These days, it’s possible to get a well-made Old Fashioned in almost any city. As the craft cocktail movement spreads across the country, it’s arriving in smaller and smaller markets. Unlike their counterparts in well-established markets like New York or San Francisco, these bartenders often work long hours for little to no press.
Gauging the state of the American cocktail has its challenges. With traditional media resources ever dwindling, reporters often focus on the bars in their immediate area. But some are working to change that. One such project is “Bartender at Large,” a documentary and weekly YouTube series aimed at capturing bartenders’ stories in all markets, instead of focusing on the cocktails themselves.
“Everything that’s made for bartenders is either focused on recipes or is made by a liquor company,” says Erick Castro of Boilermaker in NYC and Polite Provisions in San Diego. “It’s not really actually about the bartender, it’s about promoting the brand. I was like, let’s go and make a documentary about bartenders by bartenders and get to the gist of it, get to the soul of it.”
Initially, Castro and his team lined up sponsors to make the documentary happen. But when those arrangements fell through, they decided to go it alone and take advantage of greater creative freedom. Thus, the initial cross-country, 27-day road trip to gather stories and do interviews was funded by the sale of Castro’s car.
“In the short term, it would have been nice [to] have an expense account and nice hotels,” he says. “But in the long term, we didn’t want to compromise the film. We did not want to have an agenda. We wanted to make sure that viewers … are actually getting a proper film and not an infomercial.”
With that money banked, Castro, his wife, and a cameraman left in September on their adventure. On that trip, the trio drove a little over 5,000 miles. “I think we calculated that it was the distance from New York City to Alaska,” he says.
During their journey, the group pulled guest shifts in nine cities around the West.
On the way, the team stopped in markets of all sizes. “There are so many bartenders out there in overlooked markets who just feel disconnected, who don’t feel like they’re part of what’s going on, who aren’t quite in the fold as much as they should be,” he says. “I feel like a lot of the cocktail gatekeepers kind of have blinders on. They don’t realize what’s going on in the rest of the world. I’ve had cocktails in Boise that are just as good as anything I’ve ever had in London or New York. I think that would be a surprise to some.”
“The beauty of it is that we found from traveling to all these different places is that, no matter whether you’re making cocktails in San Francisco or LA or Boise or Salt Lake City, the heart of the bartender tends to be the same,” he says. “[So many] themes were repeated across different cities. We thought that was really cool.”
Along the way, Castro and his team also did guest shifts at bars in nine cities around the West. In so doing, they discovered that drinking trends are influenced by place. “We realized how profoundly the climate impacts the way you drink,” says Castro. “[In] places like Tucson or Phoenix, it was 104 in October. Brown and stirred drinks are what we’re all about as bartenders. We nerd out on it. But when it’s 104, if your menu is just a bunch of nerdy bartender stirred cocktails, they’re not going to move. People walk in from the heat and they want cool and refreshing and it makes perfect sense.”rn
There were also marked differences in quality of service. “The service was exceptional in all the smaller markets we went to,” he says. “I’m sorry, the service is better. It just was.”
The YouTube series has since launched, and although it was originally supposed to be a 10-episode run to build excitement for the documentary, it will continue weekly even after the documentary is released. “The episodes for online range everywhere from Sacramento to Paris, France,” says Castro. “We want to make sure everybody gets an even shake. Our goal is to take the blinders off and let everybody know what is really happening.”
New episodes air each Tuesday. Check out the latest below, in which the group pays a visit to Portland and San Diego: