When you talk to someone in the bar or booze industry about “Hey Bartender,” Douglas Tirola’s 2013 documentary chronicling the 21st century rebirth and rise of the American cocktail scene, one specific quote from the film is likely to be mentioned. The line is uttered about one-third into the film by Fords Gin founder Simon Ford: “Bartenders are rockstars that couldn’t be bothered to learn instruments.”
The rockstars in question — particularly the influential bartenders from the early aughts that served as the film’s “talking heads” — happened to be performing at a uniquely transitional moment within the industry, and were captured by a curious filmmaker seeking to bottle something that turned out to be lightning.
“The film was cinema vérité. It was telling the story of how it was and what took place as it was happening in real time,” Tirola says. “We were lucky enough to capture a quick, live moment of something that grew at the right time.”
Ten years after “Hey Bartender”’s release captured the movement, we’re still seeing the fruits of such growth: These days, any city large enough to have a professional sports team will have a thriving craft cocktail scene. We’ve also witnessed some maturity and better identified issues that the industry still struggles to work through. Watching the movie in 2023 — which you can do for free on YouTube — still delivers a jolt of energy if you’re a cocktail enthusiast, but it may also leave you pondering its legacy. To help resolve this, we caught up with some of the people involved with the film as well as those who made their marks in the years following its release to see how it holds up through their perspectives. (Now would be the time to launch Spotify and fire up the film’s de facto soundtrack, Joe Jackson’s “I’m the Man” album, and crank up the volume. The rest of this story should be read at maximum volume.)
Capturing a Moment
Even though “Hey Bartender” came out in 2013, the documentary provides a snapshot of the American craft cocktail movement as it was in 2011. It follows the journey of two men: Steve Schneider, an ex-Marine-turned-bartender looking to advance in the craft cocktail scene, and Steve “Carpi” Carpentieri, a Westport, Conn., bar owner seeking to survive the shifting tides of the business. This casting wasn’t deliberate, but it did inspire the entire project.
“It wasn’t an audition,” Schneider recalls. “It happened organically.” The story goes that Schneider made Tirola a cocktail when the director stopped by New York City cocktail institution Employees Only for a drink. The cocktail and the resulting interaction between the two sparked an idea that quickly turned into a passion project for Tirola. Equipped with a shoestring budget and a yen to absorb as much as he could about the bar scene as an outsider, Tirola burrowed into the industry, talking to as many people as he could about what he saw as an emerging world.
“I gotta give Doug his flowers,” Schneider says. “He was working on such a small budget, but he went to every event he could for almost three years and stuck with it. He put a lot of heart and soul into the film. It was crazy, but I love him for it.”
Though there are a few people Tirola spoke with for the film who didn’t make the final cut — he declined to reveal who when asked — he landed an impressive number of mixology heavyweights: Dale DeGroff, Julie Reiner, Jim Meehan, and the late Sasha Petraske all make appearances on screen. These names still matter if you’re a cocktail geek, but if you’re actually in the industry, their inclusion resonates on a different level.
“There’s a legacy that’s captured in the film,” says Meehan, co-founder of seminal New York bar Please Don’t Tell (better known as PDT) and founder of the Portland, Ore.-based bar consultant organization Mixography, Inc. “I mean, Sasha is alive!”
Tirola also touches on the industry beyond the bar through interviews with brand ambassadors like Ford and Charlotte Voisey, who now serves as global head of brand ambassador advocacy for distiller and alcohol distributor William Grant & Sons. Today, Tirola has a special appreciation for how integral their work was in growing the movement. “Brand ambassadors could have had their own documentary,” he says. “They were the connective tissue of the scene at the time, and they had the resources to bring the industry together. They’re the reason the community grew like it did.”
“Oh my God. I’m so glad I watched it. It was really wild, having lived through that era. It was such an interesting time, and it’s an interesting movie to watch now. There is a lot of reflection to be had.”
Of course, documentaries create a finite point to ongoing stories. Since the release of “Hey Bartender,” viewers have been given a front-row bar stool to the decade-long career evolution of its talking heads. Schneider transcended his role as an Employees Only bartending apprentice to having ownership stakes in several bars, most recently Sip & Guzzle, a Greenwich Village bar and izakaya he’s launching with former Angel’s Share bar director Shingo Gokan. His achievements have prevented him from a reputation as a one-trick pony, but he does acknowledge the film’s gravitas.
