Let’s talk about „Drink Masters“
Is the new Netflix show about bartending worth watching? – A commentary by Damien Guichard
Growing up in a small town in the middle of nowhere in the south of France, my exposure to international culture and trends was funneled down to me via extremely main stream media outlets. Mainly public TV and whatever local newspaper was lying around on the kitchen table. Between commercials and news reports, public TV did not dish out the most relevant content for a young kid trying to be cool. As for the local newspaper? You didn’t get much more out of it than local events: my mate Clément once made it to the front page for fishing a big carp – not the biggest carp, just a big one.
From Niche to Mainstream
Fast forward 20 years later: information now pours onto your screen with no geographical discrimination, we all get the hottest news instantly. Technology caters to your most extravagant niche interest with an abundance of information. Whether that information is accurate or not, that’s another question. Popular Culture emerges from, as the name would suggest, whatever is popular at that time. As more people become interested in a certain topic, it moves from a niche interest to a more prominent place in popular culture.
When I chose to work in the bartending world, it was the fact that it was niche and underground that attracted me: the bartending world is a subculture and belonging to a community that wasn’t mainstream was most certainly the appeal.
The Paradox of the Bar Industry
The biggest paradox of our industry, in my opinion, is that we are all very niche individuals catering to a very casual sometimes unbothered clientele: not every single one of our guests cares about what goes into their cocktail and that’s fine. At the same time, though, we want our work and skills to be recognised and taken seriously. However, now realising that the professionalisation or our industry will not come without the approval and understanding of the mainstream individual (also known as our guest), we now understand the value of mainstream exposure. We are not alcoholics with a pay check. We are professionals tending to our craft with dedication and passion, and we wish people could see it.
Netflix’ new Recipe for Success?
So, Netflix rolls in with a Masterchef style format – except cocktails are the stars. The judges are big names – none other than industry legends Julie Reiner and Frankie Solarik, and the series is presented by a very cool and suave Tone Bell. It should be the perfect opportunity to shine some well-deserved light on our craft. But is it? The jury is still out on that.
We start the series by meeting the competitors: a group of bartenders from all kinds of different bars, all with very different experiences. The first episode begins after some on-camera bickering around who will get the bottle of orange liqueur, which sets the tone of the rest of the time. This exchange is followed by some outrageous egotistical remarks, and one very questionable cocktail technique (dry ice *sigh*) … but I decided to keep watching.
The performance of the competitors varies: some focus on aesthetics over the drink itself, some focus too much on minor details, and some struggle with basic techniques. Two candidates stand out immediately and you can guess from the first few minutes watching who will be in the finals.
I have always been a sucker for those cooking show style competitions: baking, glass blowing, whatever it is – sign me up! I was interested to see how my own industry would translate into such a format… so my only comment on the format is: “I’m into it”. However, I do come out watching Drink Masters with a few regrets…
Lack in Presentation of Community Spirit
First of all, I find our industry has an amazing sense of solidarity and a community spirit. Because it lacks a formal educational structure, we have relied on generous mentors, and have developed sense of responsibility to educate each other and selflessly pass on knowledge. I wish I could have seen more of that on the show. Competitions are, well, competitive but it shouldn’t have to come at the price of the values bartenders believe in. I would have loved to see more support between the competitors – or at least less bickering.
Visibility of current Trends missing
I also found the techniques highlighted in the challenges somehow irrelevant to the current trends. Drink Masters crystallised once again a problem that every mainstream production has when it comes to niche interests. The production value is very high but not enough time and attention was spent on creating a show that truly represents the current trends and challenges of our industry: smoked cocktails, dry ice and wasteful garnishes are a thing of the past. Our community has shown itself to be endlessly innovative when it comes to modern challenges such as sustainability and waste or simply putting the guest’s experience at the center of the bar. It’s a shame that those aspects were ignored in favour of outdated gimmicks.
Recognition of the Industry
That being said, I see a lot of value in having a show like Drink Masters on Netflix. Our industry is desperate to be taken seriously. A lot of work goes into our cocktails and if people get to catch a glimpse of that on the biggest streaming platform in the world, it’s a step in the right direction towards never hearing stuff like “I’m not paying for ice” or “What do you actually do when you don’t bartend?” ever again. We need a certain recognition of the rituals of mixology if we want to start talking about the issues that matter even more.
Glimpse into the World of Bartending
I see Drink Masters as a way to lure the mainstream viewer into our world and hope they will stay for a second round. The more mainstream bartending becomes, the more it can be valued. The more valued it is, the better we can be treated. Low wages, long hours, shitty contracts, stress, mental health issues and lower quality of life are an inherent part of our industry and should be part of a bigger conversation that will only be possible if we are taken seriously.
As for the actual competition: no one ever gets it perfect the first time, so I will be looking forward to a season 2!