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Buh-Bye, Hipster: Why the Friendly Bartender Is Making a Comeback

The friendly bartender and his dependable vodka tonic are back. Say buh-bye to the hipster bartender and his hand-crafted cocktails of foraged herbs.
Clayton Rollison mixes a drink. Photo by Michael Hrizuk Photos.
Clayton Rollison mixes a drink. Photo by Michael Hrizuk Photos.

Here's news to raise a glass to this year: The trend of the hipster bartender is over.

We've all been there. You just want a plain Jane drink while you're hanging out with friends at the uber-cool new bar, and when you place your order — say, vodka and tonic — the leather-aproned, wax-mustached bartender looks down his nose. Embarrassed, you instead page through the tome of hand-crafted cocktails featuring house-made bitters, locally foraged herbs, distilled fog spirits infused with heritage breed berries, Nordic ice spheres personally carved by the bartender's grandmother in the ice-house constructed of reclaimed Prohibition-era schoolhouse planks, and you point at the 14-ingredient, $18 drink with one recognizable component.

Whatever happened to the friendly bartender?

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Clayton Rollison, who owns Lucky Rooster in Hilton Head, told NBC, “The bar is getting back to customer service. Craft cocktails are just the norm now."

But how did we get from the days of bartender as friend to the opponent across the bar you have to impress with your order before waiting 15 minutes for a drink? That early, easy relationship was only natural, after all, Rollison said.

“If you look at how a restaurant is set up from a service side, it's a lot easier for a bartender to have an intimate experience with guests sitting at bar,” he said. “You're at eye level, only separated by two to three feet. Generally the bartender has some time to engage. There's this communal experience that doesn't necessarily happen at a restaurant table where the server is standing up.”

It's Not You, It's Them

Rollison points to a lack of security as the pivotal factor in the shift away from that relationship. “All of a sudden there are a select group of bartenders doing craft cocktails and learning about something in our history that they're trying to make new and relevant. Just like anything else good, people copy it. They're really passionate about it but customers are still drinking their vodka sodas. [The bartenders] get defensive about it. It creates insecurity.”

While the best bartenders had such superior skill sets they didn't need the guest to validate them, that attitude became the standard. "Who doesn't like to tell the rich 55 year-old-guy when you're 25 that you know more than them? That jerk bartender mentality disseminated through a lot of levels,” said Rollison.

"Learning this new craft, you don't know how to come across humbly," he told NBC. "That insecurity breeds into 'I'm going to show you.'”

But like all trends, “now that we've been doing craft bartending for a longer period of time it's not so crafty,” Rollison said. “Remember when farm to table was cool? Now it's just what you're supposed to be doing. To have a good bar program you have to be able to make a proper Negroni, Manhattan, Boulevardier, know that a martini is gin and vermouth stirred the old style. And customers are comfortable. Bartenders feel more comfortable. Everybody feels safer.”

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Now that more bartenders have this knowledge, “How do I differentiate myself?” Rollison said. “I have to blow you away with customer service. It's just evolution.” And, back on even footing, bartenders can still introduce guests to something new. “Once those people feel safe they're open to trying some things a little at a time outside their comfort zone.”

Like any process of evolution though, it's happening slowly, Rollison said. “It's going to take some time to get back to service.”

Bartending Is a Career

So what should a consumer do when faced with a frosty bartender? Recognize one thing, he said. “A lot of people work in the hospitality industry because they want to serve guests. Don't assume because someone is bartending or waiting tables that this is just a job placeholder. With the people who work for me, this is their chosen career path and they make good money and they love doing it.”

“Just show people the same respect as you'd like to be treated with,” Rollison went on. “We are responsible on both sides of the bar.”

And beyond that basic decency, remember, “we're at a bar to have fun,” he added. And if you're not being treated well? “Just go somewhere else. It's that simple. You don't have to blow them up on social media or attack them on Yelp. When you find a place that you like, be a regular. Hang out there. Take chances.”