Syracuse after dark

Raising the bar: Local bartender shares tricks of trade, wisdom from behind bar

Allen Chiu | Design Editor

Kyle Schirtz, a bartender at Empire brewing Co., has been bartending for two years. In that time, he has learned to love the job while trying to improve and perfect the craft.

The bartender is the one with the secrets. The stories. The advice. He’s the one sliding drinks to patrons from behind the counter, slinging customers his specialties and cracking his favorite jokes. Every respectable barfly has a bartender like that.

Kyle Schirtz is not this bartender.

“I’m still working on my stories,” he said.

It’s a quiet Friday afternoon at Empire Brewing Co. in Armory Square. A few diners walk in and out, bringing the chilly fall air with them. Mick Jagger yowls on the radio, and five middle-aged men perch on barstools, idly making small talk. Schirtz pours a few beers from the tap and laughs with them.

But away from the bar, wearing all black and with the ghost of 5 o’clock shadow, he’s more mild-mannered. He half-jokingly says he’s more comfortable behind the bar.

And when he’s mixing drinks, it looks like he is. Laughing at a passing comment as he grabs a handle of vodka, he wields the bottle in one hand and a shaker in the other. He pours beer fluidly from the tap, cutting off the stream when there’s just the right amount of foam.

Bartending runs in the family for the Schirtz clan. His family, who often gave him pointers when he started, has two other bartenders: his mother and brother.

Schirtz guesses he mixed his first drink as a teenager. He can’t remember if he was 15 or 16. What he remembers is that he probably didn’t drink it afterward.

“It was probably something really gross,” he said with a laugh. “I think it was Mountain Dew with something else that didn’t taste good with it.”

The 22-year-old Syracuse native has been bartending for two years. His first gig at Empire Brewing Co. was bussing tables. But after waiting tables and waiting on a list for about a year and a half, he got his shot slinging drinks behind the bar. Schirtz is quick to give credit to the restaurant’s other bartenders for teaching him the tricks of the trade.

“They taught me everything I know,” he said. “I love them to death.”

But he hasn’t really mastered the art of bartending, at least not yet. In fact, Schirtz isn’t even positive it’s a craft that can be perfected — only practiced. He learns as he goes, both from his own experiences and those of his co-workers.

The radio switches, and Bob Dylan’s sneer barrels through the speakers. Schirtz counts the less glamorous facets of his job. He usually works eight-hour shifts and it takes a lot out of him. Most nights, the hours rack up quickly: It’s eight hours of thinking quickly on his feet.

There’s a feeling Schirtz gets when a flood of customers walk in. A split-second of panic washes over him before a wave of calm smoothes it over. He’s done this for two years; he’ll be fine.

“It’s quicker than you’d think, and it’s overwhelming when you get started,” he said.

The biggest rookie mistake a novice bartender can make, Schirtz said, is being underprepared. He said learning ingredients to drinks was an important part of the learning curve. Though confident in his almost-encyclopedic knowledge of all things alcoholic, he confesses patrons have stumped him with their own concoctions.

“I’ve gotten a few ridiculous orders of drinks I’ve never heard of before,” he said with a laugh. “Some sound terrible, but if it’s what you want, that works, too.”

It’s these interactions with patrons that Schirtz prides himself in. He likes talking sports with the Orange faithful who roll in on game days and building rapport with customers on other nights. Engaging with them, he said, is one of his favorite parts of the job.

He looks forward to working shifts with his fellow Empire bartenders even more than he enjoys socializing with regulars. The bartenders crack inside jokes regularly, and Schirtz admits that they’ve goofed off on their share of slow nights.

“A couple weeks ago, we did the ‘Jump On It’ dance to keep our energy up,” he said.

Schirtz pauses for a second. The radio jumps to a song by the B-52s in all of their ’80s glory. Diners chatter, the folks at the bar laugh, but Schirtz stays quiet for a second, thinking.

He’s technically a senior at Onondaga Community College, even though he’s only taking classes on and off right now. He doesn’t know how long he’ll keep bartending, but for now, it pays the bills.

“Honestly, I’ll probably do it for as long as I have to,” he said.

And the stories? He’s still making them, one shift at a time.

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