Since opening in 2004, Employees Only has become synonymous with some of the best cocktails in Manhattan. Bartenders sporting chefs’ smocks mix impeccably balanced martinis and inventive tipples, like the Mata Hari (cognac, fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice, and chai-infused vermouth). According to co-owner Dushan Zaric, a lanky 37-year-old Yugoslavian native with pierced ears, there’s a secret to making good drinks that has nothing to do with great ingredients or technique. He revealed it to CHOW.
On a recent evening, Zaric led a workshop for other bartenders. He laid out five glasses filled with premeasured ingredients for a cocktail called the Hemingway Daiquiri, had five bartenders mix them, and had the rest of the attendees sample them. Though all the elements—from the booze to the number of ice cubes to the shakers—were identical, the drinks were not. Each had a slight variation of sweetness, sourness, or bitterness. “The differences,” Zaric said, “lie inside of you.”
CHOW asked Zaric to elaborate. “Emotions are parasites that suck away your intentions: to fill the tip jar and cash register,” he said. As he smoked American Spirits, he detailed his theories on how negative energy creates crappy drinks and about the role of bartenders in selling dreams and possibilities.
A few years ago, I watched a movie called What the Bleep Do We Know!? In one scene, there’s a subway-platform presentation of Emoto’s ice pictures. [The pictures came from Emoto’s experiments in which he would say prayers, curse, or bless water, freeze it, slice it up, magnify it, and take pictures of the results. The blessed water had prettier, symmetrical crystals, while the cursed water’s crystals were all disjointed.] After that, a passerby asks a woman, “If thoughts can do that to water, imagine what our thoughts could do to us?” I was struck by the roles that energy could play.
How did you apply this belief to bartending?
I realized my drinks tasted better when I made them with extra passion and extra care, like I would for myself. Even if I overpoured ingredients, my cocktails still tasted pretty good. Drinks that are really outstanding require a special ingredient—a part of you.
I can only establish a pattern that if every single person makes the same drink and it tastes differently—slight variations in melted ice aside—then there’s something different about that person. Bartenders need to ask themselves, “Where was I mentally when making this drink? Was I doing it mechanically, like riding a bicycle? Or was I aware?”
So you embarked on a quasi-scientific quest?
I visited bars where they made drinks with measured jiggers and mixes, and something was lacking with the cocktails. Then I said, “Let me do this experiment with my bar staff to be sure there’s a pattern.”
You premeasured cocktail ingredients and had bartenders mix identical drinks. What happened?
The first time we did this experiment, one bartender tasted his drink and said, “This is particularly sour,” even though others weren’t. We went around tasting everybody’s cocktails and said, “Wow, man, your cocktail is really sour.” He said, “Yeah, I hate this drink.” “You hate this drink?” I said. “That’s interesting.” It’s who you are inside that will make the drink great.
Can a bartender change his energy?
Yes, but it takes courage to tackle your ego. You have to want to change. I always tell the bartenders, “Be humble—you’re a server, for Chrissakes.” Why do people go out? To have a good time. Give it to them.
You believe bartenders should protect themselves by staying emotionally detached from customers. Why?
When your emotions are involved—in arguments with customers and over service tips, for example—you’re losing energy. Emotions are parasites that suck away your intentions: to fill the tip jar and cash register.
You’ve said that bartenders are “selling dreams and possibilities.” What do you mean?
Bartenders set a stage. Customers have different expectations of their nights, from hanging out with friends to steamy sexual encounters. Our goal is not to give them the specific possibilities, but to enhance them. The drinks, the food, the lighting, the music, the interior—it’s all created so the person never sees why they’re really out.
If the person wakes up for even a little bit, they’d see the absurdity of going out to have a good time. Bars are where everything is created so you’ll forget yourself.