Master bar-mistress Pam Wiznitzer got into bartending as a way to pre-game on the cheap in college. A couple of years later, when her start-up job went bust during the recession, she started pouring drinks at a Murray Hill sports bar — the kind of place where screens glow with ESPN and the only sound track is top 40’s jams. The manager left her to her own devices and she started picking up dusty bottles and bringing in fruit from the corner stand, experimenting with her own off-the-menu-drinks. She taught herself to stir, measure, and serve a very well crafted drink.
Fast forward a few years: Wiznitzer was one of the original hires at The Dead Rabbit. She’s gone on to compete in high stakes bartending competitions, present at drink conferences, and this summer, spend 86 days in a car touring the country’s bars for her masters thesis. She talks with Eater about how to pick a drink when the menu is 74 cocktails deep, why women are becoming a bigger presence in the cocktail scene, and why it’s important to always be a bartender, not a mixologist, first.
How did you get into bartending?
I did the Columbia Bartending Academy while I was at Barnard, because all of the instructors of the academy were my friends. They were like ‘Hey, come and pay $125 to basically come and pre-game before going out on Thursday night.' And I was like ‘That sounds awesome.'
But let's get things straight. This wasn't Mixology 101, we were shaking Manhattans and had cherries and oranges in our old fashioneds and we were making bright blue martinis, so it didn't give me the basics that I really needed, but it gave me categories. I understood martinis from cream drinks and daisies and that was pretty great.
Later, when then the recession hit in ‘08/09 and my job got downsized, my friends who did guest bartending at a Murray Hill sports bar told me: ‘we can probably get you a shift.' The manager told me "This isn't a great shift, the money's not great, but you can make it what you want.' And I said ‘OK!' just really bright eyed. That was it. I was very determined and I loved it, man and I killed it! I had the bar filled constantly and I had so many regulars and I had a server and that was it.
Who are your regulars when you're bartending in the middle of a day at a sports bar in Murray Hill?
Well, we had really good food and Murray Hill's actually a really interesting place to bartend because you get every kind of person in New York City, lots of bridges and tunnels...the NYU hospitals are right there. So we had a lot of doctors, nurses and patients.
You should always strive to be a bartender first...That means you're encouraging hospitality first and foremost.
Hopefully not drinking during their shifts.
No, a lot of them were eating food. But the part that was really hard emotionally was that we were right next to a cancer hospital, so we had a lot of family members and people who were going through a lot of trauma and mourning. They would come by for a drink and my responsibility was to be there for them. It was a really big life lesson as a bartender. Your role's not just to serve a drink, your role's to be there for your guest. I loved it.
I loved watching ESPN during the day silently with top 40's jams on top of it. I just loved that I had a whole bar to myself and that's when I started exploring bottles. I started picking things up off shelves that weren't really touched.
What was next?
Well, I worked there for two and a half years, mainly because the money was great, but also because I could work on my quote unquote mixology skills during the day. I brought my own bar tools. I would bring cocktail books and read them. I'd have friends sit with me and they'd taste things. All the while I was trying to apply to jobs at cocktail bars but no one looked at me. And it's funny, because some of these people are my colleagues and good friends now. I'll never ever tell them to their face ‘You rejected me back in the day.' I feel very proud that I was self taught.
Where are you now?
Since then, I've worked in a bunch of bars, managed bars, built bar programs. Now I'm at the Dead Rabbit, I was an original hire. I've seen the whole transformation of the place. I'm the president of the bartender's guild chapter here in New York and I am still getting a masters in food studies at NYU. It's really hard to do everything all at once. So I'm on the 4 or 5 year plan. And then I attend a lot of cocktail conferences, I present at a bunch of them. I'm headed to Portland Cocktail Week this week, and I presented at Tales of the Cocktail. I'm headed to a San Antonio cocktail conference in January to present. I just try to be out there in our community. For me the best thing is connecting with other bartenders and the non-stop pursuit of knowledge — learning from everyone.
You just got back from this grand tour of bars around the country. What was that about?
At NYU, if you're in food studies, you have to do a masters thesis. The number one thing that's always said in our industry — when you see you friends at all of these conferences a couple times a year — everyone's like ‘Come visit me in Savannah.' ‘Come visit me in Dallas.' And you think: ‘Yeah, I'll get there at some point with what money and what time off?'
I just thought, what if there were a way for me to visit all of my friends? What if there were a way to study a topic that really interests me? I'm so intrigued about how and why america drinks, different trends and styles, how economics plays a main factor, gender, race, religion, laws, and limitations based upon your state. So I planned a big road trip focused on how America drinks. I got in the car for 11 weeks, 86 days, 13,824 miles and I went to 40 markets and it was the most life changing project and time of my life besides my bat mitzvah. [laughs]
You went to 40 different markets, wow. Do you feel like the country can be can be divided up when it comes to drinking trends?
Yeah, kind of. For bartending a lot of it has to do with what's available in your local markets. So based upon whether is it a control state or a non-control state. Utah's the worst they have like a million laws because of religious sects. Socioeconomics had a lot to do with it and then a lot of it had to do with local distilling. Pretty much the number one trend I saw is that everyone's really proud of their local breweries. They try to drink local and they push it in all of the bars and restaurants.
What do you think is the most interesting thing going on in the New York bar scene at the moment?
I love how the New York bar scene is a melting pot. We get more bartenders moving here from other markets than any other city. We just acquired Erick Castro from San Diego who did Polite Provisions and is now doing Boilermaker. That's huge for our market. These influences are really important to keep the scene in New York fresh. That's what's going to keep it really interesting and exciting.
Three most important bars in New York City, right now, they can be old, they can be new.
