Slinging Drinks While Staying Sober
Serving alcohol while abstaining may seem a contradiction, but for some bartenders, it’s a matter of survival
At 34 years old, bartender Chaim Dauermann has become a leading figure in the cocktail industry. He’s the head bartender at The Up & Up, a cocktail bar in New York’s Greenwich Village that has made it onto a number of “best bars” lists. He’s competed in prestigious international cocktail competitions, and is generally one of the industry’s most respected drinks crafters. A wiry, bearded man who favors newsboy caps, skinny ties, and thoughtful intellectual disagreements, he has a loyal clientele that’s followed him to his current bar from his previous jobs at places such as Inoteca, Hudson Bar & Books, and Gin Palace. And he’s different from many others in his profession in one important way: As of this past December, he no longer drinks alcohol.
“I woke up in the morning after a night of drinking,” he says, “feeling like, ‘I shouldn’t do this anymore. I can’t do this anymore. I don’t want to do this anymore.’” It had been on his mind for years, he says, and it finally reached the point that he was ready to make a major change. “I was just done.”
Most of us have had, at some point, the experience of waking up and thinking, “I’m never drinking again,” as the hangover, and the embarrassing memories of the night before (or, worse, no memories at all), flood through us. But most of us resume drinking sooner or later. And most of us don’t spend all day, every day, around alcohol for a living — nor do we spend our careers promoting the very substance we’re now avoiding.
New York’s modern cocktail bar industry as we know it has existed for a little over a decade. Several seminal NYC cocktail bars — Death & Co, Pegu Club, and Employees Only, to name but a few — have celebrated their tenth birthdays in the past year or two. And as the cocktail industry has grown up and grown older, so have its bartenders. Bartending is now a long-term career choice — and in its upper ranks, a fairly prestigious and lucrative one — rather than something one does for a few years between college and grad school, or between acting gigs. Many of the bigger names in the industry have been in it for a while and are now facing down middle age and mortality. They’re realizing they can’t keep drinking the way they have been if they want to remain in their career and want to be their best, healthiest selves.
Meanwhile, the people who’ve been in the industry longest are now starting to become bar owners themselves, or bar consultants, or brand ambassadors — roles less compatible with a typical bartender’s party lifestyle. Something’s got to give.
Jim Kearns is a bartender who recently made the transition to bar ownership. He opened The Happiest Hour, a bar and restaurant in the West Village, in October 2014, and Slowly Shirley, an upscale cocktail lounge in the subterranean space directly below, about half a year later. In the meantime, he was also developing the cocktail menu for Tijuana Picnic, a Mexican restaurant on the Lower East Side. In the face of long workdays and the stress of running a new business, he turned to alcohol to self-medicate. “Before you know it,” he says, “it becomes a game of burning the candle at both ends pretty quickly.”
Things came to a head for him over the span of a few months. He was working 15- or 16-hour days, and drinking for much of that time almost every day to ease the stress. It certainly didn’t help that, as the bar owner, he now had unlimited access to alcohol — particularly all of the kinds that he loved, because he had personally chosen all the bottles at his bar. It was a situation tailor-made for spinning out of control. “I ended up just burning myself out completely,” Kearns says, “to where I couldn’t even get out of bed or come to work. I was just seeking solace in booze.” He knew he had to make a choice.
“I got to a pretty bad place with it,” he says, “and probably should’ve just recognized that I couldn’t carry the workload that I was carrying, and the late nights and party lifestyle, all around the time that we opened Happiest Hour. But of course, when you’re full throttle, you don’t really stop to take stock of things as realistically as you should.” He quit drinking in September 2015.
