What It's Like to Grow Up in a Bartending Family

Black and white image of the bar of the Quilpie Hotel, ca. 1921
Men and women have been making their living serving drinks decades before the word “mixologist” entered our lexicon — and in some families, that livelihood is passed down from generation to generation. (Photo: State Library of Queensland via Wikimedia Commons)

For as long as there have been bars, there have been career bartenders. Though the cocktail revolution in the last decade has brought more lifetime professionals into the fold than ever before, men and women have been making their living serving drinks for decades before the word “mixologist” entered our lexicon — and in some families, that livelihood is passed down from generation to generation. In that spirit, we asked a few bartenders with hospitality in their blood to tell us what it’s like growing up in a family of bartenders, bar owners and other hospitality professionals, and to share some of the lessons handed down from their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles behind the bar:

Jill Cockson (Co-Owner, Rabbit & Turtle Beverage Corp.)

Tell us a little bit about your bartending family member(s) — what was their name, what kind of bar did they work in, what were they like?

My dad, James Cockson, owned a small-town bar in Bellwood, Nebraska, in the '70s after he returned from Vietnam. It was his second job, as he was learning the ropes of grocery store management during the day, and bartending at night.

Did you spend time as a kid hanging out in his bar?

I don't remember a lot, because he did not own the bar, Colonel Jesse's, very long. Ultimately, it was a family decision that led him to give up the bar, as my parents weren't necessarily a fan of my brother and I spending so much time there. A few short years later, his boss at the grocery store passed away suddenly, which put him on a full-time track of running grocery stores.

Did your dad's work impact your decision to make a career out of bartending?

I remember being in the bar, and I've always been a night owl, so I was attracted to the people and the generally active atmosphere. It was definitely a testament to my father's work ethic to have two jobs to support a family, and the most important thing I gained from him was his tenacious willingness to work.

Any important lessons your dad passed along to you that inform your work as a bartender?

Between the handwritten ledgers from the grocery store, and counting down the drawer of the bar (and re-sleeving quarters), my dad taught me to appreciate keeping things simple. He had the 'if it's not broke, don't fix it' mentality. He was a U.S. Marine who raised us with adages such as, "Measure twice, and cut once," "Do the right thing," and "If something is worth doing, it's worth doing well." It helps that he was keen with math, and had a very intuitive sense of business. He taught me to appreciate numbers, and what business aspects to pay attention to. Within reason, he was incredibly service oriented. Although he ended up in a different form of customer service, I believe I got my passion for hospitality from him.

'Colonel Jesse' was the nickname my grandmother gave to my father when he returned from Vietnam. His real name is James, but I always grew up hearing her call him Jesse, as in 'Jesse James' … her wild child. As a sidenote, I have a pre-Prohibition tonic syrup company, and the tonic we produce, Colonel Jesse's Small Batch Tonic, is a resurrection of that nickname, and a tribute the the man who taught me to appreciate doing a job well. Cheers!

Gaz Regan (Cocktails in the Country)

Tell me a little bit about your bartending family members.

My parents ran pubs in the UK. They left the business when I was 2 years old, and got back into it when I was 12. The pubs they ran were community centers that served as places “where everyone knows your name” and where the landlord and landlady truly cared about their guests. My maternal grandmother, too, ran a social club at one point, and she helped my parents run their pubs, too.

Did you spend time as a kid hanging out in your parents' pub?

I started working behind the bar at my parents’ pub when I was 14 years old, and they, along with lots of customers at the pub, taught me much about hospitality.

Did your parents impact your decision to make a career out of bartending?

I never thought about doing anything else, apart from being a bar owner, perhaps.

Can you share any important or useful work-related lessons that you learned from your family?

Yes, both my Mother and my Father taught me that, in order to run successful bars, one must consider the welfare of one’s guests above all else.

Sean Kenyon (Williams and Graham)

Tell me a little bit about your bartending family members.

My father Robert Kenyon has been a bartender in New Jersey since the early 70's, currently working at Rudy's in Hackensack. My grandfather, Bennie Berman, was a bartender and former boxer who bartended and owned neighborhood bars in Paterson. My mother, Joyce Berman was a bartender at Diamond Pub in Hawthorne, NJ for a while.

Did you spend time as a kid hanging out in their bars or talking to them about their job? What was that like?

My brother and I spent a lot of time in our dad's bar (the Cellar Door) when we were kids. I was an awkward overweight kid with few friends, so the bar was where I got most of my social interaction. I idolized the bartenders because they were the life of the party and I felt like it was a way for me to find friends. I was right.

Did that sway your decision to make a career out of bartending?

My father did not want me to be a career bartender. Because, in the eighties, it was no way to make a living. No insurance, no benefits, etc. He really didn't accept it until he visited me at Williams & Graham and saw what we were doing. It was cool to be able to show him things rather than the other way around. Now he sees that I've made a career out of something I love and is proud. He'd deny it if you asked, but he taught me everything I know about hospitality.

What are some important or useful work-related lessons you learned from your bartending family members?

Like I noted earlier, my father taught me everything I know about hospitality and how to treat guests and staff. Growing up we always had bar regulars or staff members at our holiday gatherings. If someone had no place to go on the holidays, our home was always open to them. He never sat me down or intentionally taught me anything about bartending, but he had so many words of wisdom that left impressions on me. He taught me how to trust people to do their jobs, empower them. He taught me that if I trust our staff and treat them like family it will come back ten fold. That wisdom has been really important when it was time to create our culture at Williams and Graham. Over the years, I've gained far more by trusting than I have lost to betrayal.

My father is an amazing bartender who has had the same following for over 40 years. I can walk into his bar on any day, and there will be someone who has known me since I was five years old.

