Friday, October 24, 2008

Tuesdays with Eben pt. 3

or First Tuesday: Shaking, the end of the first Tuesday

I had been "ting, ting, ting" -ing the glass for a while, moving my straw back and forth in an empty glass. The fingers did cramp up a bit a couple of times, but it was starting to get less uncomfortable than when I first started out. I even practiced a bit more of pouring. Having no real counter space in my small apartment, I wanted to use the space and time I had as much as possible.

Eben came back downstairs and it was time to learn about shaking. We were starting off with a cobbler shaker. Eben said this while some would think it a bit old fashioned, this was good for getting the basic motions down.

He told me to hold out my left hand, palm up, and place the cobbler shaker, cap-side down facing towards me (fig. 1). Then I was to place my right hand on top of the shaker. My thumb on the cap and the rest of my fingers around the body of the shaker. Sort of like how you'd hold a football (fig. 2). The thumb's just there to make sure the cap stays in place, but not pressing down too hard or else, Eben warned, I'd end up jamming the cap and it'd get stuck since the shaker expands and contracts according to temperature.

In fact, that finicky tightening and loosening of a cobbler shaker also meant Eben had to show me how to close one. Cap on, OK, got it. But the top half of the shaker? Eben said not to just jam it on straight on, but to roll it on (not twisting it on like a bottle cap mind you). You didn't need to press down hard to make sure it was sealed or anything. Start at one point of the rim and just lightly roll it into a close position.

"I'm not teaching you the hard shake," Eben told me and I nodded. Instead, he explained to me how he was trying to explain to me the Japanese mindset of shaking. The idea of how you manipulate the ice in your shaker and thinking about the drink rather than just shaking away with brute force. It was similar to the the talk he gave at Tales after he was asked about the hard shake at a seminar.

Eben looked at the shaker in my hands. He handed me a different sized shaker, and said, "You have small hands."

I frowned wondering if this would he a handicap to my nonexistent bartending career, but Eben said, "Start off with a smaller one then work up."

I nodded. With ice and water in the shakers, now we were ready. To start off, I had to loosen up my wrists. With the shaker in my hand, I was instructed lift my arms up to around shoulder height with my elbows out (fig. 1). Once there, Eben told me to sort of "toss" the shaker forward using only my wrists. He told me to do that and try to hit three different points in front of me while doing that, but to not move my arms (fig. 2).

As I practiced this Eben told me that once I got the hang of this I could start to shake it. Starting off slow he began began to build up speed. He told me to listen to what sounds the shaker was making. I concentrated hard to hear how the ice moved and Eben did it several times. He said that if you do this right, your ice is hitting four different points in the shaker, and you can feel that.

I tried to follow along, but while I could definitely hear what Eben was talking about when he was doing it, I was a little rhythm/tone deaf when it came to the shaker in my own two hands.

After struggling to try and copy the exact noises he was making with the shaker, I said, "I think I get it, but it's hard making it sound just like that."

"You'll find your own rhythm," Eben reassured me. People figure out a rhythm that works for them he said. It wasn't that I had to do it exactly the same way he does it; this was just a basic stepping stone I needed to be more conscious of how I was moving the contents of the shaker.

Again I was left to my own devices to practice. I did the three points exercise a couple of times, but my arms started to get tired. I was starting to think maybe I could create a bartender workout plan. Hire famed infomercial spokesperson Billy Mays to be all, "Hi, Billy Mays here for Bartendercise! Are you a fitness junkie with another monkey on your back called 'a drinking problem'? Are you tired of weights and home exercise machines that you work on for hours with little to no results and definitely no booze at the end of it? Ever noticed the guns on your bartender? Wonder how that happened? Well, wonder no more!"

As I practiced I talked a little bit to Ludo, the relatively new guy, and found out he used to work at Opia, which is a stone's throw away from our office in Midtown. Eben jokingly told him to keep an eye out on me so I didn't steal anything. I tried my best to keep out of the way of folks were trying to set up the bar.

I practiced the shaking as much as I could, but soon my hands were freezing and itchy. I moved back to practicing jiggering and stirring as I read Eben's copy of The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks by David A. Embury that was on the bar. I was pretty engrossed in the part about brown spirits when Eben came back.

"All right, you need to stop or you're going to drive yourself insane," he said noticing that I was stoically "ting-ting-ting"-ing the a mixing glass.

He grabbed two different sized shakers and put rice in one of them. Wait a sec, I thought, Alex Day told me about this.

"You can practice hearing the rhythm at home with this," Eben said. I could of course use ice and water, but ice melts. Rice is a decent substitute so that you had a bit of weight in the shaker and could still practicing the listening part of it.

Again he said, I need to find a rhythm of my own. Even though I had been taught all these rules and exercises, I wasn't as overwhelmed as I was before. I got the idea that I wasn't learning that his way was the only way, I was more or less learning foundations to help put me on the path to being thoughtful about how drinks are made.

With a lot of the NRN staff out for MUFSO the following week, I knew I couldn't take a half day off the following Tuesday, and Eben was headed out of the country for a Mojito of the Future event the Tuesday after that one, so we agreed to reschedule the second Tuesday as soon as possible.

"I'll practice during the missing weeks." I said.

"Well, I expect you be like a ninja by the time we meet again," Eben answered.

"Oh man, because I really needed the pressure."

Eben chuckled but then got serious and said, "Really, though. You need to practice if you want to learn this. It's all about how much you want to do it."

Oct. 24

"Practice makes practice," Phil Ward, the guy who can stir four drinks at one time, told me when I made my visit to Death and Company on Wednesday.

Damn, I was expecting a different answer. Everyone had been saying practice.

"Yea, I did that rice thing," Don Lee said when he showed up at Milk and Honey on Saturday.

I'd just seen Eben earlier on Saturday at Tailor to try out some of the new stuff on the menu. He was leaving for the Mojito of the Future event the next day. He asked if I'd been practicing. I was, but I don't think it's enough. Let me put it this way. I wasn't too confident. I was having horrible flashbacks to back in the day when I took piano lessons. I was starting to seriously hate my freakish sausage fingers on the stirring side of things. On top of that, even though I tried the shaking at home, I couldn't tell if I was hearing it right.

"The thing about using the rice though is once you start using ice again, it's a different feeling from the rice. You almost have to relearn to hear it," Don said. "But at least you know what its supposed to sound like."

Don assured me though that it all came down to doing it often enough until you got it.

Even Kenta Goto at Pegu told me I just needed to practice when I stopped by on Monday.

"I don't think I'd make that great of a bartender," I dejectedly told Phil.

"You don't have to be a great bartender, you just have to be a good one," he said. "You could just learn how to make good drinks for yourself at home."

"Yea, but then I wouldn't have a reason to come bother you guys," I said with a raised eyebrow.

"It could even be about just knowing recipes and what goes into a cocktail," Phil added.

I quizzed him about his recipe learning technique and he said he started with the classics. Most other drinks tend to be variations of classics, so it's easier for him to think in terms of "Oh, so it's like this drink, except you're using x, instead of y."

Thomas Waugh described a similar process to me a couple of weeks back, but Phil said that each person remembers things differently, so I could figure out how to do that for myself. And of course, read some books.

With all this talk about figuring things out and a DIY attitude, bartending was starting to sound like the bastard child of the Arts and Crafts movement and punk rock. There's gotta be some kind of poetic comparison to be made from that statement, but I'm going to leave it for another day.

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