What I've Learned Covering Cleveland's Fancy Drinks: Our Departing Cocktail Writer Looks Back on a Booze-Filled Year and the Lessons it Taught Him

Bartending is a Young Person's Game

A bartender just starting out might make $3.98 an hour before tips, the minimum wage for a tipped employee in Ohio. If he or she is really good, the base pay will be more like $5 to $10 per hour. If these numbers seem low to you, guess what? That's what most front-of-house staffers are making at the restaurants you frequent. It works out to a living wage after tips, depending on your definition of "living wage," but it's still a modest income. An experienced, salaried bar manager around town might make as much as $40,000 a year with benefits, while a bartender at a high-volume bar like Market Garden Brewery or Barley House might bring home $700 with tips on a busy night.

Bartending is a physically demanding job that is done on one's feet in the middle of the night. To make a career of it is to sometimes forgo certain luxuries like health insurance or watching your kids grow up. Consequently, the American Dream isn't entirely inaccessible to those behind the pine, but you really have to want it. Most people don't, so they quit. Can you blame them? Chances are good that your favorite bartender will leave some day to accept a job that he can do in a chair during the day, no matter how well you tip.

What Young Bartenders Lack in Experience They Make Up With Education

The median age of craft cocktail bartenders in Cleveland is around 25, which presents a serious void of experience. Luckily, the United States Bartenders' Guild is around to fill that gap. Founded in 2011, the Cleveland chapter seeks to educate its members, build camaraderie, and even help solve the health insurance problem.

Members regularly attend seminars to learn about everything from bartending and hospitality basics to the latest trends. They're given access to industry leaders and master distillers along with the opportunity to participate in national competitions to build their prestige. That means that you and I are able to get consistent, knowledgeable service in an area of hospitality that still is in its infancy in Cleveland.

Get Off My Lawn

When youthful inexperience is combined with outstanding education, bars and restaurants in Cleveland tend to follow the same trends at the same time (e.g. barrel-aged cocktails). Surprisingly, a number of veteran bartenders have scoffed about the new guard, but they do have a point: How does one separate those who are just following trends from those who actually care about the craft? The answer, of course, is, "Who cares?" I've never talked to a single bartender in this town who wasn't working really hard and, as they say, a rising tide lifts all boats.

Outside Influence

Two of the best drinking experiences I've had here over the past year were at Mahall's in Lakewood and Porco Lounge in Ohio City. While most bar menus around town are inspired by classic cocktails, Mahall's takes inspiration from modern classics whipped up in New York City bars like Milk & Honey and PDT. Meanwhile, Porco's concept was inspired by tiki bars that owner Stefan Was visited during his travels. Both are proof that the local cocktail scene can benefit greatly from getting away from itself. It already has.

People Who Work for Great Chefs Tend to Make Great Drinks

Some bartenders are born with developed palates and can concoct amazing drinks from early on (Lorilei Bailey at the Katz Club, for example), but most get there only after years working at one or more of Cleveland's best chef-driven restaurants. Chefs who care a lot about their ingredients tend to hire bartenders who make fantastic, original drinks. Places like Flying Fig, Fire, Toast, Lolita, Greenhouse Tavern and Spice – and those staffed by their alums – are prime examples.

I Was Wrong About Fernet-Branca

When I predicted that Fernet-Branca would be the next trend in Cleveland drinks, what I meant to say was that it would remain an inside joke among bartenders. A digestif that tastes like a dirty diaper filled with Indian food will never have widespread appeal here.

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