Film Review: Hey Bartender

Immensely likeable documentary about that immensely likeable pastime, drinking.

With all the vast, global attention these days about what our bodies ingest, we have become a world of “foodies.” And nudging right alongside are those who might be termed “drinkies”—if not downright alcoholics—those obsessed with what we imbibe, liquor-wise. Douglas Tirola‘s Hey Bartender throws a barely bleary-eyed spotlight on this phenomenon, with particular emphasis on those who create the concoctions which have us reeling in so many ways.

Some bartenders, particularly in sophisticated environs like Manhattan, prefer to be known as “mixologists” or even “alchemists,” and Tirola features two in particular who are as different as night and day. Dushan Zaric, charismatic, impressively tattooed and mustachioed, and the very image of whip-thin Downtown hipster, works his magic at Manhattan’s award-winning Employees Only restaurant, with a devotion to his craft (or is it art?) that is as fully committed as his own personal journey—from being an injured marine to a star behind the bar—has been rough.

Steve Carpintieri, on the other hand, owns Dunville’s, a less sleek and much rowdier hangout in Westport, Connecticut, which is frankly struggling. The beer and boilermakers just aren’t cutting it lately, cash register-wise, and he is open to the idea of a more sophisticated style of doling out the drinks. As you see this regular Joe dealing with every vicissitude, however, from the inevitable toilet cleanup at night’s end to one rowdy female customer whom he enjoins to “put your shoes back on,” you can’t help but like him intensely and rather mourn the loss of his original establishment, as so many unpretentious local hangouts everywhere are giving way to foofier boites, with the dreaded bottle service.

The film is a tad overlong, but Tirola truly captures the allure of modern drinking, as well as, amusingly, much of its history. Obviously a deep lover of his subject, his film really switches into thrilling high gear when he shows the uncannily graceful, almost choreographed dance behind the bar at Employees Only, with a slew of manic workers—totally in their hectic Saturday-night zone—working their butts off while deftly maneuvering past and never even touching one another. The movie culminates in an annual bartending festival in New Orleans, this business’ Oscars, where Employees Only emerges the big competitive winner and Carpintieri schlumps about, eager to get whatever tips he can.

Watching the numerous interviews from everyone like bar eminences Graydon Carter, Amy Sacco and Danny Meyer to various esteemed bartenders like Dale DeGroff, aka “King Cocktail,” who is largely credited with reviving the entire urbane scene, one can’t help but notice that one major aspect is never mentioned. That would be the price of all these Martinis, Cosmos, Mojitos and other bespoke beverages, which can often rise into the high double digits. But, watching Tirola’s recurring montages of mixologists proudly pushing their exquisitely photogenic, glowing and painstakingly assembled creations across the bar toward you, you may well find your own mouth watering along with a willingness to go into the credit-card debt which surely must afflict so many of their high-living young customers.