Leadfoot Video: Rods and Cogs

A car’s fluids are all different colors so you know which is which without having to run a chemical analysis. I’m sure they all taste differently too, but I don’t recommend preparing a cheese platter to pair with them at your next social gathering.

But why does transmission fluid have to be red?

After seeing a puddle of it magically appear under my car after work, I’m convinced its visual similarity to blood is intended to strike fear into the heart of the automotive owner. Seeing a spill of gearbox oil evoked the thought of a loved one bleeding out on the duvet.

That’s not quite the thought that came to my mind, but that’s because I have no idea what a duvet is. But I did want to grab a handful of towels to stem the bleeding. But towels would only go so far. Eddie needed surgery and a transfusion.

The puddle of red drippings was really just the last nail in the “I have to do something about this” coffin. At times, Eddie’s transmission would slip, but only in the right conditions. Leaving the gear select in automatic, and turning left onto my home street, applying some throttle persuasion to carry on through the off-camber turn, the engine would rev up as if it were in neutral. After reaching about 3500rpm without actually going any faster than before, the computer would decide “Time for second gear,” and engage it. The gears would suddenly catch, engine speed is back down to about 1200, and I’m instinctively taking my foot off the Go pedal because I’ve just received a kick in the backside.

This was due to low transmission fluid. An automatic gearbox is a bit like me: it doesn’t work properly if it hasn’t got enough fluid. The difference between the two of us is that while the transmission needs Dexron, I’m much less picky. I can run on water, orange juice, Coke Zero beer, rum, whiskey, regular unleaded or the blood of my enemies. Always with ice, of course.

Adding fluid mitigated the issue, but when that problem returned, I knew I had a leak somewhere. I just had no idea how bad a leak it was until I’d stopped the oil leaks. Then, the slipping got so bad I added another quart of Dexron, only to find those frightening red puddles the next day. I knew then that a bottle of stop-slip wasn’t going to do the job, so it was back to that online retailer of auto parts. And because I had a coupon, I figured, “Why not do the tie rods, too?”

Tie rods are another of those parts that just wear out with age. They’re a critical part of steering the wheels. By that, I mean they actually turn the front wheels so the vehicle may proceed in the desired direction. If an end breaks… well, best case scenario is the car stops moving. Worst case is the car starts going in an undesired direction.

So after 15 years, I’m wagering Eddie could use some new ones. I don’t want him going in undesired directions.

And the last plan on my mind is replacing the output shaft seals. These are designed to keep the transmission fluid inside the gearbox while still allowing the axle to spin freely. My research found them to be a likely leak candidate. The parts being only $5, I figured it couldn’t hurt.

So, with a few cans of brake cleaner, Scotch-brite pads, disposable nitrile gloves, *all* the tools I own, and the parts I’d ordered, I made my way back to my parents’ house. I also brought a six pack for my dad as payment for borrowing his grease gun.

The day started off rough. After loosening the axle nut (and having to buy a deep well 30mm socket), standing the car on a few four-by-four wood blocks and taking off the wheel, I hit my first snag.

Contrary to the norm, the stock tie rod ends aren’t secured with a castle nut and cotter pin. For the uninitiated, here’s a picture of the standard setup. The pin runs directly through the bolt and the open spaces in the nut to keep the assembly from unraveling.

Instead, Eddie’s tie rods were secured with some kind of epoxy inside the nut, and no amount of penetrating oil would facilitate its release; only leverage would do. I didn’t discover this until after having to borrow a deeper 18mm socket than the one I had. Because I didn’t have an 18mm open-ended wrench.

Hey, I never said I’d had every tool I’d need.

So then came removing the tie rod from the knuckle. Funny, everyone online made it look so easy. One guy made it happen with a few taps of a hammer. So in my arrogance, I thought I could make it happen with less effort.

I’m starting to think my parents’ neighbors have begun to associate Eddie’s appearance with the sound of hammering on metal, because no one batted an eye as I wailed on this God-forsaken steering rack extension.

WD-40 wasn’t doing me many favors that day. When the tie rod wasn’t going anywhere, I cut out part of the already-punctured boot in the aim of applying oil from above and letting gravity help with the capillary effect.

While (I hoped) the oil did its work, I turned my attention to removing the axle in order to replace the output shaft seals. Two bolts keep the spindle firmly connected to the strut. They’ve got teeth around the shaft nearer the head, to keep them from spinning while tightening or loosening their corresponding nuts. The friction these teeth provide also make them difficult to remove without the use of a hammer.

But these strut bolts weren’t nearly so stubborn as the tie rod end, so a few good whacks and they popped right out. There was still some residual friction between the spindle and the strut, so it took a bit of leverage to pry it free, but free it was. Some taps on the outside of the wheel axle had it loosened from the hub as well.

But being free of the strut wasn’t enough space to wiggle the CV joint out of the hub completely. The spindle needed a bit more freedom, and since I was already taking off the tie rod…

Nope, still seized.

A visit to the auto parts store later via my sister’s Golf, I had in my possession a borrowed tie rod end separator. That, along with the hammer used liberally earlier, finally made short work of the seized connection. What a satisfying “thunk” that was.

The outer end was indeed shot. No resistance in the joint, contributing to the loose feeling in the steering wheel. The inner joint was stiffer, but not by much.

Next was dropping the tie rod back into the spindle for added leverage so I could undo the lock nut.

Yeah, turns out the outer end wasn’t the only thing that was seized. And all the WD-40 in the world wasn’t about to undo fifteen years of elemental exposure without the assistance of some serious leverage.

Enter, again, the come-along. Yeah, seems like I can’t ever stop keeping that thing in Eddie’s trunk.

Wrapping mule tape around the maple tree in front of the house and clamping some lock pliers onto the nut, the come-along was hooked up in between.

It’s after snugging up the ratchet do I realize the only thing holding up the front of the car is a couple of four-by-fours. No, I’ve decided I’m not stopping.

Turns out an emergency brake is more than enough to keep Eddie from moving before the outer tie rod breaks free from the inner. Thanks, Physics!

With that loose, I counted the number of turns it took to get the outer end off and turned my attention to the still-seized nut.

At least, I should have. I should have taken a bucket of WD-40 and dipped the tie rod into the immersion for several hours. But I didn’t. Instead, I was so aggravated by the tie rod ordeal that I started on the transmission pan.

For all the research on the matter I conducted, I really should have discovered that there isn’t a drain plug for the transmission pan. Instead, armed with the assurance that “the fluid will come out somehow,” I started work. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when the super-simple catch can (consisting of a piece of molded plastic which feeds into used 2-liter soda bottles) would prove insufficiently small for the amount of drippage that would take place.

So a mess was made. There’s probably still an oil stain where all that oil dripped onto the asphalt.

See, when I saw there wasn’t a drain plug, I thought I could contain the flow by positioning the narrower end downhill, and jacking the opposite side slightly higher. In my mind, that would minimize the spill if I undid the downhill bolts first.

Perhaps it did. Perhaps the smallest mess possible was the one I’d made. It’s still a lot of oil spilling everywhere, because I’d forgotten that when oil can potentially go somewhere, it will.

Regardless, I upgraded to a bigger catch can. When I say “bigger catch can,” though, I mean a two-foot diameter, two-inch high circular pan, the true purpose of which I could not imagine.

So, slowly opening the uphill bolts on the pan, I eventually got the spillage to the point it was all pouring into the pan. That made me happy.

Eventually, the dripping stopped, and I could completely remove the pan without gearbox oil splashing everywhere.

Free of the anxiety over unpredictable drippings, I could finally examine the problematic gasket. Being so non-uniform in its structure, I’m left to assume (post-operation) it’s a liquid gasket. That’s to say whoever applied it squirted silicone onto the mating surface, then squished the pan into place and tightened the bolts, but not too much.

This must be why the pan is leaking again. All the bolts I tested were loose. Clearly, the plan was to bring me back to the shop soon for more maintenance.

Thinking back, I remember a trip to Jiffy Lube while I was still in film school. The kindly manager told me I had a transmission leak. Those words scared me as much then as they do now, because I was about to embark on a project that would have me commuting 100 miles round trip each day for two weeks. If not for the voyage upon which I was about to embark (the next day), I would have waited for dear ole’ Dad to give me a second opinion. Instead, I saw the distance I must travel with this potential problem lurking, and ended up dropping $300 on what was initially a simple oil change. I now see that Jiffy Lube simply used liquid silicone to make a new gasket instead of calling around to local shops to see if anyone had a proper gasket for the 3-speed.

Five years later, I’m left with red puddles. The oil leaks might have contributed to the degradation, but I’m comfortable blaming the shop.

Scotch-brite, brake cleaner and elbow grease had the mating surfaces clean and ready for the new gasket. The bolts also got a cleaning, because liquid gaskets can and will go everywhere. I’d also cleaned the outside of the filter, since it had fallen out of its mount when I was wrestling with the axle.

Which wouldn’t come out. Of course, the filter fell out on its own, but the axle is stuck in the output shaft. Granted, I didn’t have any tool that would have properly facilitated the axle’s removal. I suppose I was under the impression that an axle could be removed with confidence and a stern talking-to. But no.

Stuffing the axle back into the wheel bearing, I turned back to the tie rod. Yeah, that tie rod, the one that I didn’t dip in penetrating oil like I should have. That lock nut is so seized that trying to loosen it with the come-along just turned the inner tie rod itself. It was enough to get the outer one off, but because I couldn’t get that nut free, I couldn’t take off the inner boot, which is what stops me from applying the special inner tie rod remover tool. Daylight was burning, and the inner rod felt okay enough for me to put it on the back burner. For now.

With the lessons learned from the driver’s side, I attacked the passenger side. Made for about the same progress. And the same lack of progress.

The sun was about to start hiding behind the houses, so I screwed on the new outer tie rods, dropped them into the spindle and applied the castle nut and cotter pin. None of that epoxy-in-the-nut nonsense.

I then returned to the transmission pan. Had I used ramps to get Eddie in the air, I would have had more space to work with, but the floor jack I have is really only meant to get the car high enough to extend the suspension so the wheels can come off. It doesn’t allow much space for crawling around underneath. I also had to somehow keep the gasket lined up while positioning the pan for attachment.

Enter duct tape. Duct tape was my friend in that moment.

No, I hadn’t taped the gasket to the pan. That would have been stupid. Instead, I slotted some bolts into the holes and taped the heads to the pan. Those bolts kept the gasket in place while I held the pan against the housing and fumbled blindly for another bolt to thread by hand just barely outside my reach because I don’t fit under the car unless I’m flat on my back.

At this point, the cordless drill I bought is earning its keep. A 3/8” socket driver meant I wasn’t spending my time down there with a ratchet. Instead, it was setting the drill’s clutch and pulling the trigger until the thing stopped spinning.

The day’s charms were wearing thin on me, so I expedited putting Eddie back together and cleaning up the spilt oil with the grease-fighting power of Dawn and a hose. Worked better than I thought it would.

Driving Eddie to test, I knew right away he’d need an alignment done. The steering felt tighter, but tire noise was intrusive even at ten miles per hour. Also, while steering straight was fine, when turning right the car wanted to steer back to center. And turning left made the car want to turn left even more. Toe adjustment was definitely in need.

