Celebrity bartender Charlotte Voisey, who introduces Hey Bartender at TIFF Bell Lightbox on Wednesday, says there’s more to being a barkeep than slicing fruit.
If you think being a bartender is a just matter of slicing fruit, polishing glasses and mixing drinks, think again.
There’s a lot of work involved before a bar opens every night and the most important is psychological.
So says Charlotte Voisey, a celebrity bartender who will introduce a screening Wednesday of the documentary Hey Bartender at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.
The film by Douglas Tirola examines the renaissance of craft cocktail culture in the U.S.
Looking back at the golden age of the cocktail, when a bartender was the royalty of the working class, a person of trust, Tirola’s documentary is more than a history lesson. The film features fancy drinks — Dale DeGroff, the famed creator of the cosmopolitan, dazzles the camera while shaking up a whiskey smash — but it also focuses on the work of being a bartender.
“It’s important to look beyond the theatrics,” says Voisey, a U.K. native who founded London’s Apartment 195 in 2002, speaking on the phone from New York. Before they open, bartenders need to slice fruit, press juice and polish glassware, but “you need that quiet time to . . . get yourself in the proper mindset so you can deal with people and help them have a good night.”
Aja Sax, guest services manager at the Beverley Hotel on Queen St. W., says the most important thing a bartender can do is check their issues at the door.
“We’re in sales, so if you’re distracted by something in your personal life you’re not going to give your guest the full attention they deserve,” she says. “People are curious about what goes into cocktails nowadays; they care about specific spirits. But they’ve sometimes had a rough day. You need to entertain them.”
With its late-night hours and early mornings, the job also entails many sacrifices. Unless you’re involved with someone in the industry who works similar hours, relationships are tough, and forget about seeing your mom on Mother’s Day. “It’s the busiest brunch of the year,” she adds.
“You have a vampire lifestyle,” says Sax, who over the last 14 years has mixed drinks at the Rivoli, the Drake Hotel and, most recently, the Huntsman Tavern. Although her new role no longer involves tending bar, she already misses it.
“I’m launching an industry night in June and I’ll be behind the wood so that bartenders can come in and relax on their nights off.”
Some bartenders set their eyes on corporate roles as brand ambassadors.
Jenner Cormier’s life changed forever when he became Canada’s finalist for Diageo’s World Class competition last June. Since then, he has represented Diageo’s Reserve brand at events all over Canada, trained with top bartenders like Tony Abou-Ganim in Las Vegas and travelled to distilleries all over the world.
“Life has not been the same since I won,” he says. But the Halifax native, a perennial host, does miss working at his own bar and slinging cocktails for nine hours. “I think it’s the creative aspect and the interactions with people across the bar that I miss the most.”
Voisey, who is featured in the film and looks forward to visiting Toronto’s cocktail scene for the first time, hopes that documentaries like Hey Bartender will further the recognition of cocktails as a culinary art. Grand restaurants sometimes feature lacklustre cocktails and restaurant reviews rarely go in-depth on the cocktail menu.
“The gastronomy movement has really helped cocktails,” she adds. “There are celebrity chefs all over television, but we’re about 15 years behind them.”
Hey Bartender screens at TIFF Bell Lightbox at 6:30 p.m. on May 28 as part of the Food on Film series hosted by Matt Galloway. Voisey will introduce the film and lead a post-screening Q&A. See tiff.net For tickets and info.