But in this profession, it’s never an easy decision to make. The bar industry, certainly more than any other, encourages excessive drinking. A bartender’s average day, according to Dauermann, might look something like this:
“You get in, and you have your meeting earlier in the day with [a liquor brand representative] whose scotch portfolio you’re going to taste. You spit some but not all of it — because, you know, that 25-year-old scotch is just way too good to pass up, right? Then you get started on your shift. You’re a little hungover to begin with. You haven’t eaten very much that day. And there’s a drink that got messed up earlier in the night and you drink a few sips of that and it makes you feel better and it tastes good. You take shots with friends that come into the bar; shots with your team. You might take two, three, four, five, six, seven shots over the course of the night. Then, toward the end of the night, you pour yourself a shift drink. And then, you get out of work a little bit earlier than normal, and you go and you catch last call at your favorite bar, where you’re able to unwind and talk about the frustrations of your day. You order a drink, and then last call rolls around and you ask for another beer on top of that. And sure enough, they pour you a little more whiskey. Pretty soon, before you know it, you’ve had the equivalent of 10 to 12 drinks over the course of your day. You may have just ingested half a bottle of liquor over the course of your day without even trying; just from absorbing the alcohol that’s put in front of you environmentally.”
This isn’t even counting the industry events sponsored by liquor brands, where the booze is free and free-flowing, and you’re encouraged to drink as much as you possibly can (and maybe a little bit more). A popular bartender might be invited to multiple brand events per day. One bartender I talked to mentioned that he’d been invited to three separate liquor-company sponsored luncheons the day after we spoke; if he timed it right, he said, he’d be able to attend all three. And that’s just on a normal Friday afternoon.
The real stuff goes down at Tales of the Cocktail, the bar industry’s major annual gathering in New Orleans; any bartender worthy of the title is there. “You’re gonna find events where it’s set up like a nightclub and there is an unlimited amount of alcohol,” says Dauermann. “It’s free. You’re gonna find houses that are rented out by brands where there’s an unlimited amount of alcohol for free. Notice a trend? And when you give someone unlimited access to something that makes them feel good, of course they’re going to say yes! And if you put me in a room full of people who are nodding approvingly that it’s okay, that it’s in fact endorsed; when the comfort zone you’ve created is one in which ‘Yes’ is the appropriate answer, it’s much harder to say ‘No thank you.’”
It’s the same story at bar anniversary parties — which, in New York, a city with dozens and dozens of high-end cocktail bars, happen seemingly every week. The liquor’s all free, and you have near-infinite access. It’s a situation ideal for facilitating alcohol abuse and dependency. Add to that, you’re surrounded by your peers at these events, and it’s considered “cool” to go hard, to be the one who can drink the most; the peer pressure can reach unbelievable levels.
This frustrates the bartenders who’ve taken a step back and are now looking at the industry’s partying from the outside in. “We’re at a point now where there are people who are dying and having serious medical issues, and it’s not funny,” says Kearns. “It never has been, the whole making light of heavy drinking and encouraging it to any extent. It’s not funny, it’s not cute, it’s not cool. It’s a serious thing and it’s not something that people should do every day.”
Kearns says one of the lowest moments he had in understanding what a toll heavy drinking was taking on the industry at large was at Tales of the Cocktail last summer. “There was a big montage during the Spirited Awards of all these people who had fucking died. It was just tragic. Sasha [Petraske], obviously. And then just a slew of other people. I was just like, this is not a joking, laughing matter anymore. This isn’t something that people can or should take lightly. This is a serious thing. This is causing major problems for people, and there are people who are dying because of it.” Some of the bartenders I talked with for this story are well aware that their drinking could have killed them; they seemed to consider it a minor miracle that it hadn’t.
Statistics are tough to come by, but anecdotally it’s believed that a huge percentage of NYC’s bartender community has a drinking problem. “It’s extremely common,” says Dauermann, when asked about the prevalence of substance-abuse issues in the industry. “Extremely, extremely, extremely… I would not say common, I’d say rampant.” James Menite, vice-president of the New York chapter of the U.S. Bartenders’ Guild — and himself a bartender (at The Plaza hotel) who’s made the decision to stop drinking — says he estimates that at least half of the bartenders in NYC are high-functioning alcoholics. “Because we have access to a free drug every day,” he adds.
