Masters of Craft: A trip to the bar

In today’s new economy—in which “good” jobs are typically knowledge or technology based—many well-educated and culturally savvy young men are instead choosing to pursue traditionally low-status manual labor occupations as careers. Masters of Craft by Richard Ocejo looks at the renaissance of four such trades: bartending, distilling, barbering, and butchering. Check back each week for a post by the author on one of these jobs. First up, learn more about the art of bartending.

OcejoOn a busy Friday night at Death & Co., a well-known cocktail bar in the East Village, Alex, one of tonight’s bartenders, takes the order of a customer sitting at the bar who just finished his second drink.

“Would you like to order something else?” he asks while taking away his empty glass and cocktail napkin.

“Yeah, sure.”

“OK, you just had a Conference, and remind me of your first one?”

“I had a La Vina.”

“Do you want to stick with rye?”

“Yeah.”

“OK, do you want to taste the peppery notes or the whiskey?”

“Um, more of the peppery flavors.”

Alex nods and gets to work on his drink. After a few minutes he finishes and places it in front of the customer on a fresh cocktail napkin.

“Here we have a variation of a Sazerac, with an ounce-and-a-half of Rittenhouse rye and half-ounce of cognac. Enjoy.”

Common to each of the occupations I studied is that these workers elevate the status of very common, or even lowbrow, products, services, and consumption spaces and experiences through the work practices they use to make and provide them and the interactions they have with their customers and clients. They also often lower the status of products that are generally regarded as having high status, or at least put them on the same level as low-status ones. The first two cocktails the customer in the above example had ordered—the La Nina and the Conference—are both cocktails that feature rye (with sherry and amaro and with a mixture of other spirits, respectively). Rye isn’t typically a spirit that conjures luxury, like scotch or cognac do. It’s an obscure spirit, rarely found behind average bars. Ryes usually have strong, sharp flavors, and are rarely consumed on their own (or “neat”).

But bars like Death & Co., where bartenders strive to achieve unique flavors in cocktails by precisely Ocejomixing ingredients, love rye because of all the possibilities it gives them to make interesting drinks. As the customer’s order and Alex’s interaction with him show, rye can be mixed with an array of ingredients to make drinks with new flavors, and bartenders reveal its range of possibilities to their customers, such as by asking customers if they prefer its more “peppery” notes. These bartenders certainly don’t reject sacred spirits like scotch and cognac. They just don’t automatically see them as “the best.” Since their aim is creativity and innovation, they prefer a variety of spirits, especially versatile ones. Taste, then, rather than reputation, is key. They therefore reject the initial lure of popular brands, with their name recognition, advertising, and sleek bottling. What’s inside the bottle is far more important than what’s outside it.

There are parallels in the other jobs I studied. Small-scale craft distillers make many of the unusual products cocktail bartenders use. They often emphasize rare ingredients, such as heirloom grains, and unorthodox production methods, such as barrels of different sizes and wood varieties. Barbers at upscale men’s barbershops consider the simple, straight-to-the-point men’s haircut to be a special, life-enhancing experience, rather than a basic, forgettable necessity. And butchers and counter workers at whole-animal butcher shops laud rare and lowly cuts of meat and meat products, such as the flatiron steak and jerky, for their unique flavors, while downplaying such elite staples like the tenderloin and the filet mignon for their relative blandness.

By making and promoting these distinctions to their customers and clients, these workers engage in what I refer to as “omnivorous cultural production.” With this idea I’m building from a well-known concept in the sociology of culture, namely the “cultural omnivore.” This theory claims that today more and more people are becoming open to consuming cultural products (e.g. music, film, food) from outside of their own social strata. Most commonly, we’re seeing well-to-do folk show interest in and knowledge of so-called “lowbrow” and working-class forms of culture, that had never been considered “good” or “quality” before by well-regarded arbiters of taste. And they do so without compromising their own social standing. So burgers and tacos become the subjects of food trends, while bourbon and rye join the ranks of elite spirits.

A key question is where these tastes come from. How do people learn that a flatiron steak is better than a filet mignon because of its bolder flavor profile? Consumers certainly learn from the media and from their peers and social networks, as much research has shown. But they also learn from the people who work with these products and perform these services on a daily basis in these high-end workplaces. These workers essentially create these tastes through their daily work practices. Taste, then, is not natural, or something that is universal. It’s something that is created, and people learn it in different ways.

OcejoRichard E. Ocejo is associate professor of sociology at John Jay College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. His books include Upscaling Downtown: From Bowery Saloons to Cocktail Bars in New York City and Masters of Craft: Old Jobs in the New Urban Economy.