For the Flyer's Bar Guide, we wanted to know what makes a good bartender. In an editorial meeting two words were spoken: Bar Exam. So now that we had the title, we needed the actual exam and the bartenders to give it to.
For the latter, we turned to our readers. The seven bartenders featured were among those nominated by our readers to be included in our 2011 Best of Memphis "Best Bartender" category. We thank them all for being good sports.
As to the exam, we looked to two bartenders who have some 50 years of bartending experience between them: David Parks (you know him as "Parks!") and Adam Record, who both now work at the Cooper-Young restaurant Alchemy Memphis.
Opinionated isn't a strong enough adjective to describe Parks and Record. These guys know their stuff. Right off the bat, Parks declares, "There aren't three bartenders in Memphis I would let make me a martini," while Record reels off a list of traits that all good bartenders should have that essentially combines into a perfect and personable amalgam of brainiac and acrobat.
Alchemy occupies the space that was once Grace and Au Fond. What was French country is now a sleek urban bar that is packed to capacity on weekends. The drinks on the cocktail menu — including the Maximillian Affair, a combo of tequila, elder flower, Punt y Mes, and lemon juice — is informed by an apothecary theme, which was realized with the aid of the New York consultant Andy Seymour of aka wine geek (akawinegeek.com). This very focused direction had Record facing a bar tool he hadn't picked up in years: the jigger glass. "What's that?" he remembers joking.
Neither Parks nor Record wrote the exam, but they did help us with the questions and they pointed us in the right direction.
That said, after administering the exam, we realized that what goes in an upscale bar in Midtown does not always apply to a beer joint downtown, and vice versa. Lesson learned.
The one real stumper of the exam proved to be Question 6, which lists the ingredients and asks for the name of the cocktail (Singapore sling). Only one of the seven bartenders got that one correct: The Blue Monkey's Erin Patterson. With her three years behind the bar, Patterson's the rookie of this group. As it turns out, she's also the high scorer of this Bar Exam. — Susan Ellis
Erin Patterson, Blue Monkey Downtown
Years bartending: 3 • Score: 15
Blue Monkey bartender Erin Patterson used to dream of a career in cosmetology. But after graduating from beauty school in Huntsville, Alabama, she quickly realized cosmetology wasn't in her cards.
"I found out I didn't like it. I fell into the Blue Monkey, and our client base has been so great that I never left," Patterson says.
Patterson loves the neighborhood-bar environment, and, like any great bartender, she knows the preferred poison of her regular guests. She didn't score points on our bar exam for the top three drinks any bartender should know because the Blue Monkey isn't known as a high-end cocktail bar. But Patterson did say, in her work environment, a barkeep needs to know how to make a mean margarita, a Long Island iced tea, and a martini.
Also like any great bartender, Patterson lends an ear to patrons who feel the need to share their life stories.
"Working in this bar, you get to know a lot of people better than you'd like to," she says.
And in some cases, people try to get to know Patterson better than she'd like them to know her.
"I've had a man offer me $80 for my panties. I definitely said 'no,'" Patterson says.
Patterson's high score on the Flyer's bar exam is thanks in part to a few bonus points she earned from dealing with notable Memphians visiting the bar.
She's not naming names, but local celebs should note that Patterson will not put up with drunken shenanigans, no matter the size of one's Twitter follower fanbase.
— Bianca Phillips
Jeannette West, Blind Bear
Years bartending: 6 • Score: 9.5
Her signature drink is called the Flapper, and that couldn't be more perfect for Jeannette West, the co-owner of the Blind Bear, Speakeasy on South Main.
More or less a mango martini, the Flapper was so named for the original definition of a flapper: a woman of unconventional behavior.
"If you have one mango martini, you'll have two or three or four," West says. Around which time the unconventional behavior starts to set in.
West is something of an unconventional woman herself, and her spunky spirit is what got her into slinging drinks in the first place.
"I went to Big Foot Lodge [now Kooky Kanuck] where it was [the bartender's] last night," West says. "He said, 'What can I get you?' and I said, 'Your job.'"
She got the job, and she's since worked at Silly Goose, where she met husband Jamie. Earlier this year, the two set off on their own mixological venture with the Blind Bear.
"I've heard of speakeasies in every major city," West says. "Memphis didn't have anything like that. And I love that era. It was a time — with the flappers and everything — when women were starting to do what they wanted to do, not what they were told."
