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Winooski Bartender Named Vermont 'Bartender Of The Year'

Mitch Wertlieb
Matt Farkas, a bartender at Mule Bar in Winooski, is the Vermont Tourism Industry's 2016 Bartender of the Year.

The Vermont Tourism Industry crowned the "Bartender of the Year" last week in Killington. 

The winner was Matthew Farkas of Mule Bar in Winooski. The competition challenged the bartenders to mix a special drink from surprise ingredients revealed during the contest. It used all local, made-in-Vermont spirits.

On the competition:

"[This year's competition] was held at Killington, Vermont, and essentially it was a 'Chopped'-style competition: There's a pantry and then random ingredients are awarded to you and you have to use these ingredients. Spirits located around the region of Vermont were highlighted, so you couldn't go into it prepared at all. You just had to go into it open-minded and thinking creatively for whatever happens right at the spot."

So what was Farkas' mystery ingredient?

"In the first round, Metcalf's Raspberry Liquor ... It's a sweet raspberry liquor [that] has a lot of fresh raspberry essence to it. I matched that with some gin, ginger beer, cranberry juice and a blanc vermouth essentially to round it all out. Playing off of the classic Gin Gin Rickey. Just went with the raspberry Rickey, which I think is a favorite of everybody's childhood. So it went over well."

On winning "Bartender Of The Year":

Farkas says he's incredibly proud his win.

"Being from southern Vermont, kind of cutting my teeth, growing my legs down there behind the bar ... A lot of people came to support because it was local and they could come up to Killington from that southern Vermont area.

"For me in that particular situation [I feel] very proud. I happen to have my father there watching so it was really cool to have him kind of see that type of scenario. He's a career bartender, completely different style of bartending but appreciates what I do."

On getting his start in bartending:

Farkas, 31, says he started bartending about six years ago.

"I was living in southern Vermont, I am originally from Peru, Vermont. I was working with some great friends of mine, Rogan and Abby Lechthaler at The Downtown Grocery.

"They offered me a position in the front in the bar because I knew food, I like to talk about food, I really gravitate towards it using the local background in food and culinary scene. I kind of applied that to the bar world and started investigating and reading everything that I could and trying to make it as accessible as the as the restaurant world."

On his approach:

Farkas says when he's behind the bar he's not into the typical bottle-flipping shtick.

"Only on accident and then I try to make it look like it was on purpose," jokes Farkas. "I try not to use a lot of flair, I have a classic background in the culinary world, so apply that to the bar world and just try to work as efficiently as possible to make them the best creations possible."

"Bartending isn't just knowing how to make drinks but it's interacting with people, comforting people." — Matt Farkas

He says he's less of a Tom Cruise in “Cocktail" type and more of a Sam Malone from "Cheers" type.

"You can work and talk and just be smooth, know everybody," Farkas explains. "Part of bartending isn't just knowing how to make drinks but it's interacting with people, comforting people. You know everybody's coming from a different walk of life so you really have to address everybody differently. I mean that's almost bigger than knowing the beer, the wine or the spirits."

Farkas says that communication with customers is a huge part of the job.

"I've noticed over the years, working in different bar atmospheres ... no matter who the bartender is and their personality, they always retained their group of regulars," says Farkas. "And your regulars might not necessarily be there because they like you so much but because ...  they can open up to you, they can be honest with you and you retain these bar customers as friends over the years."

And when it comes to offering advice to customers, his advice comes with a catch.

"I offer advice but it always comes with a little bit of a warning," says Farkas. "'I am not a doctor, I'm a bartender.'"

On keeping customers safe:

Farkas says recognizing when drinking behavior is getting out of hand is part of the job.

"It's the worst part of the job quite honestly," he says, "watching somebody have too much fun. As a professional, we are able to see that happening before it happens and curb it. So if that means just offering a water or ... [suggesting] a different beer, a different cocktail, pushing somebody away from a spirit-driven cocktail into maybe a soda and a splash of vodka or a beer with lesser alcohol.

"It's the worst part of the job quite honestly, watching somebody have too much fun. As a professional, we are able to see that happening before it happens and curb it." — Matt Farkas

"If you see somebody drinking faster those are warning signs. We're educated and taught on a yearly basis by the state how to be aware of this and then how to how to deal with it when it happens. You should never come to the point where you have an angry customer who has indulged too much because that's your fault. And that's something that we make sure that we pay attention to where our customers are at all points in time."

On starting the Vermont chapter of the United States Bartenders' Guild:

Farkas is one of the founding members of the Vermont chapter of the United States Bartenders' Guild.

"No matter what type of bartender you are, there's camaraderie and that's something that United States Bartenders Guild and the Vermont chapter that we've started is really starting to focus on."

Farkas says efforts to start a Vermont's chapter began about two years ago, bringing together bartenders from around the state.

"We really had to try to convince a growing group of bartenders that this is something to look forward to and what it does bring is competitions like this camaraderie amongst bartenders. There's not a competition of whose bars better, but more, 'let's bring more people to the area and see that what we're doing is a growing thing.'

"I always try to think about, the chef community in Vermont is very tight, it's a great network they all know each other, they produce great products and are using the same farms. And they bring a highlight to the region. We should be able to do the very same thing from behind a bar."

A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
Kathleen Masterson as VPR's New England News Collaborative reporter. She covered energy, environment, infrastructure and labor issues for VPR and the collaborative. Kathleen came to Vermont having worked as a producer for NPR’s science desk and as a beat reporter covering agriculture and the environment.
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