Today, the allure of mixology becomes magnified on the big screen: Hey Bartender, the documentary that made waves at SXSW by chronicling a duo of aspiring drink-slingers -- packed with plenty of cameos from bar luminaries in between -- opens at Village East Cinema. Director Douglas Tirola of 4th Row Films lets us in on the film's boozy origins, his own drinking rituals and why working behind the stick is no longer a halfhearted side gig, but a coveted career.
So, SXSW was a coup. How did that happen?
We hadn't even set our sights on SXSW. We contacted [SXSW film festival producer] Janet Pierson and said, "Any chance you'd take a look?" She was still watching stuff and asked us to send the link. Two days later, a Saturday night, we were in Connecticut at a bar, working on a shoot, and I felt my phone buzz. It was an email saying they wanted the movie. It was the right spot to celebrate until 5 a.m.
How did you meet the bartenders you profile in the film?
I ended up going to Library Bar, at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood, and got to know then-bartender Matt Biancaniello. At the same time, in New York, I was introduced to Employees Only, two blocks away from me. I started going for late-night meals after work where I met Steve Schneider. Then I was turned on to PDT, then I met Julie Reiner from Clover Club. It's been a soul-searching experience.
Sounds like it was an organic process. What did you hope to convey about the bartending world in the film?
This is what it is about: How did a job that most equate with the movie Cocktail go from that to making cocktails to the level of art? There is so much knowledge of ingredients and history. These are people who clearly had other choices for careers, but they picked this. They wanted to do something with their hands and create. They own their own places and have an entrepreneurial streak. Opening a bar is a universal dream. How did this come to pass? It's almost like those punk and New Wave music movies, or Beat writers, expats and the Algonquin Roundtable: people brought together by inspiration. I saw that happening with bartenders, and that's when you know it's a story that needs to be told.
What do you like best about the film?
A good movie has to have good characters. Steve, the retired Marine at Employees Only, going from barback to principal bartender? That's An Officer and a Gentleman and Jerry Maguire territory. Even if you're not a person who loves going out, you'll love the story.
What have you learned over the course of making this movie?
Let's not forget this industry is about a bar's regulars. The attention a bartender pays to guests is hospitality. When I walk into a bar, I now look to see how deeply committed it is. What brands do they have? What tools? For fun, I ask the bartender for a suggestion. When they ask me my taste preferences and serve me the one drink I shouldn't miss, that's hospitality.
You've paid visits to bars that are hotspots across the country, but is there anywhere off the radar that's wowed you with that double punch of great cocktails and service?
Whenever I travel for vacation or to shoot, I'm always researching for the best cocktail bar. Last year, in Belfast, Maine, I did a Q&A in a theater, and there was a place with craft cocktails. Unbelievable. It made an impression on me that amid people who make their living on lobster boats something like this existed.
What do you typically find yourself drinking?
My appreciation at one point was Amaretto and orange juice and a Kamikaze. Now I love tequila. The last couple of years, straight Milagro has been my go-to. I was at PDT recently and Jim [Meehan] showed me a new tequila drink based on what I've had to drink there before. That's how it should be. That moment is what the movie is trying to say.