Stateside Serves 'Hey Bartender!' Straight Up
Documentary focuses on unsung heroes behind craft cocktail
By R.U. Steinberg, 2:15PM, Thu. Jun. 20, 2013
Steve Schneider is a principal bartender and bar manager at Employees Only, an award-winning New York City bar that has been named the world's best cocktail bar. But in the documentary Hey Bartender and in real life, he is the Everyman, the Jimmy Stewart and Tom Hanks of bartenders.
Ready to serve his country as a Marine in Afghanistan after 9/11, his military career was cut short about a dozen years ago when he was the victim of a back alley brawl that almost left him dead. Bartending became his new platoon and it wasn’t long before he landed the position of stocker at Employees Only.
Austin Chronicle: First of all, let’s get our terminology correct. Do you prefer being called “bartender” or “mixologist?”
Steve Schneider: I always say call me what you want as long as you have your money ready. I consider myself a bartender. I have to show up for work every day.
AC: Is there a reason?
SS: Because I work behind a bar. I just don't make drinks. Mixing drinks is just a part of it – the mixologist part is the walking encyclopedia part of the job. Also, mixologists are hired by companies to create drinks. I'm a guy who deals with money and works behind the bar. But I just respond to whatever they want to call me.
AC: You and your colleagues put a lot of thought into the ingredients you use. For example, I noticed that you use Tito's Handmade Vodka for one of your drinks, which is made here in Austin. How do you go about researching your ingredients? Why Tito's overstay Stoli? Do you sit down one day and taste test them?
SS: As a former Marine, I like to think of every bottle of booze we have is part of our arsenal. Each bottle has a story. Each one is different. There's no “What's the best vodka?” That's ridiculous. Think of this like a filmmaker. There are different camera lenses depending on what you want to achieve. The more you know about your equipment, the more you can adapt to create. Like, I wouldn't use a 3-D camera if I were trying to do film noir. When you think about the drinks, you have to think about what makes sense, what you want to achieve in a drink. If you want a drink that reminds you of France, you would probably make a drink that contains cognac or Champagne. That's a drink that will have conviction. Some people make a drink where they may put something in it that is sweet and then something that is bitter and they can get by with that, but what kind of drink is that? It just doesn't have that personal element. Some bartenders try create cocktails to impress other bartenders; I try create cocktails to impress my guests. I once made a drink for a beautiful Italian woman, and I used all Italian ingredients. Solerno Blood Orange Liqueur, Prosecco, a few other Italian things – it was a Champagne cocktail of sorts. It just made so much sense. And she enjoyed it because I made it just for her. I wanted to please her. I didn't want to make a drink with an agenda. I just wanted to make somebody happy. Most people are not used to that much attention when they ask for a mixed drink. It's not really that hard caring about people. Like saying “please” and “thank you,” it really goes along way. And that's how the movie was made.
AC: Tell me more about the movie.
SS: Originally, [director] Doug Tirola came in and said he wanted to make a movie about a corner bar. But I paid attention, he saw me work and how I cared for my people. Next thing you know, he came in and said, “Hey, we're making this documentary on the resurgence of classic cocktails instead.” Wow, I helped inspire him. That means a lot to me – to have inspired an artist. And it is doing something good for our whole community. I'm really happy with the dedication he had and the way he portrayed everybody. He highlighted all the great stuff in our industry. At the end, you see shots of bartenders across the whole country, and they are all smiling. That sums up everything. It's a celebration. If you're looking at this movie as some sort of a “how to make a drink” or “how to run a bar,” it may fall short of your expectations. But if you go in to see it with an open mind about cocktails and the people behind it, [you'll see we] are hard-working men and women and it's something we take seriously. This movie is a great platform now for all things craft bartending. There is so much in our industry and if Doug were to cover everything, the movie would probably be like eight hours long. This was the perfect documentary – the perfect little story about what goes on in our industry and how a couple men choose theirs.
AC: While you recently attended events in Los Angeles surrounding the film’s premiere, were you doing any guest bartending there or was it strictly for promoting the movie?
SS: It's just movie promotion really. But I was visiting other bars and enjoying myself. I'm trying to stay away from doing the guest bartending stuff. I don't want to take over anybody else's bar. My story is one of thousands of bartenders. I just like to come to these events and sit down and be a guest at these great bartenders' bars and just enjoy it. It reminds me of why I do what I do and how much I love my craft and my fellow bartenders.
