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How Do You Make a Living, Bartender?

Noah Davis talks to bartender Nicholas Bennett about cocktail culture, starting a bar of his own, and the expenses associated with operating in New York City.
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Nicholas Bennett started bartending at his uncle's place, taking home hundreds of dollars a night and loving life. Gradually, bartending turned into a career, and he's now in charge of the booze at Danny Meyer's Porchlight in Manhattan. Bennett is a long way from The Corner Bar. He talks to Pacific Standard about cocktail culture, starting a bar of his own, and the expenses associated with operating in New York City.

What is your current job?

I'm the head bartender at Porchlight. I've been here for nine or 10 months. I like to think I'm doing a pretty good job of it. The bar is doing well. I'm part of a great team, so that's more the reason for the success.

Nicholas Bennett. (Photo: Porchlight)

Nicholas Bennett. (Photo: Porchlight)

I got to this position by a long and meandering road. I started off at my uncle's bar, The Corner Bar, in Sag Harbor. He gave me the chance to jump behind a bar. From there, I slowly, over the course of the last 13 years, added more to my resume. I worked at a cafe that was on Park Avenue. I worked for a Michelin-starred chef in Park Slope. I got a chance to work at a bunch of really great cocktail bars like Cienfuegos and Amor y Amargo. At the same time, I was running a supper club with my roommates. I was doing the cocktails while they were doing the food. I got to experiment and play around.

I got the opportunity from Dave Arnold to work with him at Booker and Dax. That got me more into the creative and management side. After three great years over there, I got offered this great opportunity, and now I'm here. That's 13 years in a minute and a half.

When did bartending become a career?

That realization didn't come for a while. When I was working at The Corner Bar, it was just a way to pass the time. It was a lot of fun, and it was a lot of cash in hand. There were a couple nights where I walked out with $1,000 in hand. In cash. That's hard to not be very, very happy about. But I was also writing. I was the Hampton's editor at Thrillist for five or six years. I wrote a weekly column for a newspaper in East Hampton. Little blog posts. My aspirations were to eventually become a writer or a journalist. That's what my career goal was at that time.

When I started working at Amor y Amargo, I really caught the cocktail bug. When I started working there, I got a grasp of how serious you can take spirits. Amor y Amargo was focused on a lot of amaro cocktails. El Cobre was all rum-based cocktails. Before that, I couldn't even imagine an entire cocktail program devoted to one spirit. They existed, but it was niche to me. It seemed like a passing fad, but it clearly wasn't. Once I got into that mentality, I got more versed in the culture.

You came along at a good time. Cocktail culture has really exploded recently.

Cocktail culture exploded in about 2000. That's a couple years before me. Saying it's a wave means it's going to recede at some point, and I don't think it will. Fingers crossed because I kind of depend on it. I'd say we're on the cusp. People are going to get back to the basics but take with them all the education that's happened. We're going to go back into a much more simplistic look at cocktails. It's not going to be what we had in the 1970s with frilly, blue cocktails. We'll make blue cocktails, but we'll be making good ones.

What does a head bartender do? Are you still behind the bar?

I'm still behind the bar. Being the head bartender is an odd position. It's probably my favorite position. You get all the benefits of being a manager but not nearly all the responsibilities or stresses. I get to be a face to this bar. I'm a conduit for all of our other bartenders to focus through. That's what my position is, or how I really envision my position. It's not so much telling everyone what to do. It's seeing how our other bartenders want to do things and making that happen for the brand as a whole. I would love to do cocktails that we were doing at Booker and Dax, but it's not really relevant to our cocktail program. I would love to do some really technologically advanced, science-y cocktails, but with the space that we have and the volume that we do, it would take away from doing the other great cocktails that we do or the vodka sodas that we do, the great beers, or the whiskey selection.

Do you miss that freedom sometimes?

Every once in a while, I'll come in and immediately have one person asking for one thing, another person asking for something else, someone complaining that we don't have one thing, and someone saying that we have too much of another. I'll go in the back and wish I was just a regular bartender. But the higher up you get, the more responsibility you get. I've been spending all day writing emails. Monday is my admin day, so I spend all day on a computer, updating spec sheets, and doing all of the horribly, horribly boring things that come with the added responsibility of being a person to focus all of the other bartenders. I don't not like it. I don't necessarily enjoy it either.

I love being behind a bar. I know that there is going to be a day where it will be unnecessary for me to be behind a bar, and I don't look forward to that day.

When will that be?

When I own my own place. Or if I'm in charge of more bars. I don't know. Given the trajectory of my career, I'm not 100 percent certain when that will be and I don't see it happening very soon, but it is something that will happen. It may be when I'm 65, and I'm just too old.

Does being the head bartender even out your income?

A little bit. I'm not salaried. It's illegal for someone who is salaried to be touching tips, essentially. If I'm going to be behind a bar, I can't be salaried, and I'm OK with that. You want to be able to watch everybody and make sure that cocktails are going out the same. The flip side is that I would have to be standing at the side of the bar, tasting every single cocktail that goes out. I don't want to do that because then I feel like an overlord. Behind the bar, I can just pay attention to what everyone is doing, making critiques or high fiving them. And it's fun.

Financially, it kind of stabilizes it a little bit, but I'm still reliant on tips. But we're working at a wonderful volume bar. The response has been great. Finances have been fucking great.

You mentioned owning a place. Is that a goal?

Eventually. The Corner Bar is a family bar. I might try to take that over at some point and keep it in the family. Or do something small like Amor y Amargo where I could get really nerdy. Or do something like this where we get really heavy volume and maybe there's a television. I have put some thought into it, but it's something that I haven't figured out nor do I think I'm 100 percent ready.

I have a pretty good grasp of how to open a bar. I was there for the opening of El Cobre. I'm a little bit more knowledgable about the back-end of this one. Booker and Dax, I was there for the opening of that one as well. All three were wildly different openings so I have a pretty good idea of what it's like to open a bar. I'm not saying I'm remotely an expert, but I also have a lot of resources, a lot of friends who have opened bars who I could talk to. I'm not worried about the physical aspect of opening a bar. The financial aspect is definitely outside of my range, at least for what I would hope to open up. I don't think I would open a dive bar, despite the fact that that’s where I would make more money. And easier money too. My wallet would love it. I don't think my heart would.

Would you do it in New York? It's so expensive here.

I would have to live wherever the bar was. If I was living in the city, I'd open it here. If I was older, I might open it up outside the city. If I was younger, I would think about opening it up in a different state.

Rent is higher in New York City. Finding locations is harder. Liquor is more expensive. The costs are a little bit higher. Approaching that, I know that I would need a little bit more money than I have at my disposal.

Are the rewards higher in New York because of the potential to make more money?

It depends on where you're looking for your rewards. The notoriety and the "fame" are definitely going to be higher in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami I guess, or Austin. Those are the places in the United States where a lot of eyes are on what's happening in bars.

If your reward is to actually promote the education of the cocktail world and build a great drinking establishment, then anywhere can work. A friend of mine just opened up a spot in Rochester. He's doing some wonderful things up there. It sounds spectacular. I'm dying to get up there. But it's a place that doesn't have a cocktail culture. From what I understand, he is unbelievably happy.


How Do You Make a Living? is an ongoing Q&A series.