TO SAY THAT Hey Bartender romanticizes the field of craft cocktailing would be a grave understatement. The documentary by director Douglas Tirola opens with a series of interview clips in which representatives from the culture's most famous establishments describe the bar as a stage or a cockpit. They mythologize their role using words like "sage" and "rock star." There are tattoos and waxed mustaches. Eyes roll.
Give it a minute. As the film unfolds, we meet two Steves. Steve Schneider is a young apprentice at the much-ballyhooed Employees Only bar in New York. A former Marine whose military career got cut short after he suffered a brain injury in a (hello irony) bar fight, Schneider is in the inner circle of the craft cocktail renaissance. He's shown bartending shirtless to the cheers of a crowd, posing for magazine spreads, and accepting kisses from pretty girls on the other side of the bar.
In delightful contrast, Steve "Carpi" Carpentieri is the good-natured owner of a neighborhood joint in Westport, Connecticut. He spends his nights diffusing douchebag situations and scolding tearful middle-aged women to get their damn shoes on and get out (again). He's one part skeptical and two parts ignorant of the craft cocktail world, but as his bar fails he takes a chance on a journey to New Orleans' Tales of the Cocktail, the industry's biggest and most important convention.
Along with Carpi, the audience is gradually tuned into the industry's history and won over to its camaraderie and lore. The periodic slow-motion sequences of subjects reverently constructing their creations gradually seem less gratuitous, and the essentially relatable human elements of these people's paths and careers resonate. This critic did not quite shed a tear at the film's climactic moment, but a surprising choking sensation may have materialized. And there wasn't even alcohol involved.