God damn. That's terrible. I mean, I like to think the Dead Rabbit's very important. I feel fortunate to work at a bar that I really think is setting trends and shows that hard work and planning for years in advance can pay off.
To me, Clover Club is extremely important. I think, obviously Flation Lounge which Julie Reiner originally opened over 10 years ago is iconic because it was one of the first cocktail bars, even before Employees Only. But, I think what she and Susan Fedroff poured into Clover Club has been even more iconic and important in paving ways into Brooklyn. Julie in my mind is just the ultimate role model in our industry. You'll see her at the bar and you'll see her plunging toilets if something happens and she's out there teaching you at a seminar, and then she's having a drink next to you.
And what about a real classic bar?
Old Town to me is very iconic, historically speaking, but also just because it's important to see that you don't have to be flashy. You don't have to have cocktails, and you don't have to be insane and serve ridiculous food in order to be a really great bar. It epitomizes the past. You can go there and have a beer and hotdog and no one judges you, and you have a great afternoon.
There are two types of bars: 'rental-agreement' bars and experiential bars.
Bartending was historically dominated by men. Is that still the case?
I mean, I think it's definitely changed from five years ago. There are people like Lynnnette Marrero and Ivy Mix who spearheaded the way for women to really have a huge platform with Speed Rack. It's an all-women's speed cocktail making competition, which is in its fourth year. Those two women, are just totally changing the way that women are perceived. I think in other ways, a lot of bars don't want to open without one or two females on their staff because they don't want to be seen, maybe as sexist. But, what a female brings to a bar is totally different than what a male brings.
I believe a lot in personable interactions and it doesn't matter if you're a fierce woman, there's something about a woman's touch that's just a little bit more gentle. I think that a woman's emotion and empathy sometimes really translates over into a bar experience. It's interesting, a lot of grape pickers in vineyards are women and a lot of distillers have women put labels on their bottles. They say the women have a gentler touch.
How do you feel about the term "mixology"?
Let's say people ask, ‘Hey, are you a mixologist?' I say, ‘Hey, listen, I'm a bartender.' My friend Chris Lowder from The NoMad puts it so beautifully: ‘A mixologist mixologizes and puts things in a glass, but a bartender tends the bar.' To me that's such a strong notion.
Mixology has a long, deep history and I think there's something to say for someone who knows how to put ingredients together to a glass beautifully. I'm not offended when people use it. I don't mind using it with my friends because if anything I want to pay respect to people who do practice mixology. Deep down, you strive to be a bartender who can also be a mixologist. You should always strive to be a bartender first because that means you tend to your bar and you are encouraging hospitality first and foremost.
I respect sommeliers so much because they have to go through rigorous examinations in order to get that title. We're getting there in our industry. There are programs like Bar Five Day. It's a 5 day intense program, they take 50 people a year and it's one week a year. It's really intense and there's a 5 to 6 part examination in the end. I did it last year. It's ridiculous. We have the WSETs which is for spirits training, but I guess that's why I went back to NYU because I wanted to get a master's degree. I wanted to show people that you can also get degrees in this field.
Are other people in the bar industry pursuing advanced degrees?
Some people are going back to get their MBAs, which I am so thrilled about. I think continuous education in any part of the hospitality industry is so important. As people are graduating from college, we really want them to see the hospitality industry as a viable source of income and as a career field, not just a holdover job. And we're only going to get stronger as a whole if people take us more seriously. I think people should aspire to be captains at really nice restaurants because that's really hard to do and takes a lot of work. And then go back and get a hospitality degree and then work in management.
For me, first everyone is like ‘Oh, you're a bartender?' And now people are like ‘You're a bartender!' The whole perception has changed. It's bringing much more legitimacy to a career that was at the top of its game pre-Prohibition. Bartenders were the gatekeepers of all towns and they commanded the cities. It was a really desirable job and then Prohibition and what happened with middle class America changed things. I'm excited that we're coming back to the forefront of the career field.
There are 74 drinks on the Dead Rabbit menu, that's a lot for someone who isn't deep into this world. How should someone who is new to high-minded cocktails go about becoming an informed drinker?
Here's what I say for new cocktail drinkers or people who are starting to explore: There are two different types of bars. There are bars called ‘rental-agreement' and bars that are experiential. The rental-agreement bar is a place for when you and your friends want to go out and just choose a random bar. You go in, and say, ‘Give me a vodka-soda.' They give you the vodka-soda, you give them the money, that's your rental agreement, you're paying for the rent of the space and you enjoy your night.
Then there are experiential bars. These are the bars where you are going in to have an experience. You're letting your guard down because you know you're going into it with a little bit of an open mind, saying ‘I know what flavors I like, I know my boundaries, but I'm willing to push limits a little.' And you're going there because you know they have good drinks, but you also that the bartenders and the servers have a wealth of knowledge. Talk. Communicate. It's okay to ask questions and it's okay to say there are things that you don't like. Vocalize what you don't like ahead of time. Go in with flavors and tastes in mind. So to me, experiential bars are the ones where you're willing to go in and have that conversation. And it's going to be okay. And oh, tell your bartender or server if you don't like a drink because we'll replace it for you immediately. We just want to make you happy.
So, what makes a good drink?
I always say the one that has love in the glass.....but, balance. A really good bartender should know how to balance a drink really well. It shouldn't be super sweet, super tart, super bitter, like a nice balance of it all. I love cocktails that linger on your palette, that you'll still taste a minute after you sip it. I love cocktails that are super dynamic, so that you have two to three tastes. It starts as one flavor and then morphs when you keep drinking as it hits different parts of the palette. Best is subjective not objective. The best drink is the one that makes you happy and makes the guest happy.