What I hadn’t noticed when driving to the shop was that Eddie wasn’t using all the available gears. That’s because I didn’t drive anything resembling fast when he was out of alignment. No, it wasn’t until I got onto an interstate after having the alignment done did I ask myself, “Shouldn’t it be in third by now?”

In a three-speed gearbox, third gear is kind of important. At highway speed, second gear has the engine turning around 4000rpm. That’s the peak of the torque curve, so it’s very sprightly and easy to overtake the left lane hog in a Camry.

Why is it always a Camry?

And the engine sound great at four grand. As long as it’s under load. Otherwise it’s just a loud drone, like a vocally-amplified economics professor.

Despite that, the steering feels good. Like I’m driving a car that’s eight years old instead of sixteen. I doubt I’ll ever get Eddie back to showroom condition without some real investment on my part, but I can do my best, can’t I?

Chatting with my car guy coworker, he suggested a bit of the gasket might have been sucked up into the transmission and was blocking a valve, preventing third gear from engaging.

I let it go, because I was tired. Also, my commute to work never has me exceeding 50mph, so the car is comfortable with second gear at that speed. Feels like I’m on a track day, only on my way to work.

I was prepared to let it go until I could get time to replace the transmission filter. Then, after a busy night at work, I was headed home and, upon joining Route 50, I noticed the engine wasn’t turning nearly so fast as before.

Third gear came back. All by itself. I’m now convinced this car is magical.

I’m still going to replace the filter, because I’ve no idea when it was last done. And yeah, I cleaned it, but it’s still something that I should have thought of replacing when I cracked open the pan in the first place, but I can only think ahead so many steps.

Also, that ABS light came back on…


Leadfoot: Water Conducts Electricity

When you drive an older car day-in and day-out, you learn to deal with the things that are wrong with it. Things like slow oil leaks, broken air conditioning, loose steering, that funny squeak the door makes when the right-side tires go over bumps.

Then the day comes when the oil puddle in your parking space has expanded beyond the painted white line, and your wheels roll over it, leaving more oil marks all over the lot as you head off to work. That’s when you sigh, slip on some work gloves and break out the floor jack.

You also go out and buy as small a bag of kitty litter as possible. Because you don’t have a cat, but the conditions of the lease say, “You spill it, you clean it.”

I must confess, I did a bit of that work without telling the world. Back in early June, I decided to flush Eddie’s coolant system, since he hadn’t had the coolant changed since 2008, shortly after his purchase and we found a bolt on the water pump had worn a hole in the radiator.

A proper job of it is done by draining the antifreeze and filling it back up with water and a helping of coolant flush. Seriously, that’s what it’s called. You just ask for it by that name. A few weeks are then spent driving normally with the heater on while the flush works through the system and cleans it up. The water and all the crap that got picked up is drained again and new coolant is administered.

But because it was the start of summer, I didn’t want to drive around with the heater on. I’ve had to drive without air conditioning in the humid August days of the mid-Atlantic coast, and the last thing on my list was adding more heat to that equation.

I also only get one day at a time to work on Eddie. My lease also prohibits automotive work on the premises, so I venture to my parent’s house, where there is a tree providing shade, a fridge full of cold drinks, and a hose to facilitate radiator filling. I do wonder how I got away with working on that scooter, given the lease terms.

Draining the system is straightforward enough; find the drain plug and open it. Old antifreeze is collected in a bucket, and the hose fills the system back up. I run the engine with the heat on, letting the water get hot and start dissolving the crud, then it’s drained again.

What a lovely shade of brown it was.

Fill, run, drain, repeat again, only this last time with coolant flush, just to get the very last of it. By the end, the water coming out looked almost as clear as the water going in. Close enough for me.

Between doing these fills and drains, the engine was running, so I had little to do while internal combustion did its thing.

You may recall Eddie was in a front-end collision before he came to me, specifically the front-right.

It must not have been major, or else the car would have been totaled. But it was obviously enough to bend the front-right door frame, such that there is terrible wind noise on the interstate, and necessitate a new front bumper. I know it’s not original because the new one had to be painted, and the shop didn’t use the correct primer, so the paint it’s got is flaking away bit by bit. Flex primer is not an option for painting plastic parts, I’ve decided.

The collision also tore up the forward fender liner and splash guard. These serve only small purposes: mitigate the water that splashes onto the serpentine belt and support the ABS wire as it leads to the main loom. Being shattered into five separate pieces where there should only have been two connected ones, they didn’t perform well in either duty.

Being harnessed to the splash guard, the ABS wire ended up being crushed by the fractured pieces. That was enough to puncture a small hole in the wire’s insulation. And you remember those oil leaks? Yeah, oil loves small holes.

Oil also corrodes copper, which is what wires are made of. This eventually meant the ABS module had lost the connection to the front-right wheel speed sensor. For a system that monitors each wheel’s rotational velocity, a speed sensor is kind of important. So important, that losing one sensor means the entire system shuts off and a little light on the dash glares at you. You still have brakes, of course, but you should be wary in slippery situations.

It’s been an issue for a while, if I’m honest. I’ve got decent tires, and I know to limit myself in the rain or snow, but warning lights bug me. Even if it’s not really a problem. Besides, I had the time, a bunch of spare wire (courtesy of dear ole Dad) and I’d already jacked up the front-right wheel.

(The radiator drain plug is on the left. I wanted gravity to work with me on this.)

What makes oil awesome is that it penetrates into the tiniest of spaces, worming its way in and breaking metals loose from other metals. That’s great, unless you’re talking about wires.

The small hole punctured into the ABS wire’s insulation made a nice entryway for Eddie’s leaking engine oil. The corrosion runs all the way from the sensor plug to the main loom. It’s not as bad near the loom, but it’s still there.

So I’ve got the time, I decide to replace the bad wire. It’s something I’ve already done before, but that was four years ago, and the oil leaks hadn’t been solved back then. So new oil got in, basically at the same spot as the old wire. Time to put new wire in.

Up until recently (not recent enough to do this for the fix, unfortunately), I had no idea the wire connectors I was using will heat-shrink. That would have been very helpful, considering I was trying to keep oil out of the connections. Electrical tape only does so much.

So the ultimate goal is to stop the oil leaks. For that, I turned to a coworker for assistance. A master technician for Toyota in a previous life, he suggested starting at the top with the valve cover gasket. It made sense, I decided. Gravity being the funny thing that it is, taking things that were up high and putting them on the floor, a leak up top would cover everything below in dead dinosaur juice.

My coworker-come-Sherpa enlightened me to the wonders of Scotchbrite pads and brake cleaner that day. Mating two metal surfaces with a molded rubber gasket works best when said surfaces are clean and smooth. Scotchbrite is like a hand-operated pressure washer. Those pads felt like they could scrub off skin, if I was inclined to do so.

But I’m not into exfoliating, so I focused on the valve head cover. When the two surfaces were all shiny, the new blue gasket was wedged in and the bolts were tightened up. I gave the block some more cleaning around the joint to make potential new leaks show up better and crossed my fingers.

Staring at those broken pieces that once were fender liner solidified my resolve to finally replace them. After all, they’d been in my way when the radiator hose needed replacing, when the AC compressor needed work, and the three times I’d replaced that torque mount. If I didn’t replace them, I’d be running new wire for this sensor again in about a year.

These being somewhat unique parts, the local stores were unlikely to have them. To the Internets I went, and was able to find the ones I needed. Had to get them from two separate stores, because each of them had one of the parts but didn’t carry the other. With that, it turns out there’s a bit of ignorance in the “All the parts your car will ever need,” slogan.

And, of course, the parts had a cheap feel to them. I wasn’t expecting carbon fiber from McLaren, just something a bit thicker, with more substance. It’s of small consequence, since the parts are function over form.

The funny thing about finally seeing how the part is supposed to go together is that makes you understand things. Like the fact you’re missing a few fasteners.

Times like this make me grateful my dad is a packrat (sorry, Mom). If I need a nut, bolt, and two washers to secure the splash guard to the sub frame, I’ll find them. It’ll take almost twenty minutes of picking out likely candidates from three different bins marked “Assorted,” but by Grabthar’s Hammer, and the Sons of Warvan, I shall find them.

But why am I having to look for a fastening solution? Because whatever shadetree shop Eddie was taken to after his crash decided to take shortcuts. And who could blame them? The Sunfire is hardly going to be a collector car, so why endeavor to preserve it? This is a daily beater, both in my hands and the previous owner’s. As long as it runs, who cares if the splash guard is really connected at all six points?

After seven years, I care. It’s not David taking down Goliath with a slingshot. It’s David’s next door neighbor with asthma coming out of nowhere to thrash Goliath to a pulp with his bare hands. It’s not a long bet if the bookie never put odds on it.

But David’s neighbor still needs his inhaler. That’s why I then turned my attention to a puddle of red fluid that’s started to appear now that I’ve cleaned up the leaked motor oil.


An Underaged Server's Guide to Alcohol

At my job, we just hired a slew of servers under the age of 21.  These kids are either fresh out of high school or just earning some spending cash while Mommy and Daddy pay college tuition.

At any other restaurant, I’d totally be in favor of hiring these kids to wait tables, as the job will teach them valuable life skills.  They’ll learn the value of a hard day’s work, how to deal with difficult customers, and what it’s like to actually have a bad day (one that doesn’t involve what Janet told you she heard Kimberly from third period say about you when Kimberly thought Janet wasn’t listening), and, due to the physical demands of the job, they’ll be filling up their FitBits crammed full of steps in no time.

Best of all, though, all these whipper-snappers will forever be ingrained with the proper way to tip a server or bartender.  For the uninitiated, that’s a solid at least 15-20%, preferably in cash, based on the original check total, before discounts, coupons and comps.  Extra tip for those Service Industry Veterans who go above-and-beyond to provide that special level of service (short of hand jobs).

But I currently work in a brewpub, where the only beers regularly available on tap are the ones brewed in-house, including a very tasty root beer.  We have a rotating tap selection, as seasonal beers come in and out of style.  And since we’re such low volume, each batch is different; so even if we’ve had the Pilsner on before, this new batch of thirty barrels will have different flavor characteristics.

So we servers and bartenders will have, in addition to a word from the brewers themselves, a taste to get a better idea of how the Saaz hops are affecting the flavor in a way that is different from the Citra hops used in the last batch.  This allows us to better relate the feel of the beer to the guest, meaning we can better guide a beer novice (compared to us, at least) to something they will properly enjoy, or, equally likely, steer them away from something they won’t.

For instance, right now we have an oak barrel-aged black saison.  The beer pours ink-black.  So it would technically qualify as a “dark beer,” in the eyes of the average beer-affiliate.  But because it is still a saison, traditionally very fruity, often tart, and hardly hop-forward or “heavy,” when I have a guest who “doesn’t like dark beer,” preferring something “like Blue Moon,” I’m going to recommend this “dark beer.”  And guess what: they’re going to like it.

Part of my knowledge comes from seven years of somewhat-heavy drinking.  To be honest, heavy drinking has brought me a lot of things, including hangovers, inspired writing, fake phone numbers and T-shirts.  These T-shirts, when worn in the right places, have scored me free drinks, which only compounded the issue, (un)fortunately.  But back to the beer knowledge.

