The very word libation implies ritual.
It is, in essence, the ancient act of pouring a drink as an offering to a deity. Egyptians, Romans, and Greeks have offered up drinks to gods and poured them in honor of the dead for centuries.
Whether it’s in the preparation of a carefully crafted cocktail; the pomp and ceremony that accompanies it before being quaffed; the song and dance around opening and closing time. We explore some of the quirky rituals that captivated patrons and barmen across the country each night. Traditions we hope to get back to soon.
“There are good ships, there are wood ships, there are ships that sail the sea, but the best ships are friendships, and may they always be,” is what you’ll hear when the clock strikes midnight at the Punch House. Located in Chicago’s historic Thalia Hall, those sitting at the bar receive a complimentary shot of whiskey and are encouraged to sing along to the traditional Irish drinking chant. At the same time, a staff member feeds the collection of fishes in the back bar aquarium. Also, in Chicago, at the craft cocktail and gin-destination spot, Scofflaw, patrons are treated to fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies at midnight every night.
At the renowned bar, Employees Only, in NYC, barmen serve their traditional chicken soup at 3:45 a.m. at closing time every night. The bartenders at James Beard award-winning Cure in New Orleans, each of them takes a shot of El Dorado 5-year-old rum and toasts patrons at the end of happy hour.
Corey Tighe, Bar Manager at Juniper & Ivy in San Diego, after a few hours of prep, liked to start off his shift the right way by getting in some stretches by hanging from the ladder on the wall. “Gotta make it work with what you have! After every guest sat down at the bar, they received a menu and a glass of water … ALWAYS. It’s my way of welcoming everyone in the same manner,” says Tighe. “Then right before we’d start to get really busy and the bartenders are behind the stick, we’d have a round of coffee. We never actually finish a cup, though, as nine times out of ten, we’re off to the races for the next four hours.”
The original owner of Maxine’s Tap Room, a favorite water hole in Fayetteville, Arkansas, had a last call immortalized in a recording you can listen to on a vintage payphone at the bar. Now carried on by the current owners and staff, the closing time ritual shouts out: “May I have your attention, please! You have ten minutes to drink, then get the hell out!”
Located in downtown LA’s Union Station, The Streamliner Restaurant’s bar The Varnish opens at exactly 4:47 p.m. to give you time to down a Dirty Martini before the 5:00 p.m. train.
The slew of barmen at Ocean Prime Beverly Hills, each have their own nightly rituals. “A shot of espresso and a piece of cinnamon is my go-to first thing when I clock in,” says Kirsten.
“I listen to ‘Feel So Close’ by Calvin Harris while I set up the bar. The best duo pins a good song gets me pumped!” says Kaitie.
“One ritual is sports trivia with my guests. If they can beat me at my own game, they’ll win themselves a round on the house,” Arley.
Matt took 15 minutes of peace and quiet to mentally and physically prepare himself for his shift. “I also don’t feel prepared for a shift unless the garnish fruit is cut perfectly. There’s nothing quite like it to accentuate a cocktail,” he adds.
And barmen Elias… “I would vent all my frustrations out on a large cube of ice,” he laughs.
Big Bar at Alcove Cafe in the Los Feliz neighborhood of LA, bartender Cari Hah says,
“I kind of do a meditation thing where I give myself a few minutes to just empty all the feelings out, whether I’m tired, grumpy, or have had a bad day. My guests do not and should not have to care what mood I’m in. It sounds kind of extreme, but that’s what I’d do to ‘get in the zone’ and ensure that I provide the best service to everyone that walks through the door.”
Bartender Katie Fry of Bently Heritage Estate Distillery believes that every bartender has rituals around making drinks, whether it’s the way they clean their equipment or the order of how they mix ingredients. Still, to her, the most important rituals aren’t always around the bar itself, but rather rituals that happen away from the bar.
“For me, for example, I enjoy my mornings before work by having coffee with my husband, trail running, taking our dogs for a walk, and caring for my assorted house plants,” says Fry. Whether it’s reading, writing poetry, practicing cocktails at home for family and friends, the things that make you happy should be the most important rituals. And after that, when you find yourself back behind the bar, you’ll be more thrilled to give 100% to others.”
Her technical bar rituals are keeping her station organized and clean so that it’s ready at all times. “I’d do my best to remember names and call the regulars by their name. I’d also try to remember their usual order, which helps build a friendly camaraderie between bartender and customer. And when it’s a full bar, I’d use the time I spend shaking cocktails to do a 180 and look to see the state of the bar. The ritual helps me to remember to look up, even if it’s to smile at someone, that makes all the difference,” says Fry.