— Hannah Sayle
Brad Pitts, Bari Ristorante e Enoteca
Years bartending: 15 • Score: 9.5
Don't let the almost-famous name fool you. Brad Pitts is a down-to-earth bartender in a cozy neighborhood bar in Midtown. A place where locals go to wind down after work or share an intimate drink with a friend.
So, yeah, Bari is a bit swankier than your average dive down the street. But that doesn't mean Pitts is pretentious. In fact, he has only one rule in his bar: Be nice, or leave.
"You catch more flies with honey, on both my end and my customers' end," Pitts says. "We're not a pick-up bar. When you come here you get a very neighborhood feel. People talk to each other here."
But when they aren't talking, their sipping on one of Pitts' fine concoctions, like Larry's Number Two, made with ruby red grapefruit vodka, St. Germain, freshly squeezed grapefruit juice, and Prosecco.
Still, when it comes down to it, Pitts considers his bar to be a mom and pop operation, albeit a bit younger and more elegant. We'll take that, and one of those grapefruit vodka numbers, too. — HS
Allan Creasy, Celtic Crossing
Years bartending: 5 • Score: 6.5
Hundreds of pints of Guinness have passed from Celtic Crossing bartender Allan Creasy's hands to those of the Midtown pub's loyal patrons over the years.
"I was a shy kid with a little social anxiety. Then I got my first job waiting tables, and it made me comfortable hanging out in public," Creasy says.
The Arsenal fan is a fave among the soccer crowd that gathers at Celtic to watch live broadcasts. But when things get out of hand, Creasy has a way of putting unruly patrons in their place.
"When I was working at Dan McGuinness, I stared down two pilots who were both about 6'6". I told them not to fight in my bar. I'm 5'8" and 140 pounds, and they stood back and just looked at me like, 'This guy must know kung fu or something.'"
Creasy doesn't take any crap from whiners either: "I had a frat boy claim his Long Island iced tea was too weak. I took it from him and chugged the whole thing. I told him it tasted strong to me." — BP
Leanna Tedford, Jim's Place
Years bartending: 21 • Score: 8.5
Leanna Tedford could teach a course in bartending. She was the drink slinger at Cafe Society for eight years before she started working for Jim's Place when the restaurant moved to its new location in 2010. She thinks she might know some of the regulars who sit at her bar even better than their own families. Meeting interesting people and getting to know them are what has kept her behind the bar pouring drinks for 21 years even though she was planning on doing something very different with her life.
"I started bartending while I was still finishing up my student teaching," she says. "And I have never taught a day in my life."
Last year, Tedford, a basketball fan, got a ticket to the Final Four. The hitch? Flights out of Memphis were all booked.
"But I got to go because one of my regular customers offered to fly me there in his private jet," she says. — Chris Davis
Michele Fields, Max's Sports Bar
Years bartending: 12 • Score: 14.5
Michele Fields runs the show at Max's Sports Bar in the South Main Arts District.
She started out at the Applebee's on Union, where management demanded she go to bartending school, but she's known her way around a good drink for far longer. "I've known how to make a margarita since I was 12," she says.
Her advice for becoming a good bartender extends directly from the warm familiarity she offers every person who enters her domain: "Know your customers and know what they drink." But she also stresses the importance of having a system and paying close attention to what's going on around you. Fields is more than prepared to deal with any given situation. She has a baseball bat under the counter to keep the occasional out-of-hand customer in line, but with her easy command of the bar, it's hard to imagine she ever has to use it. — Ashley Johnston
Ben Rhea, Interim
Years bartending: 7 • Score: 9.5
Interim may pride itself on its artistic food presentations, but Ben Rhea is as practical as a bottle of domestic beer. Ask him to name the three drinks every bartender should know how to make, he'll hem and haw then tell you flat out, "Well, one of them should probably be a Bud Light.
"I know that's probably not the right answer," he says before reeling off a short list of classic cocktails.
Rhea has been cracking beers, popping corks, and pouring fancy drinks for seven years.
"I like interacting with people, and the regulars at my bar are good people," Rhea says.
Good bartenders are able to improvise when they don't have all the right ingredients to fulfill a customer's request. Rhea demonstrated that ability when stumped by questions on his bar exam. "It's programmed on my phone" should be a perfectly acceptable response to "Tell me the phone number for a cab company." And what bartender wouldn't exclaim, "Holy hell!" if a priest, rabbi, and Baptist minister actually strolled into his bar? — CD
Each question is worth a point, except Question 7, which is worth up to 9 points. There is no wrong answer for Question 10.
1. Name three drinks every bartender should know how to make.
Cosmopolitan, Manhattan, old fashioned. Also accepted: gimlet, sidecar, mojito.
