Bar

 

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Illustration by David Witt, DWITT All-Purpose Illustrations

Shove a towel inside a pint glass and twist. Feel the strain in your wrists. Stand up. Don’t sit back down for 10 hours. Dig a scoop of ice out of the well. Really get your back into it. Hoist a shaker over your head. Work it back and forth until the drink is cold and your triceps are on fire. Slap the shaker apart. Lean over the counter. Pour. Do it again. Two hundred times every night.

A bartender is many things: a tastemaker, confidant, curator, showman. But also, a physical laborer. Seriously. Perhaps you haven’t noticed the strenuous routine involved in each martini. And perhaps all the landscapers and lumberjacks out there will roll their collective eyes at the thought of making cocktails as taxing work.

But think about all the ways bartending takes a toll on the body. Knees and shoulders absorb the work of lugging kegs and ice blocks. Calluses form on stirring fingers. Shaking and reaching for bottles wrenches the elbows and back. Sleep cycles are erratic at best. Just ask your favorite bartender how they feel on Sunday mornings—you’ll be treated to a litany of aches and pains.

“It’s tough. I always tell these guys, you have to take care of your tools,” says Jesse Held, cocktail consultant for Jester Concepts. “Your body, your feet, your hands, your shoulders. If you’re going to do this for a long time, it wears on you. It’s a grind. I’m living proof. I wake up in the morning and I can’t really walk.”

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Illustration by David Witt, DWITT All-Purpose Illustrations

The life of a rakish bartender—taking shots on the job, working until 2am then drinking until sun-up, shaking a hangover just in time to start the next shift—is beginning to look less charming and more amateurish. The craft cocktail movement is demanding bartenders commit to a noble, lifelong vocation, one that involves professional preparation to stay in the game.

“I want to do this for a long time and not burn out,” says Jordán Gomez, head bartender at Constantine. “If I come in feeling like shit, hung over because I’m partying all the time, it’s going to affect the guest’s experience. If you’re feeling shitty, it’s really hard to make someone else feel good.”

The career-conscious bartender must develop a routine that prepares them for a life of professional calisthenics. It likely involves stretching before every shift, remembering to eat something beforehand and staying hydrated throughout, getting enough sleep, and above all, avoiding undue stress on their body.

Shaking cocktails has never been easy work. Take for example when Henry Ramos popularized the Ramos Gin Fizz at The Stag in New Orleans. The drink became so popular that The Stag employed a brigade of bar-backs whose only job was to dry-shake cream and egg whites to create the drink’s signature froth.

In “Famous New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix ’Em,” Stanley Clisby Arthur writes: “The corps of busy shaker boys behind the bar was one of the sights of the town during Carnival, and in the 1915 Mardi Gras, 35 shaker boys nearly shook their arms off, but were still unable to keep up with the demand.” And while “shook their arms off” might sound like a bombastic turn of phrase, it’s not too far from the reality.

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Illustration by David Witt, DWITT All-Purpose Illustrations

“I had a huge issue with my right elbow for awhile until I changed my shake style,” says Robb Jones of Spoon & Stable, who, like many bartenders, adopted a violent, jackhammer-style of shaking popularized by his mentor, Chicago bartender Toby Maloney. “We all were shaking like that for a while. Now I make sure to change directions.” A slight rolling motion, instead of a straight back-and-forth, can help with the strain. Jones also makes sure to keep the tins away from his ears. Yes, tinnitus is a real bartending hazard.

Shaking a cocktail is a sure-fire path to repetitive stress. Thus bartenders adopt shaking motions that keep the strain away from their neck and spine. Some press the shaker low and forward with both arms, like they’re kneading bread dough. Others shake with their arm raised outward, like throwing a football, which engages the biceps to relieve stress from the elbow.

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Illustration by David Witt, DWITT All-Purpose Illustrations

Stirring a drink can be equally treacherous. Instead of cranking a stirring spoon from the wrist, they can let the spoon do the work by holding it in their weaker fingers and let the motion come from the forearm. When pouring, they should avoid gripping the strainer with an extended index finger (try that once and feel the pressure all over your hand). Instead, they can hold it gently with two fingers near the rim of the glass.

“If it hurts, don’t do it,” says Gomez. “Every time we have a meeting, I finish it by saying ‘be healthy.’” It may seem obvious, but it’s all too easy to get trapped by the pace of the job—to forget to eat or stretch, or to choose to power through the pain with whiskey and ibuprofen. And consider that most bartenders pay for health insurance out of pocket. Better habits in the short term can help avoid paying off a huge deductible.

Foot care is a great area to begin thinking about overall wellness. Poor foot support leads to weak knees, aching backs, and slacking shoulders. “Pretty early I got into the habit of [wearing] custom insoles for your feet,” says Kris Gigstad of Eat Street Social. “I had some plantar fasciitis, my feet were already kind of torn up before I started. I stretch my calves before shifts. Afterwards, I keep 20-ounce bottles full of water in my freezer. Every night I get home and just roll my feet over them.” He’ll then repeat the motion with golf balls to work out the kinks.

And while a bartender can do plenty to avoid injury, an architect can do them a huge favor by considering ergonomics in the design of a new bar. Installing foot pedals on sinks, for example, saves thousands of wrist cranks on the faucets. Organizing drink-making stations like cockpits—having every tool and bottle at the ready—reduces the number of steps each drink demands.

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Illustration by David Witt, DWITT All-Purpose Illustrations

Bartenders quickly learn the toll of the job, but take pride in paying it. “You look at my hands after a busy weekend, and they’re beat to shit,” says Tim Leary, bartender at Tattersall Distillery. “You just keep going. Like chefs are appreciative of the scars they have. They tell a story. And as much as my hands hurt on Sunday, I’m proud of them, because we kicked ass.”

And then on the seventh day, they should rest. Proper state of mind is paramount for wellness. At least one day a week, bartenders need time to recharge. Time to read and research cocktails. Time to catch up with family and friends outside of the industry. Time to get a massage or a manicure, or meet with a chiropractor or acupuncturist.

While the physical aspect of bartending may go unnoticed to those outside the job, you can be assured that anyone currently in the cocktail game is, or should be, taking note. “With the quality of people doing this right now, if you want to stay relevant you have to pay attention,” Leary says. “It’s part of the job. It’s something that you accept if you’re going to do this. You’re an adult, you do the things necessary. You grow up.”

 
John Garland About John Garland

John Garland is the Deputy Editor at the Growler Magazine. Find him on twitter (@johnpgarland) or in every coffee shop on West 7th Street.

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