I started bartending in college in the early ‘70s, which if you do the math makes me old. The sole benefit of being over fifty seems to be the perspective it affords. When people today speak about “old school,” they’re talking about Jack Robertiello’s and my alma mater. As a card carrying alum of this often referred to institution, allow me to say that when it comes to life behind bars, few things about the “old school” were better then than they are now. In fact, the world of bartending 30 years ago bears scant resemblance to the ultra-efficient, premium-laden, creatively inspired beverage programs of today.
Bartending back then was a different animal. Popular drinks then included the Harvey Wallbanger, whiskey stone sour, Zombie, Stinger and sloe gin fizz. Bloody Marys were prepared by scratch—no two ever tasted the same—and gimlets were made with gin. We poured things like Rock ‘n’ Rye, Vandermint, Pimm’s Cup, Old Overholt and Cheery Herring. Canadian whiskys outsold Scotch.
Back in the ‘70s most mixed drinks were made with well liquor. When in doubt as to a drink recipe the convention wisdom was to throw in some grenadine and add an umbrella. Calls for Chablis and Burgundy meant pouring the house white or red. Drinking Lancer’s Rosé, or Riunite on ice was hip, draft beer was cheap and people drank water from the tap, not a bottle.
Back in the day bar stools were vinyl, there were peanut shells on the floor and we hand-dried glassware. Bars stocked things called ashtrays (small, portable receptacles for extinguished cigarettes) and we had shaved ice for mists and frappés. Cocktail napkins had jokes printed on them and bartenders told belligerent customers to “take it outside.” Music came from jukeboxes, age identification was a quick glance and refusing further service was a last resort. Best of all, in the morning bars smelled of stale smoke, stale beer and Pine-Sol.
I appreciate that today people refer to “old school” with a certain amount of deference, as if any of us back then had a clue. Jack didn’t and neither did I. My advice is to stick to the here and now. Life behind bars is much better now.