Tony Abou-Ganim (The Modern Mixologist)

Tell me a little bit about your bartending family members.

My cousin Helen David (Maiden name Hibye) was born on March 24th, 1915 and opened the Brass Rail Bar on June 15th, 1937 in Port Huron, Michigan at the age of 22. She ran the Brass Rail until her death on July 21st, 2006. The Brass Rail remains in the family today and is run by my cousin Maroun Abou-Ghanem.

In 1980, after my father convinced Helen to teach me to be a bartender and gave me a job at the Brass Rail, in addition to Helen I was taught the craft by my Uncle Charlie Ganim, a career barman for over 50 years prior to his retirement and my cousin Antony Abou-Ghanem, also a career barman, now retired. It’s funny that my full name is Charles Antony Abou-Ganim, which means that I was named after two bartenders!

If there ever was a bar that defined a neighborhood saloon it was the Brass Rail. From sports enthusiasts, to construction and factory workers, hospital employees, policemen, firemen and mailmen, doctors, nurses, lawyers and judges, folks from all walks of life met and socialized at the Brass Rail. Helen once told me that more deals get done at the Brass Rail then in any courtroom or lawyers office in town!

Helen truly mastered the art of hospitality and this is perhaps the best lesson I ever learned from her. She always treated her customers like she would treat friends and family in her own home, often referring to the bar as her living room. “Treat your customers like ladies and gentleman unless they prove they’re not!” I learned many things from Helen but the most valuable was how to treat people and make them feel welcome.

Helen was also famous for serving the lost and forgotten Tom & Jerry during the winter Holidays. It was a drink she first discovered in Detroit sometime after the repeal of Prohibition and something she wanted to serve her guests when she opened the Rail. As the story goes, Helen, along with a group of her girlfriends, sat in Helen’s apartment and experimented with batch after batch of Tom & Jerry batter until they came up with the final recipe, which she revealed on Thanksgiving Day, 1937 and continued to serve every year during the Holidays.

The drink, and Helen, became such a tradition during the Holidays that people would come from all over the state to visit her and have a couple mugs of her warming brew. It was common to see three generations of family members sitting at one of the big booths all sharing a mug of Tom & Jerry. She once told me that the Brass Rail did more business during Tom & Jerry season then the rest of the year combined. The Tom & Jerry is still served today during the Holidays, and is still made following the same recipe that Helen first served back in 1937.

When asked once why she didn’t offer a “Happy Hour” she responded by saying “I serve a fair drink at a fair price, it’s always Happy Hour!”

It was my cousin Tony though who really took me under his wing and taught me the ropes of bartending among other life lessons. Shortly after I started working at the Brass Rail I lost my father in an industrial accident at work and it was my cousin Tony who I turned to help fill that void. To this day it is many of the lessons he taught me that continue to guide both my professional as well as personal life. Tony is now long retired himself and only his brother, my cousin Maroun, continues to work behind the stick and today owns and operates the Brass Rail.

Did you spend time as a kid hanging out at the Brass Rail? What was that like?

It was always a treat when my father would take me to the Brass Rail to see Helen and my Uncle Charlie, his older brother, behind the bar. Also my Uncle Sol (cousin really), Helen’s husband, who had been the beer truck driver who delivered beer to the Brass Rail prior to marring Helen in 1939 and becoming a bartender. He passed away in 1967 and Helen never remarried and never had any children of her own. But it was my Uncle Charlie who I really looked up to and even though I didn’t know it at the time made me aspire to be a bartender. He would take me down into the basement and I would get to put all the empty beer bottles back into their cases for the beer driver to pick up. After that we would take cases of beer back up to the bar and I would re-stock the coolers, making sure to pull the bottles from the back to the front and facing all of the labels. I think maybe my Uncle was just taking advantage of child labor but I sure did love doing it and he would always make me a Shirley Temple in a Tom Collins frosted glass as a reward!

The back bar itself is a thing of beauty that Helen’s father had found in an old hotel and installed it in the ice cream parlor. It has two huge mirrors, with Tiffany lamps, solid red onyx pillars, and carved statues of the Goddess of Wisdom and the Goddess of Knowledge. I will never forget watching my Uncle Charlie in his starched white shirt behind that beautiful bar whipping up classic libations in awe. Guess I got hooked at a very early age!

Did your family inspire you to make a career out of bartending?

My entire bartending family had an impact on my decision to become a career bartender in their each way.

My cousin Helen David, when first approached by my father to make me a bartender in 1980 was hesitant at first. Even though she had run the bar for over 40 years at that point, bartending was not the career she had envisioned for me, she wanted to send me to culinary school to become a chef. Thank God she gave in and along with the rest of my bartending family agreed to teach me the trade. I have now been working behind bars for 37 years and can’t imagine doing anything else (well maybe a concert pianist or professional hockey player).

What did you learn from them?

I learned many lessons from each individual family member, working with each of them, both in how to handle yourself behind the bar as well as in life itself. It’s funny how closely the two worlds reflect one another.

From Helen perhaps the defining lesson was “For a nickel more you go first class!” This can pertain to the crafting of a cocktail whereas one only gets out of a drink what one puts into it and there is no substitute for quality ingredients. And for life I relate this to life not being a dress rehearsal, each day is a gift and should be celebrated, anything worth doing is worth doing first class!

Finally, the art and importance of hospitality! The most import element, after running a profitable establishment, because after all this is the bar business not the bar hobby, is the guest experience. One should not go into this business for themselves or to impress others, but to provide a great experience for our guests who frequent our establishment, for without our guests, happy guests, it won’t be long before we are out of business. Our goal, job really, is to make our customers day better when they leave our bar then when they first walked in and if we can accomplish that we will be very successful!

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