“Because of what I’ve done, I’ve gotten respect for who I am and not because of being the “Hey Bartender” guy. The movie is not going to be on my gravestone,” he says. “But it will be on my resume.”
As for Carpentieri, he was still overseeing the bar he owned, Dunville’s, at least through part of 2023. It may or may not be in operation: Though Google says it’s open and Carpentieri is still listed as owner on LinkedIn, Yelp lists it as closed, its last Facebook post went live in May, and phone calls we made to the venue went unanswered. Open or not, Carpentieri did spend over three decades providing people with the type of neighborhood bar experience that is every bit as important as the vibes produced through the craft cocktails scene. According to Tirola, Carpentieri’s significance to the industry was consistently acknowledged when he and the “rockstars” came together at film-related events.
“You could see the respect these craft bartenders had for Carpi and what he was doing,” he says. “It was great to see these well-known bartenders give respect to him and acknowledge the value he brought to the industry.”
Reaction and Reflection
When we reached out to industry fixture Neal Bodenheimer to be interviewed for this piece, he had a confession: He had never seen “Hey Bartender.” He was interviewed for it, and rightly so. As founding partner of New Orleans bar CURE, which opened in 2009, he was credited with kickstarting the city’s craft cocktail renaissance. He didn’t make the final cut, but his lack of presence wasn’t the reason he steered clear of the film.
“The industry bubble portrayed in the movie was absolutely our world. He got the DNA of our industry right, which was impressive for an outsider.”
“CURE hosted the rematch of the bartender competition event [in the movie],” says Bodenheimer, who now operates the establishment and its sister venue Cane & Table through the company he co-founded, CureCo. “So much shit went wrong, it almost broke the bar. It was one of the worst nights in CURE history. I didn’t have the heart to watch it because of that.”
Eventually, he agreed to watch the movie with fresh eyes and discuss it afterward. After working through the film’s 96 minutes, his heart was full. “Oh my God. I’m so glad I watched it,” he says. “It was really wild, having lived through that era. It was such an interesting time, and it’s an interesting movie to watch now. There is a lot of reflection to be had.”
Bodenheimer’s reaction is a relatively common one within the industry. Ten years after its theatrical debut, there is still plenty of appreciation for Tirola’s handiwork.
“Doug nailed it,” says Voisey. “The industry bubble portrayed in the movie was absolutely our world. He got the DNA of our industry right, which was impressive for an outsider.”
Better With Age
Pouring over old reviews of the film paints a different picture. Critiques were mixed, at best. Read a few of them, and common themes relating to the film emerge: There were too many commentators in the movie; there wasn’t enough time devoted to why fresh juice and the right ice were critical; slow-motion shots were overdone. Some are fair criticisms that hold up, whether you agree with them or not. But the harshest reviews of the film tended to draw a dividing line: Either you understood the craft cocktail movement, or you didn’t. This was somewhat comprehensible. Cocktail culture existed in a duality at the time of the film’s release. For those living in New York or San Francisco, it was a scene in full swing. For those outside this magic bubble, it was a harbinger of things to come — faux rockstars were coming to your town.
Not everyone understood what was happening, and those who didn’t get it unloaded in ways that look misinformed or horribly outdated nowadays. The most egregious critiques complained that “Hey Bartender” wasn’t more attuned to the Bud-Light-and-vodka-soda crowd while vaguely implying that the craft cocktail movement was a fad. Tirola understands their perspective.
“Before the movie came out, restaurants just had menus and wine lists and lots of magazines wrote about cocktails maybe once a year,” he said. “After the movie, these restaurants suddenly had leather-bound cocktail menus and magazines suddenly had weekly cocktail columns.”
In retrospect, critiques dismissing the cocktail scene as an overblown trend with a shelf life share the DNA of the poorly dated screeds about the Beatles’ arrival in the U.S. in 1964, in which older reporters insisted that they would fade into the ether. This isn’t meant to compare the bar industry to the Fab Four, but the ignorance and arrogance stemming from the criticisms on both subjects are palpable on the same level, especially with the passage of time. In 2023, listening to “Revolver” or drinking a skillfully made Sazerac are timeless activities.
Room to Grow
It seems plausible to state that “Hey Bartender” caused some of the craft cocktail movement’s explosion, particularly as the scene started to grab a foothold in places outside New York and San Francisco. Ross Simon — who co-founded Arizona Cocktail Week in 2012 and opened his now-critically acclaimed Phoenix bar Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Parlour the following year — says the film caused a shift in the Grand Canyon State.
