A cocktail writer crosses the line
Behind the bar at Hodges Bend
My personal rule is to keep work and play separate. As a cocktail writer, that divide isn’t only a metaphorical one—it’s a physical one. At Hodges Bend, it’s the white marble bar top constantly reminding me that as much as I have read or may know about what happens on the other side of the bar, I have never been there.
I entered through the front door at 7:20 p.m., as I had hundreds of Friday nights before, except this time I was about to violate that personal rule. Five years of habit would dictate that I weave through the crowd, past the curvature of the bar and towards where its white marble surface straightens. I’d calmly sit in the stool that’s second from the left then order a Tobacco Old Fashioned and request the rum be upgraded from the standard Brugal to Kirk and Sweeney, the way Hodges Bend originally made them.
Rather than obey habit, I went directly to the end of the bar. I couldn’t tell if the feeling in my gut was an adrenaline rush or anxiety. With a calculated level of apprehension, I waited to let the general manager, Logan Sweetwood, know that I was ready to begin my barback shift.
Working as a barback is the first phase of a rite of passage towards becoming a bartender. Simply put: bartenders make the drinks, but it’s the barbacks who ensure they have what’s needed to maintain the uninterrupted flow.
My shift began on a very busy Friday night at 7:30 p.m. I was jumping in with absolutely zero experience in the service industry and nothing more than a 15-minute crash course on my responsibilities.
Sweetwood and I took a shot of cold brew coffee and I began my most basic task—maintaining the steady flow of glassware being cycled through the dishwasher. When you run out of a particular whiskey you can offer the guest an alternative, but if you run out of glassware that’s a different story.
It wasn’t until around 9 p.m. that I got the rhythm of cleaning, polishing, and stacking glassware down. It was much earlier when I learned the glassware coming out of the dishwasher is scalding hot but still must be set aside to dry and make room for incoming.
In between dish cycles, I was also responsible for checking the levels of alcohol, juices, syrups, and ice at both of the wells. Emptying trash, restocking beer, and other miscellaneous tasks were also on my shoulders.
Most of the night was a frenetic rhythm as if I were simultaneously juggling a bowling ball, chainsaw, and hot coal, all while balancing a coupe glass on my head. Everything was constant but at different paces.
While I didn’t feel overwhelmed at any point, I quickly realized that I was only doing the baseline tasks. A good barback is able to juggle these tasks and anticipate what is needed, while also interacting with guests. This is a level I was not able to achieve during a single shift. One attempt and Sweetwood swiftly asked that I continue to work while I converse.
At 9 p.m. the rush still hadn’t slowed, and I took another shot of cold brew coffee with a few of the bartenders. Throughout the course of the night, we had three parties of 15-20 people each, on top of the regular crowd.
When you’re on the working side of the bar, you perceive the controlled chaos. It’s a system of clearly defined roles and deliberate communication that plays out like a well-choreographed dance. The staff’s ability to perform this dance and deliver a hospitable experience to customers was impressive.
It wasn’t until 10:30 p.m. that the pace slowed down. The slower pace meant that I could tend to putting away the stacks of clean glassware that had piled up, and start polishing the stemware.
At midnight Sweetwood called all the staff to the end of the bar for a brief and mandatory pause to partake in a community shot. A tradition that “rallies the troops” to celebrate a successful night and assure them that two more hours of service is manageable.
After a few groups looking for their final-stop pass through, I was cut at 1:30 a.m. I wadded up my bar towel and threw it into the bin before re-tracing my steps towards the entrance. I sat in the second stool from the corner of the bar and ordered my “shifty,” the complimentary drink earned after completing a shift without breaking any glassware.
Any other night, the Penicillin cocktail I ordered would have been a nightcap, but under these circumstances, it wasn’t simply a well-earned drink. My appreciation for it increased. While I won’t claim that a mere six hours barbacking brought me to a level of grand enlightenment, I know that it taught me something.
Although marble is known for its permanence, a statue carved from it is not limited to a single interpretation. Admiring art from a different perspective can lead to new discoveries and interpretations. Likewise, a marble bar top is not just a dividing line. It can be something to cross to gain an entirely new perspective and appreciation that wasn’t possible from the second stool from the corner.