So when we get a new beer on, I’ll have a taste.  This is where the Under-21ers are at a disadvantage.  Because the pub’s owner likes to run a clean ship, there is no underage drinking on this boat.  The Under-21ers, therefore, don’t get to taste the beer they then have to sell, instead having to rely on what they hear from the rest of us and the descriptive blurb on the menu.

And I feel their pain a little bit.  For years, I enjoyed drinking wine (again, heavily).  Then, around age 24, I developed an allergy to sulfites, which make themselves a very happy home in red wines.  So after even half a glass of the darker fermented grapes, I get a very uncomfortably itchy rash on my forehead, neck, wrists and inside elbows, leaving my reaching for the nearest bottle of Benadryl and switching to Scotch.  Therefore, I have sworn off wine for health safety reasons (excess scratching leads to open sores, which aren’t good to have when handling people’s food and drinks).  It’s a shame, really, because I used to be pretty good at tasting and smelling wines to identify flavor notes.  But this means when it comes to questions on wine, I am stuck with the same descriptive blurb on the menu that is left to the Under-21ers.

It is this sympathy that compels me to impart the knowledge I have accrued through the death of brain cells upon those less-educated.  I am neither a brewer, nor a vintner or mixologist, so this will be not so much a be-all/end-all guide to alcohol for you, but rather a way for you to combat the ignorance of the consumer. And I start with something basic.


In case you missed it, calling Beer simple is a joke.  Beer is far from simple, as you will soon learn.

No one likes beer the first time they try it.  Just about everyone I’ve met had the same first-beer experience: Someone brought some Miller/Bud/Natty/Keystone/Whatever/Bullshit Light beer to a party/shindig/modeling audition, so they felt compelled to try it.  And it tasted like piss, but they were in the company of peers and/or elders, so they powered through until they started feeling kind of buzzed, then started having a good time.  Immediately, the connection between Alcohol and Fun was established, and few (if any) would turn it down again.  Two days later, however, came the embarrassing photos, soon followed by blackmail.

My first beer was a Smithwicks, so my experience need not apply.  There is also no photographic evidence.

Now, I’m under no illusions when it comes to underage drinking.  It happens.  What makes me sad is that when these kids do drink beer, they’re drinking the bottom of the barrel (pun slightly intended).  There is so much more to beer than watered-down backwash pulled from a baseball stadium’s urinal drain.  But another part of me is glad they haven’t discovered the wonderful spectrum that spreads from bock lagers to India pale ales.

That’s not to say there aren’t some turds in the jewelry store.  I once tried this raspberry ale that my old job started carrying so we could have some “gluten-free options.”  I have never been so happy to not have Celiac disease.  I even did my best to talk customers out of buying one.  But I’ll go over gluten in a later section.

There is so much I want to cover here, but I should probably settle with clearing up some misconceptions:

The color/weight/flavor/bitterness of the beer has nothing to do with alcohol content.

And vise-versa.

The only characteristic that dictates a beer’s ABV (alcohol by volume) percentage is the amount of alcohol in the mixture as a percentage of the total volume.

Beer is made from four ingredients: water, malt, hops, and yeast.  The malt contains sugars (both simple and complex), which yeast feeds upon to create alcohol.  The more sugars present for the yeast to consume, the more alcohol.

Bud Light has an ABV of 4.2%.  That means if you had a hundred ounces of that yellow-colored water, only a little more than four would be actual alcohol.  The rest is water, some malt and hop flavor and coloring that got past the filter, and preservatives to keep the “beer” “fresh.”

In case you missed it, I’m a bit of a beer snob.

I hope I don’t have to tell you that Bud Light is weak on flavor, practically transparent in color, and very “light” to drink.  But you should also know that 4.2% is quite weak when it comes to the wide world of beer.  That’s why no one has ever blacked out from Bud Light, only felt a massive hangover because they didn’t hydrate properly.  And why should they?  They were practically drinking water the whole time.

So, if I were to tell you that Devil’s Backbone (#UnpaidAd) makes a wee heavy Scotch ale called “Kilt Flasher” that sits pretty at 7.8%, is dark in color, strong on flavor, and made in quantities that are a fraction of a fraction of what Anheuser-Busch produces, I couldn’t fault you for making some assumptions.

First, that “dark beers are stronger.”

To this I mention a Dark Mild that we serve.  It’s every bit as dark as the Kilt Flasher.  Actually, even more so.  This thing is pitch-black.  But drinking it is like drinking air for me.  There’s hardly anything there, making it perfect for lunchtime guests who don’t want anything too heavy, since the job beckons, and those like a little roasted flavor without feeling full afterwards.  It’s also sitting at a paltry 3.3%, less than Bud Light.

“Aha,” you might say, “so beers with stronger flavor mean more alcohol.”

To which I answer, “No.  And don’t interrupt.”

Flavor is all down the ingredients used.  Those same four ingredients I listed above (water, malt, hops, and yeast) all contribute to a beer’s flavor.  Primarily, it’s down to the malts and hops, but the choice of yeast strain can have an effect, even if it is minor compared to the first two.  Lastly, if you think “water is water,” and it doesn’t make a difference where you get it from, talk to the pizza parlor in Washington D.C. that has water shipped in from New York just so they can use it in their pizza dough.  Even Bud Light is picky about the water they use.

Now, getting back to flavor and alcohol, take the Belgian blonde strong ale my employer makes.  It’s like Blue Moon’s Belgian White, only less orange flavor and double the alcohol.  Mind blown, right?

But remember what I said about what makes alcohol?  It’s the yeast eating the sugar.  I’m not talking about the sugar used to make cookies.  These are natural sugars that occur in whatever wheat, rye or barley the brewers decided to use.  And alcohol has no flavor, only a burn as it kills all organic matter in its path, as anyone who’s taken a shot of authentic Appalachian-born moonshine can tell you.

“So beers from smaller breweries have more alcohol?” I can hear you thinking.

Just… shut up.

The same word can have different meanings.

Novices throw these terms around when describing beer: “Light,” “Dark,” “Strong,” “Light,” “Heavy,” “Light…”

You’ll notice a pattern, I’m sure.  It’s the same pattern I’ve noticed with people who don’t know much about beer.  They use these words that make sense in their heads, but have more than one definition.

The worst offender by far is the word “light.”

Once they throw that word out there, I need to figure out what it means.  Do they mean “light” as in “light flavor”?  “Light color”?  “Low calorie”?  At some point, “light-” any or all of these.  On occasion, “light” has also meant “low hops,” or “low alcohol.”

So how are we supposed to read their minds?  Personally, I start offering various options.  At the prompt of “light,” I’ll offer a kölsch (light color, low hops, light flavor), saison (light color, fruity, slightly tart), and a maibock we recently brewed (light texture, easy drinking, hint of honey flavor).  From there, they will either: read the descriptions on the list and decide for themselves like a grown-up, or finally get to the point and ask me “Which one is most like Miller Lite?” which is when I have to resist the urge to slap them.

Sometimes the guest will be even less helpful.  I can’t count the number of times a guest has said “I like lagers.”  By saying that, they have narrowed down their options from “All Beers,” to “Half of All Beers.”  Beer is broken down into two categories: ales and lagers.  The difference boils down to yeast, time, and temperature.  Ale yeast ferments best at a higher temperature for less time, while lager yeast ferments at a lower temperature for longer.  Lagers tend to have a smoother flavor and are happier served at a lower temperature than ales, but both ales and lagers are subdivided into a myriad of categories that are further subdivided into even smaller categories. 

For instance, take the maibock I mentioned earlier.  It’s a type of German lager in the Bock family.  Bock lagers tend to be dark, smooth, very malty, and somewhat heavy, usually enjoyed in the winter months.  But “maibock” literally translates “May bock,” since it was typically brewed in the spring, and it is a lot lighter in flavor than a typical bock while still being very smooth and drinkable.  That’s why I lump it in the recommendations with the saison, even though the Saison is an ale.

But here’s the biggest reason I scorn the people who limit themselves to lagers vs. ales.  We did a collaboration with another brewery not too long ago that I found fascinating.  To drink it, you would think it was an IPA (India pale ale, for the luddites).  It was hoppy, slightly spicy, and a slight note of citrus, and that’s because it was made like an IPA.  But the brewers used lager yeast instead of ale yeast.  That made it a lager.  I will never forget the day a guest told me he “only drinks ales,” preferring pales and IPAs.  I bought him a pint of that India pale lager, not telling him what it was.  He told me he liked it, and I will never forget the look on his face when I told him it was a lager.


Vodka will probably be forever associated with Russia.  Never mind that the Ruskies and the Poles are in bitter dispute over who actually first invented the drink, since a large part of the vodka sold in the United States comes from neither of those places.  Of the vodkas offered at places I’ve worked, only Stolichnaya (commonly called “Stoli”) and Smirnoff are from Russia, and Belvedere is from Poland.

Absolut is from Sweden, Grey Goose is French, Ketel One hails from the Netherlands, and don’t mess with Tito’s (origin Texas).  Even the house vodka at my last job (Bowman’s) was made in Virginia.

By tradition, vodka is consumed neat.  (“Neat” is one of those terms we’ll go over in a later section.)  But us modern folks have a way of screwing with tradition, so we now have the Vodka Soda, the Vodka Tonic, the Bloody Mary, the Cosmopolitan, the Cape Cod, Bay Breeze, Screwdriver, Sex on the Beach, Greyhound, Lemon Drop, Moscow Mule, and so on.

The mark of vodka is “colorless, odorless, and largely tasteless.”  I’ve actually known a few people like that, apart from the “odorless” bit.  “Tasteless,” though, is why I laughed my lungs out when Grey Goose began their “World’s best-tasting vodka” ad campaign, soon followed by Belvedere’s “Re-learn vodka” counter-campaign.

Vodka’s colorless, tasteless nature lends itself well to the cocktail.  Without vodka, a Screwdriver is just orange juice, the Bloody Mary is tomato juice and several dozen herbs, a Cape Cod is merely cranberry juice and the Lemon Drop is just something really sour and lemony you guzzled down in half a second for no benefit to your night out.

And the best-kept-secret is that a higher-quality or more-expensive vodka doesn’t really improve the cocktail that has been ordered.  Only a small percent of a small percent of people can tell which vodka is which when it comes down to it, so when someone orders a Bloody Mary and I ask if they have a preferred vodka, I break with my tradition of helping the guest out and just let them go ahead and specify Grey Goose.

On the subject of that French vodka, you know what the entire marketing plan was when someone decided to import it to the U.S.?  Well, it consisted of two steps: sign a hip-hop spokesman and charge double.  Want proof? Here’s an article comparing Goose with Costco’s house brand vodka (available where legal in certain U.S. states) that found the Costco label not only comparable, but slightly superior to the “world’s best-tasting vodka” at less than half the price. I can’t vouch for this finding myself, since Costco isn’t allowed to sell their Vodka in the Commonwealth of Virginia, but I’ve always felt Goose didn’t deserve the high price tag, so I feel vindicated nonetheless.

There are good vodkas out there, to be sure.  I, myself, am partial to Tito’s.  Yes, it’s because ‘Murica, but also it feels unsullied, more pure.  I like a quality vodka, especially one that doesn’t charge an arm and a leg, but once you mix it with Red Bull, I’m not going to notice the difference.  You might as well give me your rail vodka.