AC: I see that you did a guest appearance in San Francisco. Do you go to other locations a lot? And do you have to scout out ingredients in that area? Or what the popular drinks are in those locations?
SS: A lot of times you want to stick to who you are. When making guest appearances, I might make some of our menu drinks. Or maybe I will make a couple for a certain occasion. On the Internet, you can get any kind of information. A couple years ago, I went to San Francisco. The bar manager there was as solid as they come. I added a few options for the menu, what was viable. Last year, I went to 30 different cities worldwide either giving talks or just bartending or just to be in competitions. Traveling around in other professions isn’t as common. Being a full-time bartender, consistently doing it, can be grueling both physically and mentally. I've been doing it for 11 years now. One thing my mentors taught me is you have to constantly evolve in this business. First, you establish yourself as a bartender. Then, what you do from there? You can branch out, work the brands. There are several different career options in this industry other than just being a bartender. With hard work and dedication – and if you embrace that we are all in this industry together – you can do anything. My career is looking pretty damn bright. I'm looking forward to opening my own place in the next few years. In the mean time, I’m having just too much fun. People are paying me to go all over the world. And I'm getting to do what I love.
AC: This newfound celebrity must be very exciting.
SS: I know everybody in the community. My story, my vision here – a lot of people have seen it before. They know my story. They know what I've been through. They know what kind of product I put out and why we are so successful and something like the highest grossing cocktail bar per square foot in the world. For people not in the industry, my story is compelling. I'm somebody people can root for. You know, I'm as real as they come. I am a hard-working guy who has been told he couldn't do something. I've been told that it was all over for me and I didn't have a chance, but I made it and I enjoyed it. That story could've been about anybody from any walk of life. I think the “never give up" attitude is something that everybody can relate to.
As far as the worldwide celebrity goes, I realize that everybody in the craft bar industry is going to probably see this movie at some point in their lives. I'm aware of the responsibilities, but I'm also aware that I have a job to do. I will continue to evolve and if I'm going to be a leader in this industry; I'm always going try to do the right thing. I owe it to everybody at Employees Only, I owe it to my fellow bartenders for the support and the camaraderie, and I'm looking forward to embracing that challenge of helping to put what we do on the forefront, on the mainstream. I just want to get the message out there this is a real movement and these are real people in a real profession. The more we understand about it the better we are in anything.
AC: Have you ever been to Texas? Did you have any drinks here while you were here? Or any bars that you liked?
SS: Yes I was in Austin for SXSW, [and] I had a blast – nice town. But during SXSW, we didn't go to that many bars.
AC: So you're not an apprentice bartender anymore, right?
SS: No, now I'm the bar manager. I am one of the five principals. It's an honor for me to work next to the people who helped me come up – my heroes – every day. It's a dream come true. Since I was in the movie, I've become a world champion bartender and I've been all over the world. I’ve become one of the most respected bartenders of my generation because I bring it every day. I try to treat everybody right. I try to honor what we do and try to say and do the right thing. When people come into a place, they expect a level of service. All of this stuff, all of this attention, it's only made us better as a group because we have to perform at a high level every day. When I'm working or not, when I going to another bar they know Steve Schneider from Employees Only is there – not just Steve Schneider. I am representing my mentors, the other principal bartenders, and my apprentices. We like to go out to other places and treat people with respect. We carry ourselves like champs. If you carry yourself like a winner, like a champion, people are going to respect you, and if you surround yourself with great people, it's going to be contagious. For me now to have apprentices of my own, for them to look up to me as I did Dushan Zaric [also of Employees Only], it's a great feeling. It's part of the lineage Dushan talked about in the film. Now, I can train the new generation. It keeps everything going. It keeps us growing.
AC: You’ve mentioned in the movie that you like drinking Manhattans. Is that still your preferred drink?
SS: It depends. When it comes to drinks, it all depends on who I'm with time of year, time of day, if I'm eating …. I love Jason Kosmas and Dushan's recipe. I think it embodies our city as a whole. It's a cocktail I have a lot of appreciation for. But I drink everything in the right context.
Hey Bartender will play at Stateside at the Paramount (719 Congress) on Saturday, June 22. Tickets are $10 for general admission; Film Fan admission with badge is $7. There will be a pre-reception with David Alan (Tipsy Texan) and Bill Norris (Midnight Cowboy) tending bar at 6pm, a screening of the film at 7pm, and a Q&A with bartenders at 8:30pm. Visit the Stateside website for tickets and complete details.