And it does seem to be a problem encouraged by New York’s way of living. Dauermann says he believes New Yorkers drink more than people in other parts of the country; Kearns agrees. “I think that New York is a unique environment in that people here don’t have to drive; our bars stay open until 4 o’clock in the morning. We have a pretty enabling drinking culture here.” It’s great in many ways, he says, but “there are aspects of it that definitely are more conducive to heavy drinking than most other cities in the world.”
As a necessary response to what’s increasingly becoming a crisis in the city’s bar industry, many bartenders — including some of the industry’s major players — have gone sober. To them, the only way not to overindulge is to not indulge at all. For some, it was the result of drinking to excess and realizing they had to choose between sobriety and death. Others simply took stock of the person they’d become and knew they could be better — and saw successful sober bartenders who could serve as role models.
The list includes some of the biggest names in the cocktail business: Jack McGarry, who was crowned “International Bartender of the Year” in 2013 and is a partner in BlackTail and The Dead Rabbit (which has been named “Best Bar in the World” two of its four years); Giuseppe Gonzalez, owner of Suffolk Arms, which opened to great fanfare last spring; and of course Dauermann and Kearns. It also includes Jan Warren, a tall and imposing man given to brash bluntness. He’s a longtime bartender who’s worked at some of New York’s top cocktail bars over the past decade and a half, including Painkiller, Pegu Club, and Dutch Kills. Recently he moved from bartending to working for Brooklyn Gin, a distilling company. This August, he’ll celebrate 10 years of sobriety.
When asked whether it was difficult to stay sober when surrounded by booze day in and day out, Warren replied, “Definitely not.” In fact, working as a bartender seemed to almost serve as reinforcement for his decision to remain sober. “I don’t know if this is a shock to anyone out there, but none of you look awesome when you’re hammered,” he says. “I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings, but when you’re sober and you’re around really drunk people, you’re not like, Hey, I want to look like that.” He laughs. “It’s not an aspirational thing, you know?”
And he’ll be the first to tell you he’s a better bartender because of his decision to quit drinking. “I think that sobriety has a huge effect on how I am as a working bartender,” Warren says. “I think that everybody is better at everything sober. If you figure bartending is a job of speed, physical coordination, and memory, those are all things that suck the drunker you get. If you’re not drunk, you can just do a better job.”
Kearns credits his sobriety with similar benefits. “I tend to remember things better, be more alert, have a clearer head and a better perspective on what’s going on,” he says. “I’m here to try to make the place better for my staff and my guests. I’m here to run a business, and most people who run businesses probably don’t drink all day while they do it. Successfully, anyway. It makes it easier to establish your routine when you’re not waking up with a hangover every day.”
Dauermann, for his part, appreciates the emotional benefits of sobriety as much as the practical. “Stripping away the drinking helps me to focus on the nuts and bolts of hospitality: being more empathetic to the people I work with; being more emotionally available to the people that I serve,” he says. “Hospitality is about making people feel comfortable, making people feel listened to, making people feel safe — and I am better equipped to do that, personally, as a non-drinker. Moreover, I think I’ve gotten as good at my job as I can as a drinker. I’m interested to see what I can achieve as a non-drinker, coming at my career from a different angle.”
Meanwhile, this all begs the question: If these bartenders are no longer drinking, how on earth are they doing their jobs? It’s literally part of a bartender’s job description to consume alcohol: To taste new products on the market (and new spirits are launched virtually every day); to develop and taste new cocktails; to straw-test each drink they make before serving it to a guest. The answer: They all still taste. “It’s an integral part of what we do,” says Warren. “I don’t know how you would do it without tasting stuff. I just would never order a drink and drink it, you know what I mean?” All four sober bartenders I talked with (including Menite) drew a distinction between tasting alcohol for work and drinking for pleasure. None considered tasting to be “drinking,” even though sometimes the tiny amounts accumulate to a level that’s perceptible to a non-drinker. But also, none would ever have even one drink for non-work-related reasons. That’s where they all, to a one, drew the line.