That’s not to say you can charge someone for Goose and pour Aristocrat.  You should always serve the customer what they order, and if you can’t for some reason, they should be made aware.  Ran out of Goose? You should tell them you did and offer Ketel instead, even if it is a lower price on your menu.  I personally would refrain from telling them about Ketel being a better vodka for less, since they’ll tend to take it as an attack on their opinion.  Think about it: remember the last time someone countered your opinion of your fave basketball team with actual facts about their free throw percentage?  You’d want to punch them in the face to shut them up.

What am I trying to say? Basically, it’s that someone ordering an expensive vodka doesn’t always know that they’re talking about, because high-quality vodkas needn’t be expensive.


I love rum for one very specific reason: it’s cheap.  Unlike vodka or whiskey, the best quality rum isn’t necessarily the most expensive.

There are, of course, some special releases like something barrel aged or a small batch that commands a higher price tag, but any regular retail rum will tend to have roughly the same price tag as something anywhere north of rail-quality.

Personally, I like a nicely balanced spiced rum, like Bacardi Oakheart (rarely found in a bar or restaurant), or Kraken (the exception to the “dark rums are crap” rule).  I could get a handle of either (1.75 liters, or just shy of half a gallon) for around $30 in Virginia’s state-run liquor stores.

But your typical restaurant will have a cheap rum on the rail, Bacardi Superior, Captain Morgan, Malibu (which isn’t really rum, if we’re splitting hairs), Myers Dark (eww), and usually one more label the common man hasn’t heard of.

But how are you going to serve it?  Well, I personally drink Bacardi Oakheart neat (meaning “sipping the liquor without a mixer or ice”) and I’ll take Kraken on the rocks (on ice).  But I’m an odd one.  Tied for Number One Rum order I’ve fulfilled would be “Rum and Coke,” “Bacardi and Coke,” and “Captain and Coke.”  Sense a pattern there?

Yes, rums of all origin go very well with Coca Cola.  And unlike Vodka, which has only a slight taste completely overpowered by anything with more flavor than club soda, people can much more easily tell the difference between a Captain Morgan and a Bacardi.  You’ll have a harder time passing off a rail rum and Coke as the Mount Gay and Coke that your customer actually ordered, and that’s as well because you should be getting them what they ordered regardless.  The only exception to that rule is that they’re completely intoxicated, and any further serving brings only a legal liability to yourself and your employer.

Sometimes you can get creative with the over-intoxicated.  Once I was out with some friends, and we ended up at a bar, where a member of our party was friends with the server for our table.  The server recognized one of our guys was intoxicated, and instead of bringing him the whiskey-diets he’d asked for, she merely served him diet coke in a highball glass.  She never charged him for the whiskey he never got, and he never noticed.  She avoided over-serving and he didn’t pay for more than he had to.  Classic win-win.  Be advised, though, this is a pro-level play, not recommended for amateurs.

But getting back to the spirit so often tied to pirates sailing the high seas, I suppose it’s worth mentioning underage drinking.  If you were to take T.I.P.S. training, which covers handling intoxicated guests and weeding out underage drinkers, you’d be taught that a good sign of a liquor-seeking whipper-snapper is the order for a “shot of rum.”  I’ve no idea how old this course is, but I’ve never had that order, underage or otherwise.  But it makes a bit of sense, since “rum and Coke” is a commonly understood drink order, and these kids want to appear grown-up, so they ditch the Coke, needing only a shot.  The result is that if anyone orders rum in any form from me, I check ID.  Doesn’t matter if they were carded at the door, I check their ID.  Same with Southern Comfort, but that’s because I want to subtly call them children in front of their friends while mentally telling them, “Order a real bourbon, you little snot!”  No offense to SoCo, of course.  Remember, I’m a snob.

But yeah, rum.  While it is actually more complicated, rum in restaurants usually boils down to two categories; white and spiced.  And no, that’s not a race thing.  White rum is simplest, just the distillate from fermented sugarcane juice or other sugarcane byproduct, such as molasses.  There’s a general flavor of sweetness to them, but very little of it and not much else.  Spiced rum is, well, spiced, sometimes with added caramel to achieve a color ranging from light amber to medium brown.  Which spices specifically tend to vary, but common ones include cinnamon, rosemary, aniseed, pepper and vanilla.  There are a few other categories, too, including gold, dark, overproof, premium and flavored, but you are more likely to run into white and spiced rums in your typical restaurant.

I won’t say one is better than the other, since they have their different uses.  Some cocktails call for a white rum just to add a bit of sweetness and alcohol, some call for a spiced so those flavors can complement the mixers, dark rum is floated on top of the Mai Tai, flavored rums add that extra tropical kick to the drink menu of the tiki bar in the middle of Minnesota, and overproof rums are meant to be enjoyed only after the customer has put out their cigarette.

But since rum is so often used to mix fruity cocktails, guests can easily forget how much they’ve consumed and start getting silly.  And by silly, I mean drunk.  Adding sugar or fruit juice to the drink help the alcohol go down easier, so the unexperienced can end up drinking faster, getting drunker, and becoming a bigger potential problem.  That’s why when someone’s made a bowl of rum punch at a party, I’m not gonna chat up the girl who’s spent longest near that bowl.  In about an hour it will be impossible to carry on any sort of intelligible discussion with her.  And slurred speech is one of my turn-offs.


No, this is not that weird card game no one understands that concludes with someone throwing their cards down, shouting “Gin!”

If ever I sell gin, it’s as a Gin and Tonic.  I don’t like tonic water, so I don’t see the appeal, but I have recently grown to appreciate gin on its own.  Typically, gin is ordered by an older crowd.  I’m not sure why, really.  Perhaps it just hasn’t had an article written about it in Vogue Magazine lately, but the average gin-ordering demographic probably grew up looking forward to a new episode of the Golden Girls every week.

Gin shares much in common with vodka, actually.  The prime difference is that gin gets its flavor from the juniper berry.  The distiller may use any number of additional flavor ingredients to change the gin’s character, but all gin is going to hit your taste buds and say, “Here, have some juniper flavor.”  And I tell you what: as I have matured from a 27 year-old borderline alcoholic into a 28 year-old borderline alcoholic, I’ve grown to like that flavor.

Now, why anyone would add tonic water to that solution, I’ve no earthly idea.  But there are people who like it, and if they’re willing to spend money on the cocktail, who am I to say “no?”

But gin is sure to see a resurgence soon.  It’s only a matter of time before a hipster hears about it.  In the meantime, there’s the Martini.  Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Martinis are made with vodka!”

And that’s where James Bond single-handedly ruined the Martini.  Check the very first sentence in the cocktail’s Wikipedia article and you’ll find it’s made with gin.  Yes, gin.  Since the 1920’s, gin.  Then in 1964, Sean Connery uttered those famous words, “Shaken, not stirred,” and the sanity of bartenders everywhere was shaken to its core, since now when I make a Martini properly, the guests wrinkle their noses at the taste of juniper.

So if any spirit is misunderstood, it’s gin.  The taste is rather controversial, yes, but quality actually increases with price.  I like quality stuff, but I like gin since I don’t know enough about it to recognize the bottom of the barrel when I’m already three sheets to the wind.  So I keep cheap gin around the house for when I’m inebriated to the point of hugging the wall for direction.


This is a subject near and dear to my heart.  See, I love whiskey.  And that’s a strong statement, since I don’t love anything else in this world, not even people.

And be clear, though, there are four categories in which I place people and things:

  • Whiskey
  • That which I like
  • That which I tolerate
  • “Fuck off.”

 I like to think of whiskey like democracy: it’s awesome and has permeated throughout the entire world.  Scotland, Ireland, Canada, England, Japan, India, Australia, Finland, Germany and Sweden all have whiskey distilleries.  That’s to say nothing of the United States, which has a whole classification of whiskey based on its production in a single state.


For products sold in the United States and Canada, Bourbon comes from Good Ole’ U. S. of A.  It must be made from a grain mixture of at least 51% corn, aged for at least a little time in brand new, charred oak barrels, and must be at no less than 80 proof (40% alcohol) when bottled.  While there’s no actual legal requirement, a whiskey is customarily only considered a bourbon if it comes from Kentucky.  Bourbon can come from another state, but the naturally-filtered water in the area (owing to high concentrations of limestone) is considered a major step in the process.  If you’re paying attention, you’ll remember this is the second time I’ve mentioned someone being picky about the water used in making booze.

Most common bourbons I sell are Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Woodford Reserve, and occasionally Wild Turkey.  Actually, Wild Turkey has been on the decline, as far as I’ve observed.  About half the bourbons I sell are on the rocks or neat, the rest come up Jim and Coke (or gingerale), Old Fashioned, or Manhattans.  Since bourbon (and whiskey in general) have such pronounced flavor properties, the opportunities for mixing are somewhat limited.  A good mixed drink uses the ingredients’ flavors to produce a new, unique flavor unto itself.  That’s why vodka works so well: it just takes mixers and adds alcohol.  Bourbon has a bite and oakiness to it that’s hard to blend with other flavors.  I applaud whatever saint invented the Old Fashioned, taking sugar, bitters, soda water, a muddled cherry and orange slice to balance out the bourbon and craft a unique flavor profile not found elsewhere.

I’ll be honest, when given a choice of whiskeys, bourbon is actually kind of low on my list.  I don’t throw much fanfare for it, finding it a bit too harsh.  If it’s the only whiskey you’ve got, by all means I will drink it.  I just might need some ice.  Though I do like Eagle Rare.  That’s a smooth one.


If you want smooth, though, go Canadian.  Their whiskeys are smooth.  I think they get that by using Zambonis to deliver it.

That’s probably not a fair statement.  While I’m sure Zambonis are still involved, not all Canadian’s are smooth.  Same can be said for their whiskeys.

I’m skipping ahead a bit, but if you were to say “Get me an American whiskey,” I’d ask you to narrow it down a bit.  “American” just means it was made in the Contiguous 48.  I’ve no idea if whiskey is distilled in Hawaii or Alaska, but if it were, I’d call that American Whiskey as well.  I’d also like to try some.  But USA whiskey includes Kentucky bourbon, Tennessee whiskey, rye whiskey from several regions, and any number of “state-style” whiskeys, not leaning toward bourbon or rye.

“Canadian Whiskey” just means it comes from Canada and was aged for at least three years.  The more popular whiskeys hailing from the Great White North are on the lighter, smoother side.  Case in point, Canadian Club, Crown Royal, and Seagram’s 7.  Light, smooth whiskeys mix better, evidence the Washington Apple (Crown, sour apple liqueor, cranberry juice), the 7&7 (Seagram’s 7 and 7-Up), and the fact I’ve never been asked for shots of any Canadian whiskey. 

If I’m drinking something Canadian, typically it’s because I’m already wobbly from something with more flavor or a higher price tag.  Because I’ve already been drinking, my senses are dulled, and I won’t fully appreciate the eighteen-year single-malt Scotch I was drinking earlier.  So I switch to a lighter, cheaper Canadian so I can still enjoy my first love, but since I’m two sheets to the wind, going on three, I drink faster.  The lighter flavor and lower price stops me from wasting the good stuff on my drunker self, so I don’t feel bad for guzzling a single-malt.

