February 24th is when we celebrate the people that we come to rely on to fuel our good times and dull the pain of our worst… but what is a bartender?
“I do not think that a bartender should be merely a beer slinger… I believe a conscientious bartender, who knows his business, should have a higher aim than simply mixing drinks… In drinking, [a bartender’s] aim must be enjoyment, not [the] inebriation [of our guests].” – William Schmidt, from his book The Flowing Bowl.
William “The Only William” Schmidt is an obscure pioneer of drinking culture that has all but been forgotten. His cocktails were filled with nuanced layers of flavors and scents that came from upwards of 10 ingredients (many of which were his own creations) 120 years before terms like “mixologist” and “mixology” were adopted by the bar industry.
The Only William served $5 cocktails when the going rate for a drink was 15 cents. To put this into perspective, that $5 in 1890 is about $420 in 2019 money… and people lined up for them!
Because of this, newspapers from around the world published Schmidt’s cocktail recipes in their holiday party guides, making him the world’s most famous bartender for nearly 20 years. Yet Schmidt practiced his craft in an obscure bar in one of New York’s rougher neighborhoods.
Instead of pursuing the idolization that motivates smaller minds, Schmidt refined his approach over the years to deliver the best experience to his guests. Schmidt always concentrated on serving and entertaining his guests, making them feel special and valued, rather than just serving drinks. He worked hard to earn his praise rather than feeling entitled to it, and in the process, he redefined an entire aspect of American culture shortly before Prohibition crushed it.
One of his favorite ways to prepare for an evening’s service was to build ornate pyramids of inverted cocktail glasses filled with flowers. While this decoration delighted his guests, it also seasoned the glassware with purposeful aromas for drinks he later served in them.
There is an old-school saying in the world of cocktailing: “a bartender is a rock star that never bothered to learn an instrument.” The Only William was akin to Keith Richards, Kris Kristofferson, David Bowie, and Joan Jet of bartending. In other words, The Only William, is THE definitive role model of what makes a badass behind the bar.
On World Bartender Day, make sure you celebrate your resident rock star by thanking them for always providing good times with drinks that match. Those that have the right stuff to work the stick like it’s a stage, and enjoy it the more you enjoy yourselves, will appreciate your gratitude nearly as much as your gratuities… so make sure you don’t skimp on either.