The art of bartending: You must know more than just how to pour

Jeff Thurber, Flair Bartender

You’ll find a wide variety of people serving drinks at your favorite local bars — young and old, male and female, sharp-witted storytellers and sympathetic listeners.

Just as different artists have different ways of expressing their individuality, bartenders use their own talents, personality traits and life experiences to create what could be called an art form.

Brittney Metz, part owner of The Bar of Appleton, understands just how much it takes to tend bar.

“The art of this business is extreme,” she explains. “You get to be an actress, a psychologist, a friend, a babysitter, an entertainer … the list is endless.”

The business of serving others has always been part of Metz’s life. Her family has been in the bar and restaurant industry for more than 50 years. She started helping out at a young age but never lost her passion for the job.

“Each day you have fresh new people that walk into your life and you are the one that has to want to have the open arms and mind to take care of them,” Metz says. After working at The Bar for a decade, Metz became a partner with the organization in 2007.

She uses her expertise to bring up new bartenders like 19 year-old Kelly Lautenschlager, who won the Fox Cities Hub Best Bartender Contest. Metz is proud one of her employees was chosen the winner, and thinks it’s because Kelly treats her customers like family.

A close relationship with people on the other side of the bar is also something Wendy Charon from Route 15 in Greenville sees as the most important part of being a top shelf bartender. She’s been serving drinks for about 10 years, but it’s more than simply her experience tending bar that comes in handy at work.

“You have to be able to relate to your customers in a very rounded way,” Charon says. “I’m 34, so obviously I have some life experience under my belt. I’m also a mom so that helps as well.”

Most bartenders are very social people, and the majority will tell you that mingling with the people they serve is their favorite part of the job. But it’s not always jokes and Jell-O shots. Charon says being a bartender is a lot like being a counselor. Sometimes customers turn to her for more serious conversation.

“If they need to get away and have a drink because of life’s craziness, they know that I’ll give them the best advice I can, and I’ll be honest with them.”

Charon has found many of the qualities she’s known for as a bartender translate toward her future career. She’s studying at Fox Valley Technical College to become an occupational therapist.

“Right now I’m doing my fieldwork at the emergency shelter in Appleton. So I work with the homeless population a lot, just teaching life skills to them,” Charon says. She also admits some of her regulars could also use a little life coaching every now and then.

Being a student and a mom on top of bartending isn’t easy. Charon says it can be hard to stay upbeat in front of Route 15’s customers after waking up at 6 a.m. and then closing down the bar that night.

Back at the Bar of Appleton, Metz agrees. She knows all bartenders battle that feeling of being burnt out once in awhile.

“The biggest challenge is to always maintain that great energy,” she says. “When there is nowhere to run or hide, you have to swallow it down and keep your head held high.”

Jeff Thurber from The Durty Leprechaun in downtown Appleton considers himself somewhat of a showman behind the bar. He pulls off stunts like Tom Cruise in the 1988 movie “Cocktail.”

Thurber follows in the footsteps of legendary bartender Jerry “The Professor” Thomas. Thomas is believed to be one of the first barkeeps to turn serving drinks into a performance art. The flashy dresser and expert mixologist juggled bottles from coast to coast during the late 1800s. He’s also credited with popularizing the cocktail in the United States.

Thurber talked up his own skill on his Fox Cities Hub Best Bartender profile. “I have plenty of bar flair to go around, but my favorite has to be the stacked shot pour!” Thurber has spent eight years honing his bottle flair, but he also prides himself in creating a fun atmosphere by choosing the right music and “getting the patrons fired up by pounding on the bar.”

While every bartender in Wisconsin must complete a course to obtain a license to serve alcohol, that’s only part of learning how to do the job. Wendy Charon says you also must learn to go the extra mile by adding a personal touch.

“You can come to work and be a bartender but what else are you giving up?” she asks. “What’s your personality?”

Working late night hours, dealing with rude customers, handling the hectic mess with a smile on your face — it seems like a thankless job at times. However, Metz says there’s an upside that makes all the hassles worthwhile.

“The biggest reward is knowing that you somehow made a difference in another person’s life,” she says. “The best feeling is knowing that there will be people returning to come and see you.”