I don’t know wine from kerosene but, hey, bottoms up!

October 28, 2009

Asking a non-drinker to tend bar is akin to having a virgin explain the erotic pleasures to be derived from the Kama Sutra. Something is bound to be lost in the translation, if only through a lack of experience.

And yet there I was Saturday evening, helping out a fellow Canadian named Anne Vink, who owns the Old Mill Napier. Located in a historical section of the city, the place once actually operated as a wool mill but now Anne rents it out as a venue for birthday parties and weddings and any other celebration that lends itself to a large number of people gathering in a picturesque location.

This particular night featured a wedding and watching such an event must be thirsty work — or I guess, as my brother is so fond of saying, free alcohol really does taste better — because the regular bartender and I were kept very busy. Even if all I know about wine is that it comes in two colors. I’m almost positive about that.

I was relieved to discover the only other alcohol we’d be serving was beer. Because beer bottles have labels and I’ve been reading since I was four. It also helped that a lot of the guests brought back their empties. “Another green bottle? Coming right up.”

(Just for the record, the Belgium beer  Stella Artois was by far the favored brew on the night, with Tui and Heineken tied for a distant second. Very distant.)

Compare this experience to my first bartending gig when, many years ago, I was asked by one of my brother’s friends to dole out drinks at his wedding reception. Part of the reason — or perhaps the main reason — why this friend recruited my services was because he knew I wouldn’t be adding to the bar tab with my own imbibing.

At that time, however, I also had to serve up the hard stuff, and that can be tricky for someone who doesn’t know bourbon from kerosene. My solution was to have people point to the bottle they wanted. It seemed to work. Either that or everyone was too hammered to complain.

The only real complication on this Saturday presented itself in the form of the bubbly. We’re not talking champagne here; the bottles appeared to contain little more than carbonated wine but, when it comes to toasts — and free drinks — I suppose it’s the fizz that counts.

Except you don’t screw the tops off bottles of bubbly. Oh no — first you must unwrap a covering of some kind of metallic paper that is practically welded to the top of the bottle. Only to then encounter a metal cage designed, I can only assume, to keep rodents at bay. Finally, there is the cork itself, as dangerous a projectile as man has ever invented.

Just like that kid with the Red Ryder BB gun in A Christmas Story, I had this fear of taking someone’s eye out with a cork. And by someone, I mean me.

For the most part, I let my bartending partner open the bubbly. At one point, when she was away fetching clean glasses, I simply handed the bottle to a guest to open. He showed me his secret to avoiding both blindness and overflow: cup the bottom of the bottle in the palm of one hand and then slowly twist and pull the cork with the other. While keeping your face well out of the line of fire.

By the end of my shift, I had become quite the twist-and-pull expert. In fact, only one cork got away on me. I’m not really sure where it ended up but I didn’t hear any screaming and I’m going to assume that’s a good thing.

I also concocted my first glass of LLB (lemon, lime and bitters, for you beginners out there.) Which is to say I pretty much guesstimated how much lemon concentrate, Sprite and bitters should go in a glass. I played it safe and went heavy on the Sprite, if only because a) no one knew exactly how much bitters to use, and b) someone causally mentioned bitters has such a high alcohol content that too much of it can kill you.

By the end of my shift, no one was dead or maimed, and I’d devised my own method for pouring bubbly into a glass while producing a minimum of froth. So are you thinking what I’m thinking?

“Yeah, hello, Tom? Cocktail 2? I’m so there.”

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