One Encounter, One Opportunity: How Modern Bartenders Realized That It’s Not About Making Great Drinks.

“There’s no value in digging shallow wells in a hundred places. Decide on one place and dig deep. Even if you encounter a rock, use dynamite and keep going down. If you leave that to dig another well, all the first effort is wasted and there is no proof you won’t hit rock again. (52)”Swami Satchidananda, The Yoga Sutras

It was always about tea.  Long before I knew or cared much about it, the way of tea chiseled at me from the periphery.

My first love affair with service and restaurants was with bartending.  I happened to enter the industry as the new wave of “craft bartending” was reaching critical mass.  From the 1950s-1990s bartending was in a “dark” age defined by a general disinterest in drink or service quality.  From the 21st century onward, new heights were achieved in quality of ingredients, creativity in how they were used, and the general curation of a bar space. Our growing knowledge of the craft made us into a sort of hybrid of chef and sommelier.  Bartending become an art form like never before and the profession became somewhat respected again.

However, with that comes its own obstacles…like self-importance.

New studies of the profession’s history connected us with its lineage.  We discovered that 19th century bartenders were a noble class of professionals, often key figureheads in their communities.   We aspired to emulate them and the gentlemanly/womanly manner in which they presented themselves. The way they perfectly matched the right cocktail to their guests’ tastes and occasion.  The way they held court in their domains.

So bartenders finally wanted to be the best at what they did.  In every way. Since any sort of merit in the service industry gets measured by guest happiness, this newfound professional pride bolstered hospitality skills.  And also we just wanted to inspire people. After all, we were inspired and sharing that can multiply its power. However the more neurotic bartenders like myself got so lost in the endless creative and academic possibilities of making drinks that we waned at adapting to the needs of guests that were far from caught up to our drink knowledge.

This created a hierarchy of service: the guests that actually cared about the craft of bartending (which comprised maybe 5-10% of the population) had the best experiences.  And the less they cared, the less the bartender cared about them. Not only that, but they resented their guests for wanting “less sophisticated” drinks or not showing the requisite interest in whatever education or witty banter they could offer.  This created further blocks for connecting with the people and providing the simple feeling of warmth, ease and joy that any human is truly seeking when they go out (and really just always seeking…I mean, when is there a bad time for that?). They don’t need to receive a complex gastronomy class from the bartender in order to have that experience.

But we thought they should want that.  And trying to impose what you think someone should want, in any situation, is a guaranteed lose.  Invalidate what someone wants and you create a cold war with their desires. And since people tend to consider what they want to be equivalent with their very identity, invalidating who someone is will result in opposition…or escape (i.e. you lose a relationship to the friendly, non-judgmental bartender next door).

Being part of a “movement” full of self-congratulating peers emboldened us to feel like we could somewhat skirt the goal of guest happiness.  Alienating people was fine as long as we remained in artistic integrity. We could dismiss guests as philistines rather than adapt to needs different than our own.  We could deny that we live in a world of endlessly variable human beings with an endlessly variable collection of stories, priorities, worries and wisdom to share. We only felt it necessary to connect with the kind of person that was “aligned” with our movement.

This felt like strength, but it’s actually weakness.  Our egos needed our guests to validate us. And we could not become true people of service until we broke out of that.

Enter, The Japanese.

How The Eastern Approach To Bartending Revealed How Much We Were Missing.

A seminal book written by a Japanese bartender named Kazuo Uyeda was finally printed in English around 2010 and starting to get passed around the Western bartending community.  He approached bartending with the same lifetime dedication to small refinements that Jiro Ono does with making Sushi. It brought many improvements to bartending tools and techniques that only the Japanese attention to detail could bring.  We adopted some practices, but discarded whatever was inconvenient to the Western bartending sensibility. Initially, I put down the Uyeda’s book able to stir a bit better, but didn’t really get the full picture until I began meditating.

I vividly recall my response to certain lines in the book: “a bartender shall never show off.”

Me: “What?! That’s the whole bloody point!”

Later I realized it’s not the point.  The point is quite the opposite: serving someone is not about you.  Wowing someone with how great you are may bring short-term satisfaction to you (and sometimes your guest), but a true connection with your guest means expanding who you are to include them.

This involves being yourself.  And knowing that “yourself” is not what you think it is.  We might think that what we have to offer the world is a sort of thing we project outwards. But in fact, the true value of what we offer is the state we embody effortlessly.  Fully being in the moment without dominating it. It is not a performance, but receptive state that is in tune with its environment and the people in it.

It doesn’t make an out-loud posture (and in fact, such a personality needs to be carefully aimed as it is sometimes too much for more withdrawn guests).  The most low-key of personalities could accomplish so much more than the gregarious showman with little more than a smile and a sense that they’re paying attention.  I experienced this ease and comfort of Japanese bartenders during a tour of Tokyo. They don’t thrust their personalities at their guests, but wrap them in their contagious calm, very subtly making them feel held so they can relax and put themselves out there.  They need nothing from their guests and respond enthusiastically to their needs, no matter how insipid. Not because they are servile, but because they take pride in their equanimity and adaptability. They are agents of mutual respect, receiving it in spades in return for offering it unconditionally.  I saw how much more attractive that was to someone than imposing your personality and knowledge on them.

The Shokunin: Macroscopic Achievement Requires Microscopic Improvements.

This unique poise is the fruit of the Shokunin path applied to bartending.  In Japan, a Shokunin is someone whose entire life revolves around his/her craft.  And dedication to that craft shapes their entire worldview, living their life with the same principles used to master their individual specialized skill.