Dauermann tastes-and-spits when he’s developing new cocktails; he takes small straw tests of drinks he’s making for guests. “It’s important to look at it as a function,” he says. “I do just enough that I need to do in order to ensure the same quality that I always ensure; it’s never on the level of indulgence or pleasure for myself. I taste but I don’t drink.”
“As far as tasting goes, I was obviously very nervous about it at first,” says Kearns, referring to when he returned to bartending after a month away during the process of getting sober. But drinking for pleasure and tasting for work, he says, “are very, very different things. The analytical and creative aspects of tasting and breaking down the flavors in something is very different from sitting down with a drink in front of you, at least for me.”
That’s not to say they don’t miss the emotional rewards of traditional drinking: the routine of it; the social bonding; the association with unwinding. “There are times where, from the stress of the job or life or whatever, I’m just like, ‘God, a whiskey sounds nice,’” says Kearns. “I actually miss it more for the social times, though, where it’s after work and I want to have a beer with my staff or a friend. Or over dinner, having a glass of wine; or sitting at a bar on a cold night with a whiskey. Those are all very nice things, and they’re nice for reasons other than the fact that you’re getting drunk. So not being able to have that whole experience is a little rough sometimes.”
For these bartenders, the appeal of drinking isn’t getting drunk. Similarly, to them, the point of going to a bar is not the drinking: It’s about the environment of a bar, the escape, the camaraderie and social bonding that happens within, the hospitality offered by the staff. “People come to bars to celebrate, and they come to bars to forget. It’s an escapist phenomenon,” says Kearns. “If you run a good bar or restaurant, you’re creating an environment for people to escape, and the experience is more what I care about and think about and think that we’re selling. I mean, yes, booze is a big part of it,” he adds, almost as an afterthought. This perspective is also why none said they feel conflicted about making a living by encouraging other people to imbibe a substance that they themselves no longer consume. “Ultimately,” says Dauermann, “my job is not alcohol-related. My job is hospitality-related, and that is how I see my role.
“There’s nothing about being a bartender that demands that you drink,” Dauermann continues. “I’m a bartender because I love hospitality. I’m a bartender because I love bars. I love the environment of the bar. My favorite hospitality setting is a bar. But I would enjoy the act of hospitality if I were doing something which was not cocktails, as much as I love cocktails. I love making them. I love talking about them, I love watching people drink them. Also, I can still say I love drinking them, even though I don’t [drink them] anymore. I would still enjoy bartending no matter what kind of drinks I was serving. If you could set up a bar where I could set up the same money that I’m making as a bartender, where what I’m doing is pouring people tea, I would still enjoy that, if it created the same dialogue, and the same language and the same feeling of safety, the same feeling of inhibition, the same feeling of honesty that a bar does. So in that sense, drinking has nothing to do with it for me.”
What does change, for some, is the ability to interact and connect with their colleagues. It’s a professional challenge, since the bar industry depends on connections and relationships and networking nearly more than any other. And on a more personal level, the bar industry, to a much greater degree than nearly any other profession, socializes within itself almost exclusively. It’s largely logistical: If you’re working during the hours that everyone else is socializing, it’s tough to make and maintain friendships with anyone on an opposite schedule. Meanwhile, the bonding, both during and outside of work hours, is generally done with alcohol. “Drinking, in general, is a way that people bond, right? And people that are in the business of bonding with other people might be more susceptible to the dangers of drinking in an attempt to bond with other people,” Warren explains; it’s the Catch-22 of the industry.
So when that bonding mechanism is eliminated from your life, it can limit how you’re able to interact with your bar-industry colleagues…who, for most bartenders, form the vast majority of their friend base. It changes, forever, whether and how you can roll with your friends.
“It has made relating to coworkers definitely harder,” Warren says of his sobriety. “Going back to that bonding-with-booze thing, that’s what people do in the business, you know? People go out after work and they get hammered together and hold each others’ hands and sing songs at 5:30 in the morning at bars that are closed. And I don’t really like that. That’s not what I want to do. I want to work and then go home. So there is some of that social activity that definitely gets missed out on.”
