I was out for a morning run when I glanced at my phone. It was silently exploding with notifications.
To my shock and anguish, my best friend had died alone and had been found by another friend.
That was March 2012, and my friend was noted Vancouver bartender Derek Vanderheide.
Almost exactly four years later, my phone rings again in the early morning. Victoria bartender Shawn Soole is calling; I assume he wants to talk business. Instead, he stuns me with the news that Canada’s bartending teddy-bear poet, Brendan Brewster, has died in the night.
In every city, bartenders can easily call to mind a compatriot they’ve lost. There’s no level of success that can insulate you from the repercussions of bartending’s hard-living culture. In 2015, we lost Sasha Petraske (age 42) of the venerated Milk & Honey bar in New York. He created many of the standards of service we clung to in the early years of the craft-cocktail resurgence.
“Bartenders are misanthropes with a sickening need to please people,” Brendan Brewster once said to a colleague: words that were remembered and memorialized after his passing.
When I hired Brendan to move to Edmonton to work at The Manor Bistro in January 2013, he listed his greatest personal asset as the ability “to create regulars.” And he was right: over the past couple of weeks, many people in many different cities have stated the desire to sit at his bar one last time.
There’s a reason people visit bartenders specifically, not just bars. My previous career was in a hospital; I was attracted to hospitality for its culture, history, art and community. At its best, hospitality reflects the goals I held when I worked in the hospital: to improve the quality of life of all I encounter.
We wear it like a badge of honour. The long days. Working in pain, dehydrated and hungry. Taking care of others while doing little for ourselves. Partying hard to self-medicate.
Surviving in the bartending profession is not simply about having a few less drinks or avoiding party drugs. It’s about establishing goals for ourselves.
Practicing yoga (or other exercise), having friends outside of the industry (who don’t party every night), keeping a morning schedule, engaging in hobbies: all of these are important aspects of life to maintain when you’re working in a bar.
Notable bartenders have pushed for such life changes. Dushan Zaric, owner of Employees Only in New York and partner in The 86 Co distillery, is also now a yoga teacher. He runs yoga classes for bartenders at the annual Tales of the Cocktail (TotC) bar conference in New Orleans.
“Bartending is a craft, and as a craft, one of the things you need to ensure is that you’re in a physical, intellectual and emotional place where you can pass it along,” Zaric told bartender and writer Clair McLafferty at ToTC. He says yoga gives him the balance to accomplish that.
I love our community and call many bartenders close friends. I believe the goal should be to enhance the quality of life for the people we serve—and ourselves. So, as we take a moment to reflect on the lost promise of Brendan’s future, let’s also hold the mirror up to our own lives.V
Tarquin Melnyk is an Edmonton native who has been tending bar in numerous cities for the past six years. Named bartender of the year at the 2013 Alberta Cup, he is a published cocktail writer and photographer, and a partner in justcocktails.org.