Hey Bartender may not fully convince parents that bartending is a respectable profession, but Douglas Tirola’s documentary is an enthusiastic showcase for the many men and women responsible for the burgeoning cocktail revolution going on in metropolises around the world. Tirola mercifully eschews usual pop-doc conventions by featuring, but not pivoting his material around, the competitions and awards show at New Orleans’ annual Tales Of The Cocktail festival, instead choosing to focus on a legion of behind-the-bar mixologists in New York City—one of the subculture’s nexus points—who aim to provide a more refined and adventurous drinking experience. These bartenders are dedicated to making elaborate liquor drinks that are elevated on a par with the culinary arts—an ambition that would seem lofty if not for the amazing-looking drinks they construct. Tirola salivates over many of them in interludes that highlight select bartenders concocting, in sumptuous slow motion, their signature libations while they wax philosophical about their vocation in voiceover narration.
Featuring a legion of talking heads, Hey Bartender at times can feel a tad too insistent with its lionization, especially when bartenders are described as akin to, alternately, actors, athletes, dancers, military team members, and artists. Nonetheless, Tirola’s visuals of hectic nights at various hot spots do lend credibility to those descriptions, even as the film fixates on two nominal primary subjects: a Westport, Connecticut, bar owner who takes to the cocktail movement as a means of rejuvenating a flagging neighborhood-pub business; and Steve Schneider, a former Marine looking to work his way up to principal bartender at Manhattan’s lauded Employees Only (which was nominated for World’s Best Cocktail Bar at the 2011 Tales Of The Cocktail). Schneider in particular has enough charisma—coupled with a fascinating backstory—to help prop up his own documentary, and thus it’s a shame that Tirola often puts that tale on the backburner in favor of a cursory history lesson of cocktails through the latter half of the 20th century. While incapable of comprehensively contextualizing the craze and only somewhat convincing in its portrait of the power of cocktails to reenergize the traditional local-dive scene, the documentary remains a succinct and lively tribute to the art of the drink—not to mention a handy compendium for those seeking a prime NYC joint to quench their thirst.