That’s not to say Canadian whiskey is of lower quality.  Far from it, the nicer Northerners can be excellent examples of the spirit.  But the low price of the common ones makes them a cheap buzz for people like me.

Bottom line on Canadians?  I consider them a red flag signaling people like myself.  If I’ve got a guest who’s had a small handful of Maker’s on the rocks, then switches to Canadian Club, it means this person intends to get properly drunk.  That’s when I put them on my Intoxicated Watch List, and ask for a credit card to put on file in case they wander off, because that downward slide only ends with shots of Fireball.

Flavored Whiskeys

No.  Just no.  Whiskey already has a flavor.  It’s a lovely flavor, so I wonder to the ends of the earth why someone would feel the need to add to artificial flavor to the nectar of the gods.

Whoever came up with it should be shot, hanged, drawn and quartered and forced to watch Telletubbies for an eternity without the benefit of drugs or alcohol.

But I will say this for the cinnamon-flavored abomination that is Fireball: it’s only 66 proof, not the 80 proof of real whiskey, so shot takers don’t get drunk as fast.  And it’s been over a year since I was asked for a Fuzzy Navel, Lemon Drop, Kamikazi, and a Thin Red Line, all in the same order, and be expected to serve it quickly.  Nowadays, the Woo Girls just say, “Four shots of Fireball!”  That, I can do quickly.  And I won’t glare at you when you tip me $2 on those drinks, since I only pulled the bottle from the fridge and poured out the same perfectly-measured shots I always do.


I’m trying to avoid unfairly influencing you into my preference for Scotch by placing it in the middle of this Whiskey section, but now I’ve called attention to it, I’ve defeated its very purpose.

I love single-malt.  There’s a character to it I can’t define that doesn’t happen with a blend. It’s entirely likely I’m subject to a placebo effect, but regardless, I always prefer a single-malt to a blend.  Not to say I will ever say no to a blend, of course.  You saw my list of things I like in this world, so you know I hold whiskey above all else in this cruel existence that passes for humanity.

Scotch is like a classic car: As it ages, it becomes more expensive, is appreciated more, and (more often than it should be) can be abused by someone with more money than sense.  I once had someone order a double Macallan 12 year and Diet Coke.  It took me a minute to register, because I would never mix a Scotch with anything.  Except for that one time I wanted an Old Fashioned and I was out of Bourbon.  It didn’t work out very well.  But this guy’s drink ended up costing over $20.  And by the end of the night, he’d had three of them.

Lucky for you, people ordering Scotch tend to know what they’re ordering, so it’s unlikely you’ll be asked about the characteristics of Laphroaig versus Glenmorangie.  You’re forgiven if you can’t pronounce those correctly.  I, myself, order a Scotch at a bar to try it out before I buy a full bottle to drink at home. 

But should someone actually ask you how peaty Glenlivet 18 is (very, is the answer), ask your bartender.  If they are like me, they’ll open the bottle and take a quick sniff.  A lot of Scotch’s flavor is in the aroma.  That’s why it’s best served in a snifter glass, so the nose and the pallet can work in conjunction and the drinker can get the full experience out of the drink.  The pros will add a few drops of water to the libation to open up the flavor even more.  But don’t ever add the water for them.  It’s a matter of personal preference, so if they want water, they will ask for a small glass of it on the side.


I love Ireland.  I was only there once at the age of sixteen, and even though I didn’t get to try any of the booze over there, I’ve grown fond of it during my drinking time spent stateside.

The gateway for me was Jameson.  It is the most marketed Irish whiskey here in the states, which is just as well, because it’s the most approachable.  It’s like a gateway whiskey.  Somehow, it works well with gingerale, so if anyone’s looking to try whiskey, I’ll start them off with that.  Once they’ve grown accustomed to it, I’ll serve it on the rocks.  And since everyone has attention deficit disorder, they will become bored and start looking for something new.  That’s when I break out Paddy, Redbreast, Powers, Kilbeggan, Tullamore Dew, and (my personal favorite) Knappogue Castle.

Irish whiskey is a bit like Canadian, leaning toward the lighter side.  Well, maybe “light” isn’t the right word.  Perhaps “bright” is better, because they don’t taste thin, just, bright.  “Smooth” is also a word I’d use to describe the Emerald Isle’s spirits, though I’ve yet to meet a smooth Irishman.  The Irishmen I’ve met tend to be blunt.  And it’s a quality I appreciate, if I’m to be as blunt.

What I like about selling Irish whiskey is that I never have to convince anyone to get it.  I once served a party of 19, and the lead guy just up and asked for a round of Jameson shots.  There was no waffling back and forth about what whiskey to order, he just decided to buy a round and voiced the idea to the people around him, saying, “Jameson shots?”  There was a quick murmur of agreement and suddenly I was ringing in 19 shots of Jameson, totaling (at that restaurant) $152, plus tax.  The shots were delivered, consumed, and there were no complaints.  I didn’t have to sell the whiskey to anyone, because they knew what they wanted. 


This isn’t really a thing, but Tennessee whiskey gets a section in this guide for one reason: Jack Daniel’s.

Remember when I said that bourbon tends to hail from Kentucky?  Well, it really doesn’t have to come from Kentucky to be a bourbon, just has to come from the U.S.

But that’s not enough for the great state of Tennessee.  In addition to being produced within the state line, Tennessee law requires a special filter step (known as the “Lincoln County Process”) prior to fermentation in order for the spirit to be called “Tennessee Whiskey.”  Apart from these two distinctions, most Tennessee whiskey is bourbon, just not from Kentucky.

As a result, Jack Daniel’s, which is made like a bourbon, is actually labeled “Tennessee Whiskey.”  That means you shouldn’t sell someone Jack when they ask for a Bourbon and Coke.  They will spot the difference.  If they wanted Jack, they would have asked for Jack.  Because Jack is not bourbon.  It’s a Tennessee whiskey.  And if I have to write the word “Tennessee” one more time, I just might give up on finishing this whole guide and let it fester as an unfinished Word file in my Documents folder.


Here we have the last of the major types of whiskey.  And we’ve come full-circle, actually, because rye whiskey differs from bourbon in one very significant way: At least 51% of the mash is required to be of Rye.  You’ll recall that bourbon required the same minimum percentage consisting of corn.

And that’s pretty much it, really.  Rye is just bourbon with a single differing ingredient.  It can come from anywhere in the United States and call itself “American Rye Whiskey.”  Canada is different, of course.  In Canada, pretty much every whiskey made in Canada can call itself “rye whiskey,” even if it’s made mostly from corn, but that shit doesn’t fly south of the International Boundary. In the U.S., rye whiskey must be made from rye.  It can still be made by Mounties, just has to have a majority of rye in the mash.

Rye comes across a bit spicy or fruity, with less sweetness than bourbon.  Cocktails, like the Old Fashioned or Manhattan, will taste a bit dryer when made with rye whiskey.  That’s not a bad thing, since some people like their drink with less sweetness, so it’s all down to the customer.

I once had a pair of guests come in.  One knew what he wanted: an Old Fashioned with Maker’s Mark.  The other was less experienced in bars and wanted to try the Maker’s cocktail before deciding.  He liked the flavor, just wished it was a bit less sweet.  Thirty seconds later I had for him another Old Fashioned with Templeton Rye and a touch less simple syrup. I don’t like to brag, but I totally nailed it.

Rye is another one of those liquors that a guest already knows they want.  Like Scotch, I hardly ever have to sell someone on getting a Rye.


I’ve been putting off writing about this one for a few days now.  Tequila and I definitely got off on the bad foot, and now the two of us are like mixing diesel and unleaded:  You get a bad feeling when it’s about to go down and you’re still surprised at how much damage is incurred when it’s all over.

That’s not to say I become a different person when I drink tequila.  On the few times I’ve had it, I’m the same drunken moron I am when I’ve binged on barley wines.  But tequila is sneaky.

I used to pour rounds of tequila shots before Fireball hit the scene.  Tequila is a social drink, taken as a shot with a group.  When the distilled blue agave spirit is shot with a group of people assembled in lieu of friends, the endorphins start flowing and you subconsciously want to maintain that high.  So you order another round.

But if only that were the only weapon in Tequila’s arsenal.  There’s also the Margarita and Tequila Sunrise, which have such strongly-flavored mixers they mask the burn of alcohol, so they go down easier.  Not to mention someone had the insane notion to turn the Margarita into a slushie.  The only barrier to drinking a slushie is brainfreeze, which only lasts a few seconds.  And the slushie is a self-expiring drink.  Once it’s melted, it’s ruined.  Think about the last time you enjoyed a room-temperature Slurpee.  Yeah, that never happened.

So when tequila is ordered by a party, I can be certain a lot more tequila is about to be ordered.  And it’s rarely sold by itself.  An old coworker of mine would always order a shot of chilled Jose Cuervo with a lime.  The lime helped it go down easier, I’m told.  I disagree.

The two worst hangovers of my drinking career have had tequila involved.  The first time was a house party where someone busted out a handful of limes and a bottle of Cuervo (why is it always Cuervo?).  Oh, the pain the next morning…

The second time was someone else consuming the agave libation, and I was just trying to keep up with them while swigging rum.  Pray tell me, how am I supposed to keep up with something so well socially-engineered to go down easy?

Tequila is another of those liquors that actually increases in quality with price.  If the guy in the Armani suit asks for a Margarita, ask if he has a preference of tequila.  He may want to make it a Cadillac Margarita (Patron and Grand Marnier instead of whatever bargain tequila and triple sec is sitting on your bar’s rail.

I never worry about how to sell tequila.  My only concern is selling too much tequila and having to deal with intoxicated guests.  Once I’ve sold a second round of shots, they’re on my watchlist.


It’s really just grape juice that had all its sugar turned into alcohol.  That’s the short of it, but the long is much more complicated.

I used to be so much better at talking about wine, but that sulfite sensitivity I have crept up a few years ago, so I had to take red wine out of my diet.  I can still drink whites, since the sulfites aren’t as prevalent and I can get by with taking some diphenhydramine, but there’s just too many in reds, leaving me with a rashed and itchy neck, forehead, wrists and elbows.  Why those particular places on my body, I may never know.  But I’ll do my best to walk you through without too much whining about it. (See what I did there?)

Wine used to be one of those things fancy people drank and spent a lot of money to do it.  They still do, but the globalized expansion of wine production has allowed wineries to pop up with products they can market to the Have-Nots.

Back in the day, your “quality, expensive” wines came from Italy and France.  Well, mostly France, but that didn’t mean both countries weren’t really arrogant about it.

“Wine improves with age,” was another convention that’s been changed.  For the traditional, finer stuff, that’s still largely true.  But since the events portrayed in the movie Bottleshock, the budget market has exploded.  And not all of it is crap.  Many wines are now made with the intention of being consumed within a year of production, and some of those will only degrade in value afterwards.

In some parts of the States, you can get a bottle of Charles Shaw for $2.  The winery uses mass-production methods to churn it out, so it’s cheap for them to make.  So they sell it for cheap.  It’s become known as “Two-Buck Chuck.”  The further from California you go, transportation costs rise and every now and then a tax is involved, so sometimes it’s $3.  But still, it’s a bottle of wine for the price of an iPhone app and you (probably) won’t be disappointed.

