Seattle receives exactly one nod in Hey Bartender, the new documentary about the cocktail renaissance now showing at Northwest Film Forum. Among the handful of bartenders we meet at the film’s start is Jeff Bell of the highly influential PDT in New York. Bell tells the camera that when family or friends come to town he takes them to fellow craft cocktail purveyor Employees Only. We catch under Bell’s gray cardigan a v-shaped glimpse of a purple and white University of Washington Huskies tee. One nod, and it’s a random sartorial decision. (Jeff Bell is indeed from Seattle and bartended here before moving to New York, but that’s not in the movie.)

And that’s it. No Canon, no Rob Roy, no Zig Zag, not even a mention of the Godfather of Seattle Cocktails. In fact, aside from a fleeting scene at Portland Cocktail Week and super brief interview footage with some L.A. bar guys, Hey Bartender doesn’t bother with the Pacific Time Zone.            

But what it lacks in West Coast love the doc (mostly) makes up for in compelling story lines. The film follows Steve Schneider, a former Marine pulling his life together after a near-fatal beatdown outside a bar. (To save his life, surgeons inserted three metal plates in his skull.) Schneider’s dream is to be a principle bartender at Employees Only. We also meet Stephen “Capri” Carpentieri, who owns a convivial dive in Westport, Connecticut. Compared to his cocktail-making co-stars, Capri’s a decade behind the times, his top shelf arrayed with flavored vodkas and his bar gun inordinately loaded with Coca Cola.

Both guys, inescapably likable, carry the narrative burden of the doc. We cheer for Schneider, but our hearts rest with Capri, who we learn is recently divorced and whose house is in foreclosure. To save his bar, Capri decides to embrace the culture in which Schneider is already deeply ensconced. They both fly to New Orleans for the annual Tales of the Cocktail convention, where Capri buys a fedora and seeks advice from bartending legends. Schneider flaunts his trademark speed in a cocktail contest and sweats out the convention’s closing awards ceremony, where Employees Only may or may not win the title of Best Bar in the World.

Even those for whom the craft cocktail renaissance is old news (it is old news), or for whom a glaring Seattle snub is normally a deal breaker, the story of these two men reinventing themselves in a profession once considered lowly—and now getting its due—is worth the 94 minutes.

As Schneider, who narrowly dodged death at a tavern, succinctly puts it, “I died in a bar—and [was] reborn in a bar.”

Hey Bartender plays at Northwest Film Forum through June 20.


 

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