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“Hey Bartender” Director Douglas Tirola

Hey Bartender is a documentary about the renaissance of cocktail culture, directed by Douglas Tirola. Set against the backdrop of craft cocktail bars, with comments from leading bartenders across the country, the movie follows two bartenders, Steve Schneider (Employees Only) and Steve “Carpi” Carpentieri, the owner of Dunville’s in Westport, Connecticut. Hey Bartender debuted at this year’s SXSW Film Festival, and after its theatrical premiere in New York last month, embarked on a barnstorming tour of limited runs, including a week-long run in Los Angeles. On the opening day of Hey Bartender’s LA run, I sat down with Tirola, Schneider and Carpentieri at the historic Musso & Frank Grill, where legendary bartender Manny Aguirre was behind the stick.

Hey Bartender cover photo

Photo courtesy of Hey Bartender, via Facebook

Every now and then, circumstances will lead to an imbiber losing his or her favorite bartender. For filmmaker Douglas Tirola, it was a pivotal moment that set him on the path to direct Hey Bartender. Tirola originally wanted to make a movie about corner bars, the neighborhood bars and their role in the community, what he called “the whole home away from home concept.” In the course of his research, he learned that it’s been a rough time for corner bars—their importance has waned along with the experience of being a regular.

At the time, his favorite bartender was Aldo Dean, who worked at the Spring Lounge in Nolita. He’d known Dean for many years and they were friends outside the bar. “He was one of the best bartenders I’d ever experienced,” said Tirola. “Fast, personal, remembered names, just incredible. He had the gall to meet some girl and move to Memphis and open a successful bar called the Bardog.”

“So I was barless, and during that time period I read an article about Employees Only, which was two blocks from my apartment in Greenwich Village. I went there, met Steve Schneider the first night I was there, and had dinner at the bar. That exposed me to the world of classic cocktails and mixology.” From there, Tirola met Dushan Zaric, Jim Meehan and Julie Reiner. He interviewed all of them, as well as Schneider. “I knew from those interviews that this was the story, because this was happening right now and it hadn’t been told.”

During that time, he was approached by someone from The Manhattan Cocktail Classic (MCC), who had heard about the movie Tirola was making. The only problem was that there was no movie. So Tirola used the footage they already had as the impetus to interview dozens of New York bartenders, and created a short called Last Call in New York. “It was shown only once at MCC,” said Tirola. “I invited Julie, Jim, and Dushan, and I think them seeing that short, which is very specific about New York but there’s still some thoughts in our movie now, they realized that this was a different animal. They liked the take we had.”

Although the movie’s tagline is “The Story of the Bartender in the Era of the Craft Cocktail,” Hey Bartender mostly focuses on two bartenders, Schneider and Carpentieri. Tirola explained, “Some people try to make a movie as general as possible, the thought being if it’s general more people would be into it. I have a different take. The more specific and detailed you are to any story or any world, someone else will go, ‘That’s just like my place.’ So when you’re seeing Dunville’s, the more specific I can get into who Steve Carpentieri is, or what Dunville’s is all about, someone in Indiana goes, ‘That’s just like my place!’”

In much the same way, someone will find something in the details of the craft cocktail bars. “When you get inside PDT and Jim Meehan’s head, or Employee’s Only, what happens there,” said Tirola. “There’s a place called Nicky Blaine’s in Indianapolis, it’s been written up in Esquire’s America’s Best Bars. It’s not like Employees Only, but I hope someone would watch [Hey Bartender] and go, ‘We’re doing the same sort of stuff.’”

“Hopefully if you make a good documentary it says something beyond the subject matter about the world and the time we live in,” he continued. “If you know me well, there are some common themes in my movies, about people trying to change their lives through their work, specifically people taking risks. One of the things in the movie, I don’t know if people notice, but we talk about how a number of these people have been fired. Julie Reiner, fired. Jim Meehan, fired from Gramercy Tavern. Dushan, fired and becomes a bartender. Steve Carpentieri quits his job. Steve Schneider, obviously with his injury. In life, a lot of people, those things happen and it’s over, and these are all people who have come back and have this incredible success. So that’s a positive theme, you don’t have to be into bars or bartending to hopefully take something away from that.”

