Hands-Off Experience

Of course you remember the Seinfeld episode.

We mean the episode, when Jerry, George, Kramer and Elaine tested the bounds of self-denial. It resonated because, well, humans...um...not that we, um...Hell, you know what we're saying.

When provided access to things that bring pleasure, the human animal finds it difficult to abstain. And we're not just referring to our occasional enjoyment of organ music. Everyone has a weakness, whether it be controlled substances, 80-proof libations, access to a large army and fictitious intelligence reports or all of the above.

Recently a group of bartenders (and one chef) tried a similar experiment. They agreed, for one long month, to refrain from any taste of alcohol. Even the common practice of dipping a straw into an outgoing cocktail to ensure quality was outlawed. Six people participated in the contest, including Adam Salazar of Old Republic, Fuse and Nikita; Alyssa Adams, who works alongside at Fuse and Nikita; and Greg Horchak, veteran bartender at Obar. Operating on the honor system, they each pledged $1,000 should the lure of fermented produce overwhelm them before the four-week period came to an end.

Why? The unique event drew some criticism when word spread around the service community. "What does it do for you except save you money?" asks Ian Green of the Idle Rich.

For Adams it was a way to detox after the excesses of New Year's parties. "The point was to see if we could do it," she explains. "I knew I could and wanted the extra cash." Horchak, on the other hand, heard about the deal second-hand. A few nights before, he inadvertently played bumper cars in a fast-food parking lot and realized he needed help. "I figured I'd piggyback on their support group," he recalls. "It's impossible to do it by yourself."

And that brings us to this week's Burning Question.

Not that we condone sobriety, mind you. The Burning Question crew is personally responsible for the financial well-being of Goody Goody and Majestic Liquors. But we're just lowlife ne'er-do-wells and alt-weekly writers. Bartenders, according to Eddie Germann of the Men's Club and Fuse, "have to get the job, keep the job and build a clientele." Someone with an alcohol-addled mind can't truly serve beer and wine and vodka. Yes, he admits, "in most places there's one guy," a staff member who tips back a little too much every evening. But he (or she) bounces around from venue to venue. A professional bartender handles much of the cash coming into a place, maintains inventory, takes care of problems with patrons and keeps up an image.

No place, in other words, for a writer...we mean, for a habitual drunk. (Editor's note: po-tay-to, po-tah-to.)

Most bartenders we spoke with claimed the early years were toughest on livers and brain cells. After five or so years of toil, it becomes a profession. Yes, Germann says, "it's really easy to break down and grab a swig"--depending on the establishment; some prohibit drinking--"but you got to realize that every night, it's not going to work." On the other hand, there's a room full of people whooping it up. And a group of friends, or those hoping to ingratiate themselves, offering to buy drinks for the folks behind the bar. Happens every night. Therein lies the danger, for you see, serving drinks for a living while maintaining some semblance of what Warren Harding called "normalcy" is not an easy task. "It's hard," Germann says, "because it's in your hand every night." For one thing, bartenders must test everything in order to understand the product. "How can I give you a description if I've never tried it?" Green points out. "You have to know what you're selling."

"It's our name on the cocktail," says Mark Giese of Obar. And when hopeful drunks try to buy bartenders a shot? Well, he adds, "If I say 'no,' they take it as a slap in the face."

So wise bartenders learn a few tricks, such as watering down their own drink. "Most of us do half shots when people offer to buy," claims Zac Searcy, who works at Sambuca in Uptown and Martini Ranch.

But we're not so much interested in answering this week's question as in who mastered their domain. During his month of sobriety Horchak tried boiling Altoids in bar syrup to replicate the taste of Rumple Minze. Salazar tended to get a bit grumpy without the numbing effect of alcohol. Then a strange thing occurred.

"I lost weight. I have way more energy. After this I don't want to drink," a clearly confused and disoriented Adams says. Equally confounded by sobriety, Horchak adds "you tend to make better decisions when you don't have the goggles on."

Hasn't followed W's career, has he?

Anyway, none of the contestants cracked. They all managed 30 grueling days of alcohol-free existence. And then they gathered at Hurricane Grill for a zero-to-60 blowout party. One ended up face-down in his bathtub. The others? Well, details are fuzzy.

And that's our answer to this week's question. Yes, bartenders consume, just like the rest of us. Yet it's possible to live without liquor for an extended period, just so long as you know there's a drink or five in your future.

Like Green says: "It would be sad irony to get through the month and just before it ended find out you're dying of liver problems."

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Dave Faries
Contact: Dave Faries