Shokunin’s follow an old school path of the artisan, completely antithetical to the Western love of instant results, dabbling, “faking it till you make it”, and innovating before you even know the principles (basically how Western craft bartenders built their careers).  It involves a single-pointed focus, progressing in increments over a lifetime. You don’t dare get creative until you’ve dedicated decades to mastering the minutae of each little element of the craft. Often Shokunins don’t need to be creative at all, taking enough joy in practicing and refining the techniques that everyone already knows.  Although dedicating oneself to one specialized thing may not seem like enough to today’s modern professional, in Japan that mastery is the key to everything. To get good at Japanese bartending is to become a master of presence in everything you do.

Bartenders working under Japanese masters would spend 2 years just cleaning the bar space before they could touch a bottle.  Then god-knows-how-long just retrieving bottles for the senior bartender that actually makes the drinks. I on the other hand was managing a bar within 2 years of entering the industry.  Because I was better than Japanese bartenders? Definitely not (though at the time I may have fancied myself so). In North America at the time, you just didn’t have to earn it like that.  In Japan, mastery is a macro goal, but its bones are the microscopic improvements.

Being a Shokunin means approaching what you do with a Zen level of discipline and focus. It’s not about you, it’s about the craft.  To master your craft, you need to master yourself. And to master yourself, you need to get your “self” out of the way, benching your ego such that you are a seamless vehicle for what you offer.  (Being a Zen practice, this is one of many wonderful paradoxes). With Shokunin bartenders, making perfect drinks is part of it, but ultimately it’s about service. Serving in this selfless way results in a humility that is difficult to find in the West.  Their craft is viewed as far bigger than they are. Any moment in which they live their craft is so much bigger than them.

How Japanese Bartending Genius Started At Least 600 Years Ago…With Tea.

Uyeda’s philosophy is built around one phrase: “Ichi-Go Ichi-E” (“One encounter, one opportunity”).  This is the adage of Shokunin practitioners of Cha Dao, the very Zen “Way of Tea”. The art of the encounter is the whole point of this ceremonial approach to serving guests tea.

Japanese tea ceremony is an act of serving with deep hospitable intention, giving attention to the small details that elevate this connection.  Serving tea is a simple thing. But the practice of Cha Dao recognizes each moment of doing so as profound. It tunes you into the subtle treasures of existing here and now as a person.  And something that seems mundane becomes full of possibility – for growth, joy, learning, living, you name it. As it radiated throughout the Eastern (and eventually small parts of the Western) bartending world, it brought a deeper sense of purpose to the profession.

Since Cha Dao is a Zen practice, it’s all about directing your attention away from self-absorption.  You see through all your expectations and biases, your paranoia about what others think of you, your need to seem good enough.  And on the other end is the richness of the present moment.

It’s the whole point of frugality in spiritual practice.  Not to restrict enjoyment of life, but to reveal what’s actually there: the endless joy that exists beyond what you think you need from people and life.  Zen shows you that you don’t need much, and you thrive most from paring down reality until it reveals its essence. It’s the opposite of our Western tendencies of consumerism and pleasure addiction.  Us Western bartenders need the best ingredients. Japanese bartenders just need great care and attention to what they are doing.

As 16th Century Zen teamaster Sen Rikyu would say:

“If you have one teapot
And can brew your tea in it
That will do quite well.
How much does he lack himself
Who must have a lot of things?”

In the West we want everything, sprawling outwards and forwards in search of it.  In Zen, everything is found in the smallest of moments. The whole is in the part.  The opposite of the Western tendency to fragment and quantify our experiences, weighing the value of moments based on how much they fit into our greater goals.  In Zen, the most seemingly insignificant tasks have equal standing – all are part of the whole. And the most important piece of the whole is what is happening right now.

This is key to the Zen approach to work and life.  Joy for the moment in doing seemingly mundane tasks.  Interacting in a seemingly mundane moment. If you respect the moment and don’t need it to knock you over the head, the moment reciprocates by providing a profound depth of experience.

This humility was the necessary antidote to the ego of the craft bartending movement, but too few caught the train.  The modern “craft” movement of the 2000s was hailed as the most important thing to happen to the profession since prohibition all but gutted it in the 1930s.  However, the Eastern approach of mindful bartending has been the suitably quiet revolution. Little by little it’s sensibilities have trickled into bars, restaurants and modern Western culture in general.  Some bartenders are exploring aspects of mindfulness with the same fascination as artisanal spirits. The essence of service is being revealed. What exists underneath all of the finely-crafted drinks.

The person in front of them.
This moment and everything it can be.
This is what will truly transform the bar experience.
Doing this without the creeping in of agenda, judgment, boredom, frustration and all the things that complicate human connection will truly transform the bar experience.

There is a story of a young monk and novice tea enthusiast named Enshu who travelled across the country by foot to commit himself as Sen Rikyu’s disciple.  After months of verbally-minimal instruction (it’s the Zen way to let you make your own discoveries unclouded by language), Enshu yearned to finally receive some “profound insight” from his teacher. He finally asked outright:

Enshu: “Master, what is the true essence of tea?  What is the highest truth as expressed in this tea ceremony?”

Rikyu raised his eyebrows: “Ahhhhhhhh.”

Enshu got excited, expecting to get hit with some serious esoteric wisdom.  And Rikyu gave him what he was seeking:

“The very essence of Cha Dao is this:
Gather water,
raise the charcoal,
boil the water,
steep the tea.
drink it.”

Enshu was crestfallen: “That cannot be it. I travelled all this way to learn that?! But I already knew that before I left. It is too simple!”

Rikyu tsked: “Enshu, my son. The day that you can do as I’ve just said, I will walk across the entire empire to you home, rest your head at your feet and with all the devotion I can muster call you master until the end of my days.”

Mic drop. Zen style.  I’ll leave you with that.