Wanaka, New Zealand: Who Knew So Many Hours In Front Of The Bar Would Mean So Little When Behind It

First thing in the morning on Sunday, I went to the internet café and downloaded some more bartending tips. I reviewed the basics once again and wrote down recipe after recipe of cocktails and shots. I was supposed to report to the bar at 6:30 that evening.

As 6:30 drew nearer, I was visibly nervous, which actually prompted the others at the hostel to reassure me and try to calm me down. Louise said she would come by the bar and see how I was doing at some point.

Finally, I got dressed and headed out. I wrote down as many drink recipes as I could in my little spiral pad and carried it in my back pocket. When I got to the bar, Gary, the poofy-haired person I gave my CV to, was busy cleaning up and getting everything ready for that night. He told me I could help by getting ice from the machine upstairs. I was still nervous about making drinks and about what they expected me to already know, so I cautiously asked Gary what type of drinks people ordered around here. “Well, mostly it’s things like rum-and-cokes, beer and wine, but every now and then you’ll get some cocktails. And even then, people just want something that’ll taste good.” OK, that didn’t make me feel any better.

I suppose I should clarify the reason for all of my anxiety. You see, in order to secure a position as quickly as possible, I did a little bit of … elaborating on my resume. I wrote that I had worked in a bar before, as well as waiting tables, and that I had experience serving wine and cocktails. I’m not proud of it — and I assure you I’ve never done it before — but I felt it was necessary given my current situation, and the work-culture of the town.

When Garth arrived, he showed me around the till system. “This should look pretty familiar to you,” he said as we stood in front of one of the registers. “Oh …. um, actually the place I worked at before designed their own unique system. It’s similar, but it was pretty different too.” Ha! Well played, Gopinath. The beauty of Barluga’s till system is that most of the beer and spirit buttons had pictures of the actual bottles on them, so there was little thought left to it. And even better, the cocktail list was set up so that if you held down the button for a certain cocktail, a recipe would pop up on to the screen, telling you exactly how to make it. I began to feel a little better …

I tried to absorb as much as possible as he gave me a crash course on the tills, where all the beer, wine and spirits were located, and the preferred method of serving people. Thankfully, Garth is very pedantic about how he likes his customers to be served, so he made sure to explain every little detail to me. For example, when making a mixed drink, fill the cup all the way to the top with ice, and place it on the bar in front of the customer. If fruit (lemons or limes) is required, rub the flesh of the fruit around the rim of the glass before squeezing and dropping it in. Next, add your spirits by holding the neck of the bottle and with one finger curled around the pourer, and try to hold it so that the label is pointing outwards. Finally, add any sodas or juices.

Customers finally started arriving and fortunately, at first, all that was asked of me was to open bottles of beer and pour wine. A couple mixed drinks were ordered, but those are very simple to make.

And then it happened, the moment I had been dreading.

An older gentleman approached the bar and asked for the cocktail menu. He looked it over for a while and then finally looked at me and said, “Let me get a Raspberry Springtini.” Say what?! I looked it up on the till and realized it was a monstrosity of a concoction, requiring you to muddle raspberries with sugar syrup and lemon juice, and the garnish is a strip of orange peel that you squeeze and flame over the cocktail glass. Fortunately, Garth talked me through most of it. I walked over to the fridge to grab a chilled cocktail glass, and was closing the sliding door when the glass knocked against part of the fridge and shattered. Jesus. I had been there less than 2 hours and had already broken something. I started apologizing and looking for a pan and brush, while Garth simply said “Are you hurt? Then everything else is OK.”

I stumbled through the drink and proudly placed it in front of the guy. I had made my first cocktail.

Here’s what you do (now that I know what I’m doing): Drop some frozen raspberries into a shaker and muddle them with 20 ml of lemon juice and a dash of honey sugar syrup. Add two shots of gin, some ice, shake and pour into a cocktail glass. Take a strip of orange peel and rub it around the rim of the cocktail glass, then while squeezing the rind, hold it next to a lighter so that the exiting oils ignite. Cut a wheel of orange and run a knife around just the inside of the rind, before the flesh, until you have a circle of orange peel. Cut the circle in one place and wrap the strip around a straw. Weight that down with a rocks glass so the strip takes the shape of a spiral. Now, believe it or not, you finished making the drink about 4 steps ago, everything since then was making a perfect orange peel spiral, which you then balance on the edge of the glass and let it extend into the drink.

My happiness would quickly disappear when I realized that the guy was out to drink every cocktail on the list and for some reason, I would have the misfortune of having to be his server . It go so bad that I would see him coming and move away just to avoid having to make another cocktail for him. Though I was successfully serving people with no complaints, I would often sneak into the bathroom and review my list of drinks, just in case.

A woman approached the bar and asked for a caipirinha (say cay-pirin-ya … i think). @$%& me, whatever happened to a simple beer??! I asked Garth — something I had been doing frequently all night — and he educated me on this Brazilian specialty. You take 3-4 wedges of lime and muddle it with white sugar. Then you drop in two shots of Cachaca 51, a sugarcane rum, and a scoop of crushed ice (must be crushed!). Shake the hell out of it and dump it all into a rocks glass.Of course, now I can speak of the caipirinha like a seasoned pro, but at the time I went all cross-eyed. I managed my way through the lime-sugar muddle and added the alcohol. But we didn’t have an ice crusher at the bar, so Garth tried to show me how to wrap ice in a bar towel and smack the shit out of it with the muddler to create crushed ice. His explanation of how to use it in the drink was a little … muddled … and there were several people waiting to be served, so in the end, when Garth turned his back, I just chucked regular ice in it and served. It was the first and last time I ever took a shortcut on a cocktail.

Earlier, when Garth was giving me a run down of how the bar works, he addressed the topic of drinking while working. “I don’t mind if you have a few drinks, but keep it under control and don’t get sloppy.” However, by the end of the night, Garth himself was quite drunk. When we had closed the bar and were cleaning up, Garth approached me, and with a slight slur, said, “BJ, I liked the way you work tonight and I want to offer you a job here.” My heart skipped a beat as all those hours worrying and waiting finally ended exactly how I had dreamed. Garth asked me if I would be in town for the long term – meaning the duration of the winter season – and I said yes. Although I wasn’t certain just how long I was going to stay, I knew that any employer here would only hire you if you stayed for the season.

Garth told me to come by the bar the next day to fill our paperwork. He also told me to bring along my work references, just to keep on file. Um … sure (I had no work references).

I walked home at 4 in the morning in utter delight. I actually did it. I walked into a job I had never done before with a huge amount of expectation on my shoulders, and succeeded. I promised everything and forced myself to deliver. It sounds silly, but securing a job at that bar immediately ranked up there among my best achievements in 3 years with the space program.

I went to bed restless with the anticipation of announcing to the hostel that I got the job. Things were finally falling into place in Wanaka. Stay tuned for the thrilling conclusion of my arrival in Wanaka, and after that I’ll take you around the room and introduce you to some of the characters in town (and the mischief we’ve gotten into).

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