In addition to Schneider and Carpentieri, Dale DeGroff gets significant screen time and respect from fellow bartenders for being the progenitor of today’s modern cocktail culture. “I think [Dale DeGroff’s] biggest contribution at this point isn’t just that he created this special bar at the Rainbow Room,” said Tirola. “You hear Audrey Saunders, Dushan, Sasha [Petraske] and Julie talk about how Dale was their mentor, and I think that’s acknowledged. What I don’t think is acknowledged, or certainly not to the level it should be, is that the reason Dushan is a mentor to Steve Schneider is because of the example of Dale. Let’s say you see someone at a bar in Los Angeles, who maybe has never had any direct contact with Dale, but they’re respectful of him that he helped create this thing. But really, that whole mentorship idea at the bar is set by his example, people wanting to try to be like him. I don’t think that people think of the bar world as a place where there’s mentors and protégés, and I think that is incredibly special. For a lot of these bartenders, they’re just young in their life—people forget how young 23, 24 is, you don’t know anything. And the way that the bartending mentors infuse this almost movie character sage, passing knowledge to live by outside of the bar by telling you how to treat your fellow co-workers, your barbacks, how to treat your guests. I just think that is a great thing.”

Douglas Tirola at Employees Only

Douglas Tirola at Employees Only | Photo courtesy of 4th Row Films

Tirola, a former bartender himself, knows that a particular sequence in Hey Bartender will resonate with those in the service industry. “The one scene that I knew was going to be in the movie the moment we started making it was the 3 o’clock in the morning after-work scene. Counting tips together, going out to the diner together. You’re going home and you’re the only person, and there’s just something awesome about that. I’m a night owl, and I know a lot of people that get up early, ‘I love being up early, it’s like I’m the only one.’ No, it’s different on the other end. We’re the only ones up. It’s really our city, not the morning people, the night people.”

While Schneider’s story is certainly inspiring and compelling—a top Marine suffers a severe head injury, recovers and becomes an acclaimed bartender at a world-class New York bar—Tirola says it’s Carpentieri and Dunville’s that give Hey Bartender its soul. “As soon as you meet Steve Carpentieri you realize he’s special,” said Tirola. “There’s a great Hollywood cliché: you cast your movie, you cast your fate. And for documentaries that applies even more so.”

Remnants of the movie’s original concept can be felt in some of the scenes in Dunville’s, a bar that Tirola was familiar with well before he began filming there. Tirola was very close to his grandfather, and he would ride the train from New York City and take his grandfather out to dinner. One night, his grandfather said he didn’t want to go to “one of those senior citizen places,” he wanted to go to a corner bar like the ones he went to in the city when he was younger. “So we went in there, and there were a bunch of people I kind of knew from growing up, and the way they treated this 80-something-year-old man, he just came to life there. And that was Dunville’s. And that’s when I had my first experience and really fell in love with Dunville’s. So when we started doing the corner bar thing, I went in there to Steve and said, ‘I’d love to interview you for this.’”

As to why people gravitate to Carpentieri, Tirola noted, “Every time there’s a problem, [Carpi] deals with it with a self-deprecating sense of humor. And if you’ve ever dealt with somebody who’s not having a good day when they’re working around people, and when they deal with it in a less honorable way, it’s a ripple effect that can just kill a bar. The other thing is this, it’s almost like a script from a Hollywood movie. He says look, ‘I’ve had success, I’ve been here 15 years, why do I need to go to some [cocktail] conference?’ And ultimately he overcomes his own prejudice and overcomes himself to do it. So when he walks off that plane, he’s willing to change to try and do better. And that, that is what it is, because in most movies or stories that we cherish, somebody has to change. ‘I’m in love with this girl’ or ‘I’m in love with this guy,’ they usually have to change to achieve that. So seeing someone like [Carpi], who would be a prime candidate to resist change, it gives people hope.”

Growing up as an only child, Tirola and his parents would frequently dine out. They always ate in the grill area, where the tables are closest to the bar. “And we’d see all these regulars, everyone’s laughing. They’re their own community and this is so special, I want to be part of something like that someday.”

As one Dunville’s regular says in Hey Bartender, the bar is her family. Tirola concurred, “There’s something special about being part of a community where there’s no financial requirement to enter, there’s no ethnic requirement to enter, there’s no religious requirement to enter. It’s just a special place. A bartender has the ability—and there are other jobs like this, but bartenders are the most iconic—to make someone feel special. Maybe more and more with the cocktails, it’s that one-on-one of making the drink, but there’s something about walking into a bar and the bartender acknowledges you. Maybe they know your name, maybe they remember your drink, maybe they just remember you were there before. There’s this unspoken endorsement, because I think there’s a feeling that this person deals with thousands of people a year, and they remembered me. Anyone who’s ever been on a date and walks into a bar and the bartender acknowledges them, I guarantee you, inside that person is saying, ‘YES!’”

