Given enough teaching and practice, many people could probably handle the “bar” part.
But, local experts agree, it’s the “tender” part that separates a bartender from your run of the mill mixologist.
Holding informed conversations while making several drinks at a time, treating strangers like friends and making regulars feel they’ve come home — these are the intangibles not listed in any bartender’s guide.
“As a bartender you’re a referee, a therapist, a friend, a friendly face,” says Sarah Repp, bar manager at The Fold in Little Rock.
Repp and Luiggi Uzcategui, bar manager at Big Orange: Midtown, have been tapped to represent their establishments at the Thea Foundation Blue Plate Special fundraiser in October. The two have been at the epicenter of the craft cocktail resurgence that has matched Little Rock’s growth as a dining destination every step of the way.
“A craftsman is someone who can make something really, really well over and over again,” Uzcategui says. “That’s why it’s a craft.”
But Uzcategui, who counts chemistry among his three college degrees and clearly savors the mixology part, agrees with Repp that true bartending is about so much more.
“It’s about leading people to the right decisions, what to drink, when to stop,” Uzcategui says. “I want to be the best part of someone’s day. I want my bartenders to be the reason someone is a little happier.”
“A bartender is someone who is going to take care. Take care of people,” Repp says.
Repp took a more formal path to the profession, attending a bartending school after seeing an online ad. Uzcategui became “an evangelist for the craft cocktail world” after someone saw him waiting tables and suggested he’d be great behind a bar.
As Repp goes about making a Three Paws Tippin — a citrusy, vodka-based invention she named after her three-legged dog — she explains that a Fold cocktail is typically made with four to five ingredients, unlike the two-ingredient speed cocktails she threw together in a previous job tending bar at a nightclub.
“The best part about it is it’s topped with gummy bears,” says Repp, who admittedly loves the Fold’s “garnish game” that also features hard candy and marshmallows.
Between juggling cocktail shakers and concocting a variation of the gin-based Corpse Reviver No. 2, Uzcategui — who plays around with extracts and infusions and makes his own bitters — says he enjoys the creativity and pursuit of harmony in a drink.
“I think what really got lost that’s coming back now is balance,” he says. “I think people are finding that not every drink has to be super sweet. Not every cocktail has to be a dry martini. … Everything we put together is always better than the sum of its parts.”
Muscle memory and practice allow bartenders to work quickly and do several things at once, but precise measures are important so that each drink is as good as the one before it. Not that there isn’t plenty of room for individuality, Repp says.
“I love picking other bartenders’ brains and going to other bars,” she says. “You can take the most classic cocktail and every bartender has a different recipe for it.”
Uzcategui is from Venezuela but studied at UA Little Rock, picking up art and psychology degrees to go with his chemistry major. Whether decorating his bar or making an eye-catching drink, talking to customers and helping them decide on a drink he’ll concoct off the menu, Uzcategui says he uses all three of his degrees daily.
“If you put those three together I guess you have a bartender in there somewhere,” he says.
Repp holds a general studies degree from Henderson State after studying biology and, like Uzcategui, she chafes at the notion that bartending is a temporary job, something someone does for fun and quick money while figuring out life.
“It took me to managing,” Repp says. “I don’t know, maybe someday I’ll own my own restaurant.”
“I think there’s a stigma out there that we have to do this," Uzcategui says. "No, we do it because we love it.”
Thea Foundation's Blue Plate Special
Oct. 15 | 6 p.m. | Capital Hotel
Tickets + Info: TheaFoundation.org/Blue-Plate-Special