Kearns says that going sober has affected his social habits, but not to a great extent. “I’ve never been the person that you see at all the brand events and the social stuff that comes with the industry,” he says. “I don’t go to those things now unless they’re pretty meaningful or I have a real reason to be at them. You don’t want to be the only sober person at a party. Once everybody’s at the dancing-around-with-lampshades-on-their-heads point, you’re kind of like, ‘Okay, well, you guys have fun; I’ll see you later.’” That said, Kearns got married in the past year (to a fellow bartender, who works at a different bar) and has two cats and a puppy at home; it could be argued that he has less of a need for the social habits of the average bartender.
Dauermann also hasn’t ever been one to attend all of the industry events or parties. He does still stop by his friends’ bars when he’s not working, to say hello and hang out and drink bitters-and-soda. The evening before we spoke for this story, he’d been at a friend’s bar until 1:45 in the morning. “I can still do everything I used to do,” he says. “Everything. My life in a lot of ways is unchanged.” He still does staff shots with his coworkers and with friends who come into his bar. Only now, he takes shots of grapefruit juice.
Kearns’ role running his bars keeps him from spending much time behind either bar, making drinks, these days. But immediately after we spoke for this story, I stuck around Slowly Shirley and sipped on a Jungle Bird — partly to review my notes from our conversation while they were fresh, and partly because I genuinely enjoy the bar and think they make some of the best drinks in town. The bar manager was training two new staffers, and he asked Kearns to step in and help out behind the bar. I watched as Kearns did all the usual bartender stuff — including joining in for a round of staff shots. His was what seemed to be some sort of juice, poured from an unlabeled bottle in the well. It was a perfectly normal moment of bar-worker camaraderie.
Dauermann and Kearns both mentioned a certain degree of self-consciousness about disclosing they’d gone sober. Dauermann cited an anxiety related to the desire to be liked. The desire to please people and be liked in return is what attracts bartenders to the bar life, he says, and he worried that his sobriety might jeopardize that. “As I slowly woke up to the idea of being sober,” he says, “a big part of me worried, What will people think of me? Will people think less of me? Will people think I’m not cool? Sometimes people invite me somewhere and I get anxious because I’m like, Are they going to be disappointed when I don’t order a drink? I sometimes wonder, Are people going to think that I’m no longer fit to do my job because I don’t drink?”
Ultimately, he’s aware that these concerns are all in his head. “Nobody cares what you do!” he’s come to realize. “It’s all in your head. It’s all in my head.” He’s had to actively remind himself of this a few times, he says. But when he’s taking shots of grapefruit juice instead of whiskey, no one’s asked him why. When he orders a tonic water at a bar event instead of a drink, no one’s made a big deal of it.
“You have a lot of fear and social anxiety” said Kearns of going sober, “and I just thought, well shit, anybody who is upset or resentful about a decision like that isn’t really your friend anyway, so fuck ’em.”
In general, though, all three found that industry colleagues have been supportive of their decisions, for the most part. All reported that a few people had questioned it — people who seemed to feel threatened by their decisions. They decided not to care. “The unfortunate part of sobriety,” says Warren, “is that people who are not sober and realize that they might have a problem often don’t find it comforting to be around somebody who is beating the thing that they’re being beaten by. I feel like I’ve definitely dealt with some negative stuff because I’ve been around people who feel bad about what they do, and instead of changing what they do, they just kind of shit on me. But I give zero fucks. Look, I mean, you quit drinking, you’re gonna lose friends, you’re gonna lose business contacts, you’re gonna put up with less bullshit from people.”
Sobriety is also something the bartenders hesitated to talk about openly at first. With colleagues, certainly, but also with bar guests; they don’t want to make their guests uncomfortable, and sobriety’s a tough topic in a bar: You don’t want to make your clientele question their decision to be there. Ultimately, though, each has been talking about it more and word’s been getting out.
