Photographer:Fotograaf: Maud van Mulekom
Bartender at cocktail bar Mr. Smith
Niek Cleyndert/ 23/ has just completed his master’s degree in Dutch Tax Law; is starting a master’s degree in Fiscal Economics in February/ depending on experience, employees earn between 10 and 13 euros net per hour, excluding tips (between 5 and 20 euros per evening)
Some sugar, two bitters, a splash of soda, some whisky and ice. That’s it – or so it seems. Then, Cleyndert places a glass dome over the drink with a tube leading to a small container with a small fan, in which he burns some cherry wood. The dome rapidly fills with white smoke. “This is a Highland Park Smoked Old Fashioned. The smoke gives the whisky in the cocktail an even smokier flavour”, explains Cleyndert. As a finishing touch, he squeezes the oil from a piece of orange peel above the glass and places the peel on top for garnish.
Press for drinks says the sign above the doorbell of cocktail bar Mr. Smith. It’s Saturday evening, eight o’clock. A young woman with a list in her hand opens the door on Rechtstraat street. “You’re from Observant, right? Let me take you to your seat.” My seat is the bar stool directly opposite Cleyndert’s part of the bar. He’s wearing a white shirt with braces and a bow tie. Behind him are about a hundred different kinds of spirits, liquors, syrups and various types of glasses. In front of him is a large bowl of ice cubes. “We easily go through two hundred kilos of ice on a busy night”, he says.
The themed cocktail bar is based on Prohibition, the ban on alcohol in the United States in the 1920s. During this era, illicit distilleries emerged and people gathered in clandestine bars – often in people’s basements – to drink alcohol in silence. You don’t have to keep your voice down at Mr. Smith, but the bar is located in a basement and you can’t just walk in off the street. Without a reservation, you’re only allowed in if there’s room inside.
On arrival, Cleyndert is already hard at work: mixing, shaking, stirring, scooping ice cubes, peeling oranges and limes, muddling, rinsing out mixing pitchers, unloading the dishwasher, sifting pieces of ice. There’s no quiet moment to ask a few questions; he’ll have to answer them while he’s working. “We rarely get time to relax. It takes more time to make a cocktail than to pour a beer, of course, and in between orders we immediately clean everything we’ve just used. I don’t start preparing the next order until my workspace is tidy. This is a relatively small bar for two bartenders; if we don’t clean up after ourselves immediately, the situation becomes unworkable.”
Cleyndert already worked for a cocktail catering company before he started working at Mr. Smith. “I took a mixology course in which I learned techniques and combinations, but you learn most of it on the job.” He usually works one weekday and on Friday or Saturday, sometimes both. “I don’t feel like I’m sacrificing my weekend”, he says. “I like what I do, and as a student I go out on weeknights more often anyway.”
Cleyndert himself is drinking water tonight. “You can’t drink alcohol on a job that requires this much concentration.” There are fifty cocktails on the menu; he knows how to make all fifty of them by heart. Each cocktail requires a different technique, temperature, dilution and aeration. “And I don’t have time to go into the kitchen and look up which ingredients and techniques to use. In an emergency, I can ask my neighbour.” He also needs to know exactly how far along his colleague is for each order, “because if one of us finishes making a drink too quickly, the ice in some of the cocktails will melt. It’s not like we each make three cocktails if we get an order of six cocktails. We take into account how much work preparing each drink is.”