Local wines are a big thing where I am, being in the Commonwealth of Virginia.  The case might be different in, say, North Dakota, which I imagine might not have much in the way of a grape-friendly climate.  Soil nutrients must be all wrong.

Unless you’re at a wine bar, there’s very little you need to know about serving wine.  White wines are kept refrigerated and served cold.  Red wines should be kept at cellar temperature (55ᵒF) and allowed to rise to room temperature once served, but a smaller operation might not have space for a second wine fridge, so the reds would just be kept out at room temperature.

What’s that? Someone ordered a bottle?  Well, I hope you’re bringing a chiller if they ordered white.  Fancier places will have an actual bucket with ice in it.  My brewpub has these unfortunately-heavy stone buckets that we keep in the fridge.  And I’ve dealt with cheap, plastic, double-walled ice-less chillers that just keep the cold bottle from touching the warm table.  If you’re the type of place where people order wine (read: probably not a chain sports bar) and you don’t have anything to keep white bottles chilled, ask management to get some.  Tell them I said so, in the name of proper service.

Reds don’t need chillers.  They’re kept at cellar temp, remember?

Now, in my state, the customer cannot be allowed to open their drink.  It must be either a server or a bartender.  If you’re a fancier joint, you’ll pour an ounce into the glass of the person who ordered it so they can taste it.  For me, that’s a good way of checking right away if they like it so I don’t have to come back and ask them.  It’s also a way of knowing immediately if the wine is corked.  But more on “corked bottles” later.

Once the head honcho approves, you will pour them their first round.  As far as pouring a glass, a “Standard Pour” can vary (rendering ironic the word “standard”), but I pour up to what I call “the break.” Most glasses are bulb-shaped, yes?  The “break” is where the sides go fully vertical and start curving back in on themselves (sometimes the glass is actually angled at that point, making it easier to see).  It may be tough to visualize from words, so here’s a picture.  The line on the glass is “the break.”

That’s typically five or six ounces.  My old job used to have custom-printed glasses, and we used the logo on the glass for reference.  Whatever it may be, your management should have a guideline for the bartenders, and it’s not a bad idea to adhere to that plan when pouring out the table’s first round.

Now to recommendations:

Since I no longer drink wine, I can’t tell people first-hand what they’re like.  I can abide by the old “reds with dark meat, whites with white meat” guideline, but there are some mellow reds that will go well with duck.

If someone is new to reds, I recommend they start on a Merlot.  Newbies to whites get offered something sweeter, like a Riesling.  Veterans who want an easy choice get a Malbec (red) or a Chardonnay (white) recommendation from me.  Malbecs are trendy these past few years, so chances are they’ll find it familiar, and Chardonnays tend to be derivative of each other, so if they liked one, odds have it they’ll like the one you’ve got.

Ask around the staff for what to recommend.  If you’re a fancy place that has a sommelier, that’s the person to ask.  If you haven’t got one (or he’s just an arrogant prick), ask the chef.  And there’s a good chance one of your bartenders will be a wine geek, so there’s another person to ask.

Just don’t ask me. I’ll probably steer you wrong.

I think that’s about it on wine.  Wait, I’m a liar.  I promised to tell you about corked bottles.

As bottling processes improved, this became less of an issue.  But sometimes a wine will simply “go bad in the bottle.”  It’s hard to predict when will happen, and you don’t know until it’s opened.  But there are some ways to stop it from being your fault:

  • Rotate your stock

First in, first out.  This applies across the board for restaurants.  When new product comes in, you put it behind the older stuff so the old stuff is grabbed first. This keeps stuff from spoiling.  I’m so anal about FIFO that I even do it with straws and napkins.  No one likes an old napkin, and if you’re constantly pushing new napkins behind, there will never be any old napkins.  And because wine “improves with age” (or rather, “changes with age”), you don’t want that pinot noir to sit on the back of the shelf for two years before finally selling it.

  • Don’t over-stock

Wine changes with age.  If you’ve got more stocked than you sell, then they’re gonna sit and change.  Possibly for the worse, and you’ll end up having to order more stock without actually selling the old stock.

  • Don’t keep wine in the boiler room.

I cannot begin to tell you how this is a bad idea.  Just don’t do it.  There’s a reason rich people have climate-controlled wine cellars.  And they’re never next to the boiler room.

And that’s it for wine.  For real this time.  Somehow, wine is more acceptable to drink in polite settings, like baby showers.  But the minute I show up with a handle of Jameson, the other guests start suggesting I stop by the local church, coincidentally on the same night AA holds a meeting there.

The Rest

I’ll never cover everything in this “short” guide, since I’m not really an expert.  I’m just a guy who drinks enough to have at least a small hangover daily.  So now I’ve covered the big stuff, here’s a run-down of the small potatoes.


Mead is fermented honey.  It can also be around 10% or higher.  Honey has a lot of sugar in it, remember?  I don’t see it often, but every time I have, it’s served in a wine glass, poured to the break.  It’s one of those niche drinks that’s slowly gaining popularity. I still only know one guy who actively seeks it out.


Think licorice, with the burn of nearly 50% alcohol.  I’ve sold shots of it on only one occasion, and they wanted it chilled.  It’s on the decline.  My mom used to drink it, but only sparingly.  Started giving her heartburn.  But don’t worry, I’m sure a hipster will “discover” it and people will start ordering it again.


Similar to Sambuca, but usually a better quality.  I’ve only ever served it neat.  The average Absinthe customer knows what he’s getting, and generally won’t be an obnoxious college coed.


I know what you’re thinking: “You just misspelled ‘liquor.’”

No, liqueurs focus more on adding flavor than alcohol.  They’re typically 20% alcohol or less, compared to 40% for your average liquor.  They tend to be very sugary, strong in flavor (typically fruit flavor, but there’s also mint, cream, coffee, etc.), and have very colorful labels.

I like using them for mixing cocktails.  Because they’re low in alcohol, adding them doesn’t add much to the strength of the drink.  A liqueur is rarely sold by itself.  Here are the exceptions I’ve seen:

Grand Marnier: It’s just a fancy triple-sec, which is a fancy way of saying “orange liqueur.” On occasion I’ll sell this as chilled shots.  The only other times I’ve opened that bottle is to make a Cadillac Margarita.

Jagermeister: Does not actually contain deer’s blood.  Regardless, I don’t care for it.  It tastes like cough syrup, comes from Germany, and is recognized to be an alcoholic drink in the U.S. more than it is in its fatherland. It is served as cold as your restaurant can possibly make it, to mask the flavor, I imagine.  Sydney Frank imported it stateside in the 1980s, and made it a national phenomenon by inventing that refrigerator tank that you screw the bottles into.  He sold the fridge, which was visually appealing, and the visually appealing thing ended up selling the cough syrup-flavored thing.  Sydney Frank also imported Grey Goose to the States.  He died a billionaire at the age of 86.

Bailey’s Irish Cream: Only time I’ve sold this solo is so someone could put it in their coffee.  But I have ordered it solo, because I like the flavor of it.  The worst thing that could happen to it was the Cement Mixer shot (Bailey’s and lime juice).

Rumplemitz: The Devil’s Mouthwash.  It’s peppermint schnapps with extra terrible.  It was popular as a shot for about six months before people realized they were regretting ordering it every time.  Then they found Fireball, and new regrets.

Amaretto: I should clarify. I don’t sell Amaretto by itself.  I once had to come up with a seasonal cocktail to sell it because we had too much and weren’t selling enough Amaretto Sours.  Disaronno is on the upper end of the bittersweet almond flavored liqueur, while DeKuyper is on the lower.  For some reason it’s tasty to some people with the same sour mix used in a Margarita.

There are probably some libations I’m forgetting, and I’ve just realized I’m throwing a lot of information at someone who probably has ADD.  So I’m gonna just finish up with some general tips.

“Straight Up.”

This phrase means nothing to me as far as a drink order is concerned.  You want your Jim Beam straight out of the bottle, no ice, no mixer, no chilling?  Order it “neat.”  A well-thought-out server terminal won’t even have a “straight up” modifier for liquor being rung in.  The proper term is “neat.”

What’s the difference between “neat” and “a shot?”  It’s all down to how fast the guest intends to drink it.  “Neat” implies they intend to take their time with the pour.  It’s typically had when they already have a glass of water.  When I order something neat, it means that’s my only drink for the time being.  This is opposed to a shot, which is typically ordered when they already have a beer or cocktail in front of them.  And the shot is typically taken immediately, usually with a group, assuming this person has friends.  The friendless person ordering shots intends to just get drunk.  He’s far more likely to appear at the bar than at a table, since that’s where the lonely people tend to go.  And never you mind why I’ll be seated at a table.

So why is there a modifier labeled “Up” in the register?  That’s because “up” actually means something.  “Up” is a bit complicated, but by and large, it means (to me, at least) “in a martini glass.”   Yes, that long-stemmed conical piece of glassware that’s a bitch to carry without spilling a drop is also called an “up glass.”  Why?  Because it’s an up-charge.  The typical martini glass holds at least twice the volume of a typical shot glass.  You want an Absolute Martini?  That’s an upcharge, because there’s more liquor involved.

“Up” generally pertains to a chilled liquor in a martini glass.  But it’s also a way to modify a cocktail, like the Manhattan.  Look it up and you’ll see it’s just bourbon, some sweet vermouth, and a cherry, sometimes involving an orange peel and/or a dash of bitters.  The ingredients can be poured together into a rocks glass, only to have ice added to make a “Manhattan on the rocks,” or they could be combined in a shaker tin with ice and strained into a martini glass, making a “Manhattan Up.”  Just so long as it isn’t shaken.  Shaking will bruise the bourbon.

And no, I haven’t a clue what “bruised bourbon” really means.  It’s just something I picked up from a guy who knew way more about bourbon than I did.  He made an exquisite Old Fashioned with maple syrup and a strip of bacon.  That’s right, I said “bacon.”  I don’t remember how many I had, only a credit card statement telling me how much I spent.

Ever heard that sound before?

You may get asked “What frozen drinks do you have?”  Lord knows I’ve been asked.  Typically, the closer you are to a tropical-themed restaurant, the more often you’re asked.  Because frozen daiquiris are like cocaine, apparently.

Now, if it’s a rare request when someone asks, before you offer to check, ask yourself this: “Have I ever heard a blender running that wasn’t in the kitchen?”

If the bar hasn’t got one of those slushie machines not normally seen outside of a 7-Eleven, frozen beverages will be made by pouring liquor, mixer and ice cubes into a blender and cranking it up to “puree.”  Will it blend?  It will as long as you’re not using Adamantium ice cubes.  And those are a bad idea all around.  They’re rough on the stomach lining.

So if you can’t remember ever hearing a blender, when you go to ask the bartender or manager about frozen drink availability, consider rephrasing your question.  Instead of asking, “What frozen drinks can we make,” avoid their scorn by asking “We don’t do any frozen drinks, right?”