2. Number of cab company?
3. Someone orders a martini. There are two questions to ask. What are they?
Shaken or stirred? On the rocks or straight up?
Also accepted: Gin or vodka? Do you want that dirty?
4. This drink is 4 parts gin, 1 part Cointreau, 2 parts fresh lime juice, and 1 part simple syrup. Gimlet or Gibson?
5. A party of four is settling the tab, $13.50 apiece. How much do they owe you?
6. This cocktail has gin, cherry brandy, lemon juice, and soda water. What is it?
7. Have you had to...?
• Put someone in a headlock? +1
• Call a cab for a politician or other notable Memphian? +3
• Call the police on a politician or other notable Memphian? +5
8. Difference between brandy and cognac?
Brandy can be made anywhere from any fruit. Cognac can only be made in the Cognac region in France.
9. Your nonsmoking bar just got busted a second time for not enforcing the law. What's the penalty?
10. Provide the punch line. A rabbi, Catholic priest, and Baptist preacher walk into a bar. The bartender says...?
This is a joke, right?
Let's see how much you really know about brews and bars in Memphis.
Okay, you've made it this far through the Flyer's official Bar Exam, and now it's time for a drinking-related pop quiz for extra credit. You might not think 10 points is worth the trouble, but this could mean the difference between becoming a barrister or a barista.
1. How did the Sputnik Star whirling neon sign outside Joe's Wine & Liquor get its name?
a. From owner Joe Solomito's beloved fox terrier, Sputnik.
b. It was a popular hangout for wrestling superstar Sputnik Monroe.
c. Somebody thought it resembled the Russian "Sputnik" space satellite, launched in 1957.
d. Sputnik was a top-selling brand of vodka.
2. What is the significance of the date November 25, 1969?
a. It marked the closing of the Tennessee Brewery.
b. Memphis voters approved the liquor by the drink referendum.
c. That was the first issue of the Memphis Flyer, of course.
d. It's the "official" birthday of Silky Sullivan's beer-drinking goat.
3. In 1980, restaurateur John Grisanti made national news by paying $31,000 for what?
a. The Memphis Chicks baseball team.
b. The first house on Mud Island.
c. The old Lakeland Sky Ride.
d. A single bottle of Château Lafite wine bottled in 1822.
4. The best-known product of the old Tennessee Brewery was:
a. Tennessee Brew.
b. Goldcrest 51.
c. Crestgold 61.
d. Haunted River Pale Ale.
5. Why did the Old Millington Winery name a wine the Crying Angel Red?
a. It was so good that angels wept.
b. That was the name of the famous Orpheum Theatre ghost.
c. Crying Angel was the winner of the old Tennessee Derby.
d. A nearby graveyard holds a tomb protected by the statue of a weeping angel.
6. What was the Silver Slipper?
a. The Beale Street tavern where W.C. Handy first performed.
b. A popular nightspot owned by man-about-town Bob Berryman.
c. A drink served in an actual glass slipper, available at The Peabody bar in the 1940s.
d. The house band at Neil's.
7. What's behind the name of the Ghost River Brewery?
a. It honors the victims of the 1865 Sultana steamboat disaster.
b. It's named for an uncharted section of the Wolf River.
c. Ghost River — the original name of Swannee River — was the favorite childhood song of brewery founder Chuck Skypeck.
d. It's a play on the words Goat's River, the Kentucky town where Skypeck grew up.
8. What was the Schlitz Belle?
a. Elvis Presley's private yacht.
b. Another B-17 that flew alongside the Memphis Belle during World War II.
c. A party and reception room at the old Schlitz Brewery.
d. A popular Memphis prostitute who later became Boss Crump's mistress.
9. Where was the popular tavern called Sir Robert's?
a. The basement of the King Cotton Hotel.
b. Inside that round thing at the top of White Station Tower.
c. The present-day Belmont Grill at Poplar and Mendenhall.
d. 2379 Lamar Ave.
10. Why did the Whirlaway Club make front-page news in 1967?
a. Two go-go dancers were arrested for obscene performances.
b. A bartender there invented the Singapore Sling.
c. It became our city's first gay bar.
d. A tornado completely destroyed the old building, prompting many ironic headlines.
Answers: 1-c, 2-b, 3-d, 4-b, 5-d, 6-b, 7-b, 8-c, 9-c, 10-a.
All 10 correct: Judge • 7-9 correct: Senior Attorney • 4-6 correct: Bailiff • > 3: Defendant