“Initially it was something that I only talked to people I was close with about,” Kearns says. “The word has gotten out more and more since then.” Dauermann, still early in his sobriety, is taking a similar tack. He posted a lengthy note on his Facebook page, viewable only to his friends, about a month after he stopped drinking. Other than that, he says, he doesn’t talk about it. When people offer to buy him a drink, he says he’s not drinking that night. “Which is true,” he says. “It just so happens that I say that every night.”
“It can come with some shame,” says Warren, “because people [in the bar industry] tend to pride themselves on things like, ‘Oh, man, I drank 52 drinks last night.’ Or, ‘Look how much that person drinks, and they’re cool.’ So it can feel like saying ‘Hey, I’m not drinking’ is a weakness, but I think it’s actually the opposite. It’s strength.” He told me — and specifically asked me to repeat in this piece — that he’s extremely happy to help anyone who’s looking to go sober. “I think that people, especially in this business, tend to view a problem with alcohol as weakness,” he says. “And it’s not. Alcohol is fucking tough, man, and if you have a problem with it, it’s no different than having a problem with a tendon in your knee. You’ve got to figure out how to fix it.”
“I’d like to see it destigmatized in the industry,” Dauermann says. “I’d like there to be a better feeling of safety for people to talk about possible issues they may have with substances.” He hopes to lead by example; his own decision to go sober was strongly influenced by meeting a sober bartender who’s extremely accomplished and well-respected in the field.
But, frankly, in the most practical of terms, they could stand to work on helping non-drinkers in a more practical way with a wider scope. It’s one thing to work toward destigmatizing sobriety in the bar community. But for people who say that the point of being in a bar isn’t the alcohol, neither Kearns nor Dauermann has made their respective bars seem particularly welcoming to non-drinkers. Both claimed they’d be very happy to make non-alcoholic cocktails if asked, and both said their bars were extremely well-equipped to do so. But neither had any non-alcoholic cocktails on their bar menus.
Mind you, mocktails are everywhere these days. Hardly a de rigueur restaurant has opened in New York in the past year without at least a small list of mocktails; at many high-end restaurants, there’s now a non-alcoholic beverage pairing option to accompany the fanciest of tasting menus. Many better cocktail bars include at least a few mocktails on their lists. At the minimum, having one or two on a cocktail list serves basically to show that they’re something a bar is willing to do, and to open up the possibility of talking with your bartender about non-alcoholic options.
And it is necessary to have something to instigate that conversation. I know a number of people who’ve gone sober, and for quite some time, all felt awkward about being in a bar under the best of circumstances. If they were to have found themselves in a fancy cocktail bar — the type of spot where a lot of people frequently feel slightly out of place anyhow — and didn’t see any indication on the drinks menu that mocktails were an option, they probably wouldn’t have felt comfortable asking the bartender about them. They’d probably have ordered a water, sat there uncomfortably feeling as though they’d definitely landed in the wrong place that evening, and never return.
I raised that scenario with both Kearns and Dauermann, since they’re currently in charge of the cocktail menus at their respective bars, and both said that they weren’t planning to add any non-alcoholic cocktails to their bar menus in the foreseeable future. Kearns cited the size of his cocktail menus already: At Slowly Shirley, close to 90 cocktails are divided between two separate menus. To add any more, he said, would likely be overwhelming to guests. Dauermann seemed more concerned with the financial aspect of things: Would people pay enough for mocktails to make them worth offering, and could the bar still cover its costs with these lower-priced drinks?
So here’s the PSA: Talk with your bartender if you’d like a non-alcoholic drink, even if there are none on the drink menu. No matter whether you’re sober, pregnant, or just cutting back a little: Don’t be afraid. Have the conversation. They’re not going to judge you, whether you’re drinking or not.
Because in more bars than you might realize, your bartender might be more sympathetic than you could possibly guess.
This story is part of the Culture Trip Special: Limits collection.