I spent a few years working at a restaurant/movie theater hybrid that has no affiliation to the more upscale national chain that rhymes with “Olamo.”  For all of two months, we employed an absolute moron by the name of Josh.  Josh was an old friend of one of our bartenders, who owed that bartender a lot of money.  This bartender wasn’t getting his money anytime soon, because I’d had to tell this real-life Simple Jack three times(!) that we didn’t have a blender at the bar.  A bar that was situated at the back of the theater.  With no soundproofing between the bar and the seats.  No surprise he was soon let go.  Showed up late too many times.  Would have been fired sooner, but firing someone for being an idiot is harder to justify when you’re short-staffed in your busy season.

What goes well with duck?

When your chef shows off the week’s specials, try asking him (or her, because I’m not completely sexist) what kind of drink would complement the dish.

In general, red wines go with dark meats, white wines with white meats.  But that’s only scratching the surface.

Take, for instance, the India Pale Ale. When the British occupied India, part of the soldiers’ pay was beer shipped from England. England was in love with the Pale Ale in those days, so these British soldiers would have wanted a taste of home while on station. Trouble is, the beer was shipped by sea, which takes a while.  Oftentimes it spoiled, so the brewers threw extra hops into the mix as a preservative. The beer could then more-successfully make the journey, and ended up tasting more bitter than a regular pale. Turns out that the bitter beer added much-needed flavor to the English cuisine the soldiers were accustomed to. So the next time someone's eyeing the Fish and Chips, suggest an IPA.

Don’t tell them “they should,” just suggest it might pair well.  Odds are they’ll agree, because someone ordering curry is already accustomed to strong flavors and they just might appreciate the suggested saison.  But don’t push a sale, just suggest.

Remember that you’re in the service industry.  You’re here to make sure the guest has a good time.  One way to do that is to give them the ideal chemical reaction between entrée and beverage.  Knowing what pairs well is not an exact science.  It takes years of eating and drinking to get a feel for what’s going to work.  If you’re under-aged, you don’t have those years.  So you’ll need to ask.

If your chef is serious about his work, he will appreciate you asking what wine or beer to pair with the mussels.  He might even start to respect you.  He knows that people who enjoy his food are more likely to return and spend money again.  And a good way to make sure they enjoy it is to pair the ribeye with a cabernet that will compliment it.  Just don’t ask him when the kitchen is backed up with 40-minute ticket times.  Odds are he won’t be in the mood to entertain questions.

I’ve heard it both ways.

Learn how to pronounce the stuff you’re selling.  Don’t pronounce the T’s in “merlot,” “pinot,” and “cabernet.”  “Savignon” is pronounced “sav-in-yon.” Extra points if you roll the R in “grigio.”  There, I just saved you from looking like an idiot.

Things get tricky with Scotch.  Some of them have odd combinations of O’s, A’s, and U’s.  And God knows how we’re supposed to pronounce the G’s.  With any luck, there will be a local liquor rep who works for that distributor and will be able to tell you how to string those syllables together.

If your coworkers fail you when it comes to pronunciation, go to the Internet.  Sometimes there’s a pronunciation on the official website, if not Wikipedia.

This isn’t essential to your job, or even to give good service.  I’m just trying to keep people from laughing at you when you pronounce the J in “Jagermeister.”  (You should pronounce it like it starts with a Y).

With a slice of...

Your restaurant may have signature cocktails which may dictate a specific garnish.  Learn that garnish, especially if the service bar is not in the habit of doing it for you.  Beyond that, there are some guidelines.

Blue Moon and Shock Top have spent millions in advertising to tell people to take their beers with an orange slice.  You might as well oblige them.  That doesn’t mean all wheat beers come with an orange.  Port City recommends an orange with their Optimal Wit, but only to drag on the lip of the glass, not to squeeze into the beer before drinking.

Lots of cocktails call for a lime.  Gin and tonic, vodka soda, rum and coke, whiskey ginger, vodka cranberry.  Simple stuff like that generally calls for a lime.  The exception is bourbon and Tennessee.  Never pair a lime with those whiskeys.  Or any fruit.  Just doesn’t work, except for Manhattans and Old Fashioneds

I like garnishing tropical drinks (especially ones that deal with orange or pineapple juice) with an orange slice and a maraschino cherry.  Adds to the tropical feel.  Long Island Iced Tea?  Same thing you put on a regular iced tea; a lemon.

Ask your bartender for clarification. But not while he’s busy.  He’s more focused on his actual patrons than the service bar when he’s in the weeds.  If the bartender is busy, ask a more seasoned server or the manager.


This is by no means a be-all end-all guide.  Like I said, I’m not an expert, just a guy who drinks enough alcohol every week to sedate an elephant.  I feel a bit guilty for all the elephants that need surgery but can’t get the necessary anesthetic.

Well, I don’t feel that guilty.  I’m also kind of an asshole.

What’s my bottom-line piece of advice?  “Ask questions.” You’re under the legal age, and even if you do have some experience with alcohol, you’re forgiven for lacking in knowledge.  After all, I wouldn’t expect someone who once had a FourLoko to know all about IPAs.

Someone ordered a cocktail you’ve never heard of?  Ask your manager permission to search for it on your phone.  When the hipster asks for a Moscow Mule, you can be smart about it and look for the ingredients, then ask “Do we have ginger beer?” instead of asking the bartender “Can we make a Moscow Muse,” especially if said bartender has had the good graces to never have heard of such a thing.  If the bartender has to look up the drink, it means you could have done a little research yourself.

But above all, understand that you are lacking in knowledge, even with this guide in hand.  I guarantee I haven’t prepared you for every scenario.  If you are stumped, ask someone nearby.  If your coworkers fail you, be honest with the table.  “I’m sorry, but no one here has heard of that drink.  Do you know what’s in it?”  Sometimes it’s just another drink of a different name.  If your bartender knows what’s in it, odds are they can make it.

Unless it’s a frozen drink and the bar doesn’t have a blender.  Then the esteemed guest can just fuck off.

Best of luck to you.  You’re gonna need it.


About: Time


Well, I’m back to waiting tables in a brewpub.

That’s not to say it was something I’ve been looking forward to, just that I’m no longer working behind a bar for the time being.

And that’s not to say it’s a tragedy.  I’m currently making more money with fewer stresses than my previous particular occupation. 

And (to fulfill the Comedic Rule of Three), that’s not to say it would be hard to find a place with fewer stressors than my last employment venue.  A month after leaving, having just completed my training at the new place, I’d caught up with some now-former coworkers who remarked on how much healthier I’d looked.  Though it could have been my brief stint of unemployment had left me with insufficient funds for alcohol. Boy, did I miss whiskey…

But now that I’m back to carrying drinks while answering idiotic questions and no longer making drinks while dismissing idiotic questions, I am finding myself suddenly reacquainted with certain aspects of the job I had found distasteful.

Take, for example, the muscle strain.  My previous serving job required the use of a drinks tray for the carriage of even a single shot glass-worth of liquid.  This was because the part of the floor that wasn’t that really thin, hard, industrial carpeting would turn to a freshly-resurfaced ice skating rink at the mere sight of a single drop of water.  But they weren’t about to change it, because a) it would cost money, and b) that slick floor was so very easy to mop.  The only logical option was to add a work requirement for the service staff.  As a result, my passive-aggressive nature led me to using the largest-possible tray to transport a table’s water glasses, one at a time.

Conventional server wisdom (an oxymoronic statement as any) suggested using one’s less-dominant hand to carry a tray.  For instance, a right-handed individual would support the bottom of a tray with their left hand, while using their more-dexterous right hand to stabilize it and shove idle-minded loiterers out of the way.

What comes from using your weaker side to carry a full tray of drinks (my record was 13 pint glasses without adding a second row, and the precarious nature of that arrangement did more to further the “Unlucky 13” superstition than anything that actually happened on a Friday the 13th) the full length of the restaurant, then using miniscule movements to keep your hand under the tray’s center of gravity as you unload said drinks so you don’t have to air out your pants later, for that first solid week is a severely sore wrist.  When it persisted for a second week despite popping Advil and slathering on Biofreeze, I sought out a compression brace.  This, coupled with a few more busy shifts’ conditioning allowed the muscles and tendons to heal and strengthen to where it didn’t bother me anymore.

This is one of many quirks of the business I am sure to document in my book once I (eventually) get to writing it. But for the sake of time and your attention span, I will focus on one frustration in particular: a guest’s inability to comprehend the value of a server or bartender’s time.

First, we have the ill-timed seating of party members.

Here’s the stage: A table set for six.  The server assigned to the section in which the table resides has seen that someone has taken a seat at that table.  It’s reasonable to assume the hosts are aware that Captain Ahead O’Schedule is present, for they have lain out the requisite menus for a quantity of people appropriate for the table.

The Captain is greeted by the server, who remarks that there must be more people coming.  Captain declares in the affirmative, stating, “They’re on their way.”

This, for me, is always a red flag.  I won’t worry if I’d heard “He’s parking the car,” or “They’re closing their tab with the bar.”  That suggests imminent arrival, and I can do a quick check of my tables while I wait, if they aren’t visible five seconds after I’ve heard either of these statements.

But if you throw me a “They’re on their way,” I will cringe for the following is what ALWAYS happens, without fail.

The Captain will start with a water, because he doesn’t want to be seen as an alcoholic when his friends arrive and see he’s already consumed five Absolute Martinis, and he doesn’t want a lecture from his one Crossfitter friend about the dangers of processed sugar when he is seen with a Dr. Pepper.  No, a glass of water is always a safe course of action.  But not a bottled water, because then he’ll appear elitist.  And not a water with a lemon, because he definitely wants to have those five martinis and lemon-garnished water conveys that you are comfortable forgoing alcohol and sugar for the evening, but not a drink with flavor.

The server is not concerned with his choice, only suppressing a deep sigh as he resigns himself to the fact that there will not be any money made on this table until Captain O’Schedule’s friends arrive.  And if you ever find yourself in the Captain’s shoes, for the love of God, DO NOT request waters for the whole table.  When you do this, your friends are going to arrive, find waters already available, and forgo any drink that costs actual money.  Then you’re going to feel awkward when you’re the only one who ordered that martini, let alone five of them.  The intervention, in this case, isn’t a possibility so much as a forgone conclusion.

Nonetheless, the server will fetch the water, understanding that it’s pointless to give his spiel on the daily specials to a table of six when only one is able to hear it.  So the Captain will wait with his water for his friends.  He’ll occupy himself with his phone, never actually calling or texting his as-yet-present tablemates, for fear of appearing needy.  And why should he contact them?  He sent a mass text to everyone that he had arrived and was getting a table for their party.  The only further communication necessary would be either, “I just parked and am headed in,” or “I’ve been mugged and had to borrow a stranger’s phone to say I can’t make it tonight on account of the police report I must now file.”

With nothing to do for this table until it is further populated, the server will move on to other tables.  He might ring in a dessert for Table 78, where Daddy has the kids tonight while Mommy invites her girlfriends over to watch some sappy chick-flick that came out when they were all still single.  A refresh for 63’s iced tea.  Another pitcher of light beer for the collegiate study group that’s not done any studying all night.  Maybe help out other servers or the food runner, since all the tables in the section are good for the foreseeable next few minutes.  And as he drops off a medium-rare ribeye at someone else’s table, he sees that Captain O’Schedule has assembled the Tardy Squad, so it’s time to take care of them now.  The Captain first sat down twenty minutes ago, so his tablemates must have waited for his mass text to even consider leaving the house.