“I think that’s part of what people don’t really talk about, what’s special about craft cocktail and bartending now,” said Tirola. “You go to a restaurant, one person seats you, another takes your order, most likely another brings it out. In between, someone’s cooking it, you don’t know who the hell they are, you don’t know whether it was made four hours before. It’s impersonal. ‘Should I have the fish or the meat?’ and they look at you like, ‘I don’t know what the hell you should eat.’”

He compared that situation to a customer sitting in front of a good bartender, who sees the guest looking at the menu, unsure what to order. “‘Well, what sort of things do you like to drink?’ And you could say something like a Sea Breeze, and they would say, ‘What about this?’ And then they make it right in front of you. And it’s this moment you’re sharing, and in a world that becomes—and I know it’s a cliche—increasingly impersonal, they make this drink just for you. It’s an incredibly special feeling and I think it’s of increased value in a world where there’s less one-on-one interaction.”

Asked what he orders when he visits a bar, Tirola began with another restaurant scenario. “When I go to eat, I either go to a place where I’m a regular and I know exactly what I want, or someplace new and I usually want to know, what is the thing you’re known for. Now because of this experience, when I go to a cocktail bar, I want to get what they’re known for, or if it’s a place where they’re going to the farmers market or there’s a special, I want that. A lot of times I like it when the bartender makes something special for me. I love tequila, so usually it’s something tequila based.”

“There’s a right drink for every moment. I’m a movie guy, so when I come in here and I’m looking at you drinking a Martini, and there’s a Manhattan there, if I was making a movie about this moment, those are the exact drinks we should be having for that moment. Whatever the drink is for that moment, that’s the one that I like. But if there is no moment, then that moment is usually a shot of tequila,” he said with a laugh.

Tirola doesn’t expect old school bars to suddenly jump on the mixology bandwagon. “Dunville’s isn’t supposed to become PDT. Dunville’s is supposed to stay Dunville’s. But it’s in a community where there’s certainly people that like good things, and when they come in there’s something for them now. And then there are people who you never would have expected, who are handymen and plow snow, and some of them will adapt too. The good thing is that the community is not going to change. I think Los Angeles has a lot of cocktail bars that really have that balance down—it’s still special, and there are regulars and there’s a community.”

Jason Bran at The Roger Room

Jason Bran behind the stick at The Roger Room.

Los Angeles gets nary a mention in Hey Bartender, other than brief clips of Eric Alperin, Aidan Demarest and Matthew Biancaniello. Near the end of the film, The Roger Room’s Jason Bran also gets a cameo. “I had known Jason Bran for about three years,” said Tirola. “I personally like him and when I come here I seek him out. At the end of a movie, you’re usually not hearing from people who aren’t one of the three or four main characters. But he made one of the most important points in the movie to me, which is everybody wants to feel part of something bigger than themselves, everybody wants to feel part of a special community. I knew about that special community of the bar, because my grandfather told me about it. Dunville’s reminded him of the corner bar in Upper Manhattan where he went when he was single, when he was married, he went with my dad.”

Tirola continued, “What we learned about [making Hey Bartender] was the special community of the staff. Those LA bartenders, that is a community that I did not know existed before I made this movie. And I certainly didn’t know the community existed on a national or global level of what you see at Tales [of the Cocktail] or Manhattan Cocktail Classic or Portland [Cocktail Week]. The byproduct of the cocktail renaissance being that bartenders have created a community for themselves outside of the bar, that is so powerful and so strong and just incredibly special.”


In honor of Douglas Tirola’s love of tequila, here’s a cocktail recipe from Julie Reiner, owner of Flatiron Lounge and Clover Club in New York.

MARIA SIN SANGRE
Created by Julie Reiner
Ingredients:

  • 2 oz Milagro Silver Tequila
  • .5 oz Dry Sack Sherry
  • .5 oz Lemon juice
  • .5 oz Dry Sack Sherry
  • Salt & pepper (a pinch)

Preparation:

  • In a mixing glass, muddle 6 basil leaves and 5 small cherry tomatoes in .5 oz simple syrup.
  • Add ingredients, shake and fine strain into a coupe or martini glass.
  • Garnish with cherry tomato and basil.
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