“[It] made it easier for us to sell the concept to others,” he says of the craft movement. “We just had to show people the film to show them what we were trying to create.” People got the message the film conveyed, and still do: Last year’s Arizona cocktail fete featured more than 60 brand sponsors and welcomed bars from Mexico City, London, and Singapore. Growth has also spurred refinement. The industry’s biggest conference, Tales of the Cocktail — which is featured prominently in the movie — has evolved to include more educational and collaborative opportunities than it did a decade ago.
“It’s important to show what the industry looks like now. There is this new wave of thinking out there, and that new talent and their new creativity should be highlighted.”
Watching “Hey Bartender” in 2023 also highlights an industry in need of growing up. The film captures bits and pieces of questionable behaviors and attitudes that were part of the scene’s zeitgeist back in the day. For the most part, these moments of uncomfortable sexual allusions peppering the movie may elicit a quick “yuck” from the viewer. But one scene, depicting a Repeal Day party at Employees Only replete with dancers stripping on bar tops and shaking pastied breasts in patrons’ faces, still makes plenty of people cringe. “I’d hate for people in today’s industry to look at some of the bad behaviors in the film and be wistful,” Meehan says.
“These days, you won’t see a Tales seminar where someone talks about blow jobs,” Simon adds, alluding to one of the movie’s earlier scenes.
The industry has plenty of room to grow a decade later: Issues like mental health, diversity, equity, inclusion, and substance abuse are still in need of serious addressing. These subjects weren’t brought up in the documentary, which is not surprising.
“The industry is barely ready to talk about some of these issues now,” says Alex Jump, founder and senior manager of operations for the industry health and wellness advocacy group Focus on Health. “We were, and still are, an industry of silent suffering.”
New Era, New Industry
With “Hey Bartender” turning 10 this year, one could argue it’s the ideal time to revisit the state of the American cocktail scene and meet the new generation of bartenders shaping its look.
“It’s important to show what the industry looks like now,” says Jump. “There is this new wave of thinking out there, and that new talent and their new creativity should be highlighted.”
“Seeing these bartenders in the last 10 years was like if you caught your favorite band playing at a small venue like the Mercury Lounge, and several years later they end up playing Radio City Music Hall.”
This updated peek behind the curtain may provide a more holistic view of the industry’s successes and flaws, and directly reflect the change in attitudes inside and outside the industry over the last decade. “”Hey Bartender” follows the story of two white men,” Meehan points out. “It’s a movie of its time, as it’s a white male-dominated movie in general. A new movie would need to include more women and people of color into the story.”
“If we want to tell the true story of the industry, we must address the heartbreak of the industry,” Bodenheimer adds. “This industry can be all things wonderful and terrible to people. Remember, we sell fun, but we also handle alcohol.”
We may get that story soon enough: A documentary focusing on flair bartending, “Shaken & Stirred,” is set to drop in 2024. Similar projects are also rumored, but are currently in the clandestine phase. It’s unknown if these projects will provide an at-the-moment picture of the industry like “Hey Bartender” did a decade ago, or if they’ll make a dent in the public consciousness. At the very least, they can be conversation starters driven by a topic that carries more weight than it gets credit for carrying.
“The cocktail was an American invention, so Americans should take ownership of this,” Voisey says. “It’s as important as any other story of food and drink.”
Ford’s quote about bartenders being rockstars who never learned instruments captured the imagination of the “Hey Bartender” audience in 2013. Ten years later, the career trajectory of the people Tirola interviewed inspires a different music analogy from the director.
“If I can be a New Yorker for a second,” he says, “seeing these bartenders in the last 10 years was like if you caught your favorite band playing at a small venue like the Mercury Lounge, and several years later they end up playing Radio City Music Hall.”
Tirola also points out a rather un-rockstar-like quality about bartenders that he picked up on after years of observation. “The industry attracted individuals outside of the ‘normal,’” he says. “But they also wanted to be in the mainstream of society, albeit with a different approach.”
Triola’s sentiment points out something quite magical about the bar industry that was true when “Hey Bartender” debuted and remains so today. The bartenders who care about the craft of hospitality, the ones who work odd-ass hours making drinks, and devote their career to running places that provide happiness and community for so many are often misfits. They also happen to be some of the coolest damn people on the planet, working in the coolest damn industry in the world, full stop. Perhaps that’s why so many of them never bothered to learn an instrument — it wasn’t necessary.