So now the server waits for them to sit the bloody-hell down before approaching.  When that happens, he greets them as if happy to finally see them.  Honestly, he was wondering if they were all just figments of O’Schedule’s imagination.  He’s just about to regale them in an epic poem about the Chef’s specials when he hears the unmistakable chair-scraping of a table being sat in his section.  But he can’t break away, not now that he finally has the Tardy Squad’s attention after they’ve spent an eternity simply saying “hello” to one another!  No, he must push through this as quickly as possible so he may properly greet this new table behind him.

And in a perfect world, we’d all be empathic and able to recognize the need for efficiency in others.  But no, they have questions.

  • ·       “Why is this beer more expensive than Bud Light?”
  • ·       “What gluten-free liquors do you have?”
  • ·       “Could you send that large pizza out first as an appetizer?”
  • ·       “Any way I could get that special in a completely different way from what you described?”
  • ·       “Can I get the mussels as a side instead of fries?”
  • ·       And my oh-so-favorite: “What’s good here?”

And of course, the Captain had to wait for them, so he insists they order everything at once so he needn’t wait any further.  Never mind his compatriots have had minimal exposure to the menu options and must now make a selection under pressure.  To cap it all off, the woman who told the table to go ahead and order before her still hasn’t made a decision when we’ve come back to her.  And it usually is a woman who does this, rarely a man.  Not trying to ruffle any feathers, it’s just a strange coincidence I’ve noticed.  But children are always indecisive.  I can’t see how, really, given their menu only has four things on it.

Meanwhile, the table behind, a perfectly kind and patient group of twenty-somethings on a double date, must wait for the server to finish with this malarkey before he can properly take care of them.  Several minutes can easily have elapsed when he was supposed to have met them within forty-five seconds.  The two couples have been penalized for the unspeakable crime of arriving together, on time.

When this happens to me, as a server, you had better believe I’m going to ring in the new table’s order before the bigger table.  It’s a small, unseen effort on my part to make up for the inconvenience they’ve had to endure.  Even delaying the Tardy Squad’s order by 30 seconds can cascade their delay, for all kinds of things happen in a kitchen.  Another server could have rung in something between the two tickets.  The kitchens may have been told by management to cook something on the fly, pushing back other orders.  And if one person wanted their burger well-done, then the whole table’s food is gonna sit under a heat lamp until the grill has finished turning a perfectly good slab of ground beef into a hockey puck as per the customer’s request.

Perhaps best part is the Captain’s table isn’t going to notice the delay, being so engrossed in their own frivolous chatter.  When this happens, I’m reminded of the proverbial tree falling in the forest when no one is around to hear it.

Those unfamiliar with serving might think, “Job done, right?  You got everyone’s order in, and it’s fine now.  You even struck an unseen blow for punctuality!”

To which I must clarify that the “unseen blow for punctuality” was really just more of my passive-aggressive tendencies.  I know the Tardy Table won’t notice the delay, I just feel better for making them wait.

But it’s not the end.  Any time unnecessarily wasted can cascade, especially when a server’s section is full.  The Dad’s Night with the Kids table could find itself with a fussy four-year-old and have to leave promptly, or the Study Group might find itself in desperate need of Fireball shots.  A busy server’s time is at a premium, and it can’t be wasted explaining how the economies of scale allow a macro-brew to be so cheap.

And all of this is kind of burying the lead: Why was the Captain so Ahead O’Schedule?

I am a cynic at heart, so I assume he got here twenty minutes earlier than they agreed upon and decided to grab a table.  That’s well and good for you and your friends, but please remember that he got a water when he sat down for twenty minutes.  So here’s a wake-up call: he just wasted twenty minutes of the server’s time.

My busiest night of record saw me ring up $1600 in an eight-hour period with a four-table section.  That’s an average of $200/hour.  (Granted, this was cocktail service rather than table, but I work best with hyperbole so just go with it for now.)  So a twenty minute span of no orders means the restaurant could miss out on upwards of $15 in sales from a single table.  By ordering a single martini he tried so hard to be seen without, he could have cut that potential loss in half.  Basically, by being so unapologetically early, he have done financial harm to the business where within he currently sits, sipping his water.  There is a proper place for him; it is called Outside and Out of the Way.  Or at the bar, where no one will immediately question the five martinis you’ve already consumed.

On the other hand, I can appreciate being punctual.  I, myself, am routinely twenty minutes early for work, simply to allow for the freak traffic patterns in my area.  Although, part of it is that I left my apartment so I wouldn’t get sucked into another leg of my now-regular Netflix binges.  Hell, that’s why I was always early at my last job, and I only lived a mile away.

But if he is just being punctual and his friends are late, what kind of shitty friends does this guy have to all keep him waiting?  I would feel hurt if my friends didn’t take our appointed time seriously enough to make it on time.  At least I might, if I had any friends.

But this is only one end of the Steps of Service Spectrum, and it is here I must bring up the subject of Campers.

Campers are the Ultraviolet to the Infrared of Tardy Squad.  They’re not so far separated as to be a different class of people, but still straddle the thin wavelengths of visible light made up by perfectly normal, considerate customers.  And Lord knows there are still some genuine whack-o’s in the VLF and Gamma ranges. But the big difference is that while the effect of Infrared on your skin is a surface burn, Ultraviolet can cause cancer.

For the uninitiated, a Camper is not a lover of the Great Outdoors.  Just the opposite, a Camper will avoid going outside at all costs for as long as the restaurant remains open or they develop bedsores.

I’m not sure what motivates them, but something about having a table makes these people want to stay.  I can have cleared off all their entrée, side and dessert plates, leaving only their empty water glasses, but they still have a very good reason for remaining seated in a bitter competition to see who can talk the other’s ear off first.

Last night I was confronted with a pair of them.  And by “pair,” I mean two tables of Campers next to each other in the part of the restaurant that closes early.  Both had paid and decided to sit for ninety minutes until I finally had to bring word that the restaurant was closing.  Had they left on schedule, I and the other server responsible for putting all the chairs away could have been done and out the door, happily shoving beer down our own throats at a local watering hole which stays open later than we do.  But no, we had to waste our and company time awaiting their departure because it would be inhospitable to move the chairs while they continued to sit in their cloud of ignorance.

The worst part is that there were two of them.  If it were one, they couldn’t subconsciously justify their presence by seeing they weren’t the only ones there.  And I can understand that.  What I can’t understand is seeing that both tables are clear and you have seen me wipe down, reset, and sweep out under all the tables around you!

Strong as my feelings are, I’m not particularly mad at them.  Sure, they inconvenienced me, but as I see it, if I’m still on the clock, that’s time not spent spending money while drinking.

No, my beef is with the campers in the middle of the shift.  The ones who pay up and remain seated as the hive of a busy restaurant buzzes around them.  And I saw the most egregious offender this past Friday night.

A group of three found themselves sat in my section around 6pm, just as we were getting busy.  Upper-middle aged, I’d say, two women and one man.  They weren’t particularly difficult, just a round of beers, and appetizer, and an entrée each.  Total tab around $65, paid in full 1.5 hours into their stay.

They didn’t leave until 10:30.  That’s 4.5 hours for a $65 check.  Halfway through their 3 hour squat, they asked if they could order something, but it was only to refill their waters.

Using some rough math, I can confidently declare that I probably lost out on $30-40, just because they didn’t want to leave.  I mean, at a certain point, just go home to hang out!  Or a Starbucks, or something.  Hell, make the night an anecdote and grab a room at that motel that charges by the hour.  I won’t judge.

I understand that this is the service industry, and a certain level of hospitality is expected.  But while they may be here to socialize, I’m here to make money.  Should they not make way for the people willing to spend it?

That’s all I got for today.  I could go on, but my laptop is running out of battery and I’m too lazy and comfortable to leave this patio chair in search of electrons.  I would like to thank alcohol and my deep-seated rage for sponsoring this post.


...Drunk people.

I work in a bar. I pour alcohol down peoples' throats in exchange for money. The more distilled product they consume the more I potentially make. Sometimes I lose out on money if they consume too much. It's a delicate balance I must walk, but I must enjoy it on some deep level, else I would find a new line of work.

But my deep seated masochism aside, I inevitably find myself surrounded by drink people. It's annoying, as anyone who's ever been the sole sober person in the bar can attest, but I can tolerate them to a degree because they're paying me to get as close to alcohol poisoning as possible. I immerse myself in a world of drunken debauchery for profit.

The problem comes when I'm off work. Don't get me wrong,I like a drink at night, especially a single-malt scotch or well-balanced spiced rum in a mojito. Actually the alcohol spectrum I enjoy is much wider than that, but that's beyond the scope of this post.

The problem comes from the drunk people. I can tolerate them just fine when they pay me, but when they're just around me and I reap no monetary benefit, that's when I have a problem.

See, drunk people are annoying. They're loud, obnoxious, can't find their keys, lose their phones every five minutes, and the dance floor somehow has a greater gravitational pull on them than the earth beneath their feet.  They have a way of raising their voice to the point when the whole room knows about their new warts, and everyone’s trying desperately to forget where said warts have started appearing.  They’ll also find the least convenient place possible to expel the contents of their stomachs.

And I'm sure I could tolerate that if only I were one of them. But my finances are such that I cannot afford to spend all night getting smashed anywhere other than at home, where the booze is already paid for. Many a night I have passed out, not remembering what I watched on Netflix while falling asleep. And I’ll be honest, I don’t know that I would have watched nine consecutive episodes of Sherlock while passing out.  I want to be awake for that stuff.

But no.  I tend to arrive at the bar ten minutes before last call, only because my own bar closes fairly early.  If we closed at state-mandated last call, I can assure you I’d go straight home afterwards, because that would mean drunk people are paying me to stay late.  But instead I’m one of the few sober people in the tavern.  That list includes me, the establishment’s management and bar staff, and a few of my coworkers who’ve just ordered the maximum number of drinks legally permitted in a desperate attempt to catch up to the barflies around them (a fruitless effort, to be frank, as their bodies won’t feel it until after they’ve been ejected from the pub because it can’t legally have patrons in it at that hour).

So why am I there? Bars are supposed to be hubs of socialization, where the merits of various sports teams are discussed, bets are made on field goals, and desperate inebriated singles hope to go home with other desperate inebriated singles.  But here I am, just sitting next to a coworker or two, bitching about the shift I just worked, getting annoyed at the motley collection of people dancing to the Two Bit Shuffle.

Am I just frustrated that other people are having more fun than I am?  Perhaps. Let’s be honest: it’s a hazard of being sober at the bar near last call.  So why am I there?  Certainly, I like the bar staff at the pub, but they’re busy dealing with the drunk people I just dismissed from my own bar.  I want to unwind a bit, but like I said, the drinks are cheaper at home.  I like my coworkers… I guess.

I’m left to assume I am there by habit.  A habit I must break for monetary and sanitary reasons.  The neighborhood tavern will henceforth be relegated to my night off.  Unfortunately, on my night off, I haven’t the energy to go anywhere, having been sucked into a self-imposed marathon of Sherlock on Netflix.

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