Behind the Bar

Making Your Mark on a Bar Program

Chris Hannah behind the bar
Chris Hannah joined Arnaud's French 75 with the mission to make cocktails at the level of the best bars in the world, but to also do so in a classic manner. Photo: Jenn Farrington.

Imagine your bar is a band — with its own rhythm, its own style, its own hallmark beats — and you’re an up and coming guitarist. You’ve been yearning to perform a solo, but you’re not quite sure — will it actually make the band’s songs better? Or will it clash, drawing attention to your performance for all the wrong reasons? We’re all in search of that tension that keeps everything in harmony but also keeps band members engaged, eager for their turn, and happy to push the music forward to be the best that it can be.

Staying true to both yourself and your bar requires an understanding of just how much self-expression works within a given bar’s circumstances. We’ve boiled those circumstances down to a few archetypes, and solicited the advice of those who have already found ways to let their soloists shine while keeping the band — errr, bar — grooving.

Taking over as lead singer

When a bar has achieved a certain level of acclaim, it can be hard for a new lead bartender to come in without throwing off the rhythm. At The Aviary in Chicago, when beverage director Charles Joly departed, Micah Melton was a natural choice to take over — he had been with the band since day one. “Charles had helped me hone my ideas,” Melton says. “He taught me that I didn't have to over complicate builds for drinks, and that sometimes less is definitely more.”

Melton advises taking cues from the rest of the team, but also finding ways to keep things fresh — whether new presentations, new glassware or new spirits. Most importantly, though, he says, “make drinks for your guests, not yourself. Not everybody is into your housemade, barrel-aged, aromatized Malort and 14-amaro based, blue-colored cocktail. Make sure you are designing things that your bar’s guests actually want to drink.”

Launching a new supergroup

In Atlanta this past spring, Shanna Mayo was brought on as managing partner to launch a bar called AMER. It wasn’t her concept — owner/partner Brian Lewis and the late David Durnell had come up with the idea and had pushed it forward — but Mayo was a critical piece in actually opening AMER and getting it running. “For opening,” Mayo says, “it was important for me to see the original concept come to life. I watched my homie [Durnell] work on this project for a long time, and I was fortunate to see the bar through its development phase. Staying true to AMER’s original vision will continue to be important to me as the bar evolves. I will always feel as if this is my friend’s bar, and mine, together.”

Having a strong team also helps — “I have an incredible bar staff, (and) their input is crucial to running a balanced, well-rounded program. Even though I have the last say, we bounce ideas off of one another on a daily basis. We are all on the same page about how we want our bar perceived.” Mayo also suggests actually writing out what the bar stands for, what it is trying to deliver on a daily basis. That way, everyone has a continual reference point for whether ideas make sense or not.

Keeping the old hits relevant

Arnaud’s opened in New Orleans in 1918 and has long been among the elite of Creole restaurants in the French Quarter. In 2003, the Arnaud’s team rechristened the little bar next to the restaurant as the French 75 Bar, and bartender Chris Hannah joined the team the very next year. “At the time,” Hannah says, “there weren’t any old guard New Orleans restaurants and bars on the same page as this new cocktail renaissance we found ourselves in, and my mission was to prove we could indeed keep pace ... I saw a beautiful old bar, and I wanted it to make cocktails at the level of the best bars in the world, but to also do so in a classic manner.”

For Hannah, the critical element was finding the ability to look backwards and forwards at the same time. “No matter what we do, we’re still doing the same thing bartenders were doing 100 years ago … which is making fun and interesting takes on standards. The more you do this, the more your ego stays out of the way, and you can focus more upon hospitality.” And Hannah continues to keep things fresh by continually bringing in new spirits, and “always changing ways to make classics our own, always trying to do something different that is local.”

And fortunately for everyone, he simply fit right in at Arnaud’s. “I never wanted to do molecular mixology or wear a t-shirt behind the bar. I (even) wear cufflinks and bowties on my days off when I go out … The advice I would give to other bartenders trying to strike the right balance … would be to find the bar that most resembles your soul. After that the balance act becomes less of that — an act.”

Being the house band

At the Langham, a legendary London hotel, bartender Alex Kratena was given a fairly blank slate in helping to establish the Artesian – the bar that would go on to win multiple accolades as best bar in the world. It had to fit within the environment of the hotel, but it could also have its own personality. “The advantage I had,” he says, “was that The Langham never had a famous cocktail bar… The last thing I wanted was for it to become another 5-star hotel bar. In my eyes, that room was destined to become a completely different breed of animal … fun and unpretentious, focusing on genuine hospitality and amazing drinks. We simply asked ourselves: what should a modern hotel bar look like?”

Kratena suggests starting with that type of grounding – understanding what the establishment aims to be, who the guests are, what the environment is. “For Artesian, it was London, 21st century, a city with some of the most experimental drinkers, with guests ranging from international travelers to residents from surrounding neighborhoods and industry people.” With that big picture understanding in place, “when you get an idea … answer the critical questions: Will this work? How will guests react? Will people understand it? How will it make them feel? Solve those and you’ll be fine; what doesn’t work, discard right away.”

And lastly, advice from the man who decided last year to leave the best bar in the world, for if being true to the bar and true to yourself becomes a struggle: “If you feel that the bar is not your project, if your heart and mind are not in it anymore, move right away to a different place that is close to your heart. Create your own universe.”

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