San Francisco-based mixologist and bartender Chris Tunstall has worn many hats over the course of the ten-plus years he’s spent in the hospitality industry, and along the way has consistently worked to create fantastic cocktails that help to make bars, restaurants and private events successful. Tunstall specializes in building cocktail programs that are profitable, executable and original, all while enhancing the customer’s experience.
Tunstall is a contributor to Liquor.com’s Drinkwire and he and his cocktails have been featured in several publications, including the San Francisco Examiner and The Tasting Panel Magazine. He currently owns and operates a bartending training website called ABarAbove.com, where he helps to train bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts on advanced cocktail and mixology techniques.
Before being in the restaurant hospitality business I was a craps dealer in Las Vegas, and I loved it. It was full of excitement, and the thing I loved most about it were the systems that were in place to make sure the game ran smooth no matter how exciting it became. This is something that has come in really handy working in a fast-paced bar. When I moved to Northern California, I gave up the gaming career, but still wanted a job that was equally exciting. The closest that I could come up with was to become a bartender.
What inspired you to create ABarAbove.com?
The idea of ABarAbove.com has always been to train high-end techniques to bartenders and enthusiasts. I realized very early in my bartending career that every time I had to learn a new technique, I had to learn it by trial and error. There was no one sharing this information with others.
What aspects of bartending did you struggle with the most when you were first starting out?
The hardest thing that I faced when beginning my bartending career is just how much information there is to absorb quickly. You have to quickly learn and become proficient at learning recipes, differences between types of alcohol, beers and wine, being fast at making drinks, regulars’ names and preferences. The first few months can be very challenging for a new bartender.
What can bartenders expect to learn from your website?
A Bar Above is very different from most cocktail websites in the fact that we don’t focus on teaching recipes. There are plenty of websites that have this focus, and they do it very well. We focus on teaching advanced techniques that will help creative bartenders and enthusiasts create their own memorable cocktails. We examine current trends that we are seeing in the cocktail community. Here are a few examples of the type of subjects that we have covered in the past:
- Barrel aging cocktails
- Clarifying lime juice
- Making your own Bitters
- Making your own Vermouth
We have recently launched a nine week online course that is called the Cocktail Design Masterclass. In the course, we give people very detailed information on the theory of designing their own cocktails, and then provide a framework in which they can create their own signature cocktails. It is great for bartenders that are looking to create cocktails for restaurants and bars, enthusiasts and any restaurant or bar that is looking to elevate their cocktail program. It is the resource I wish I had when I was learning how to design cocktails.
What skills or traits should every good bartender possess?
I think the most important trait for a bartender to have is good social skills. It’s easier to train a new bartender the physical skills needed for the job than to train a qualified bartender on how to be social.
In your opinion, how important is flair, and what role does it play in your training sessions?
Flair bartending is all about entertaining people. The most extreme vision of flair bartending is probably bartenders juggling bottles, breathing fire and pouring 15 shots while standing on top of the bar. It’s the bar equivalent to a Las Vegas show. There is a lot of physical skill that is needed to focus on this style of bartending. We don’t really touch on this style of bartending in our training program, but we do touch on how to be efficient behind the bar, which can be it’s own style of flair. There is something fascinating about watching a highly skilled bartender execute very intricate cocktails quickly.
It seems like we’re seeing a resurgence in popularity of cocktails from the 1950s and ’60s. Why do you think this is, and if it were up to you, which cocktails would become trendy in the coming years?
Cocktails from the ’50s and ’60s are definitely gaining popularity. I think people are looking back in time for a sense of nostalgia, a romantic vision of simpler times. I’m sure television shows such as Mad Men have a lot to do with this trend. One of the next trends that we are beginning to see is bartenders dusting off some of the badly designed drinks of the ’70s and ’80s and bringing them into the craft cocktail scene. For example the Rusty Nail, Harvey Wallbanger and Tequila Sunrise are being adapted to the modern era.
Who is the most interesting person you’ve ever served a drink to?
My current bar job is working at a fine dining restaurant located in the heart of San Francisco’s Financial District. I’m very fortunate in the fact that most of my guests have a great story. I think the most famous person I have served drinks to was Joe Montana. I was getting ready for a busy night shift and had my head down organizing the bar. When I looked up he was sitting right in front of me. I was totally shocked because I had no idea someone was sitting less than 18″ in front of me, and when my brain registered the fact that it was Joe Montana, it was too much information to process at once. I think I said something silly like, “Holy cow, you’re Joe Montana… What can I get you?” When he asked for the check I told him, “If my friends found out that you were at my bar and I made you buy your own drink, they would form a line around the block to kick my butt.”
What do you drink when you’re not working?
When I’m not working I tend to drink pretty simple drinks — an ice cold beer, maybe bourbon on the rocks, or when I feel like treating myself, I’ll make my favorite drink, a Manhattan.
If you had to offer one piece of advice to someone just starting out as a bartender, what would it be?
The best advice I could give a bartender is not to forget that we are behind the bar to help people. The more comfortable we can make people feel at the bar, the better time they will have. One of my favorite techniques for developing regulars is to find a common bond between two people or groups and then introducing them to one another. Once this begins to happen, people come back to see you and also their new friends. It helps to create a really familiar and friendly environment.