Behind the Bar The Business of the Bar

It’s Time to Take Your Bar’s Water Service Seriously

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“Water is hospitality,” says James Papastavros, the bar manager of Toronto’s Montauk bar. “We’re in the hospitality industry. Giving someone a glass of water is showing that you care.”

When you walk up to a bar to order your beers or Boulevardiers, a glass of water will usually slide across the bar to keep you company while the bartender attends to your order. To many, this gesture is simply a tool for keeping tomorrow’s hangover at bay or a sign from the bartender that perhaps your glass needn’t be filled with more booze.

But for many more, water flies the banner of good service. “Everyone that sits at my bar is offered a menu and a glass of water while they settle in,” says Kyle Law, of Alley Cat Lounge in Savannah, Ga. The menu at Alley Cat spans over 140 cocktails, so it’s essential for their guests to have something to sip on while they read. “It takes away the self-imposed feeling of having to make a decision quickly.”

“Empty water glasses are one of my biggest pet peeves,” says Will Lee, the head bartender of Detroit’s Grey Ghost. “It’s a small detail that’s too often overlooked.” Papastavros and his business partner, Graham Wynn, have put a huge emphasis on water after noticing a lack of it. “Filled glasses are something guests shouldn’t take notice of and industry people should,” says Papastavros.

Of course, committing to water service is just the first step for bar owners. Then there’s the question of still or sparkling, filtered or unfiltered, room temperature or chilled. Should you pour as you go or place the bottle on the table? We talked to industry insiders and had them weigh in on the water debate?

1. Refill Often

“At Death & Co, as soon as you sit down, your glasses are filled. As soon as they get a third empty, it’s refilled. You remember that,” says Papastavros. Death & Co national beverage director Tyson Buhler adds, “We continuously fill water glasses as a way to keep our guests hydrated while drinking alcohol, but we also look at it as a hospitality and service moment. It allows our staff to check in and see if a guest has any needs without the staff being too intrusive.”

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2. Filter or Don’t Filter

If your bar features top-shelf spirits, it probably goes without saying that it should serve something better than simple tap water. Alley Cat invested in a 0.5-micron filtration system, where water is pushed out, fountain-style. It’s not cheap: “It costs us the equivalent of having one additional person on payroll every night,” says Law. But “if you pull down that bottle of William Larue to pour and your guest asks for a few drops of water to open it up, we have ice-cold dropper bottles full of filtered water behind the bar, not to mention what filtered water adds to an ice program. Essentially, we only want to put the purest form of water, frozen or not, in your glass.”

3. Offer Sparkling or Still

Giving guests the option of sparkling versus still water is standard. But many bars go beyond, opting to carbonate in-house. “We’ve been using house carbonation for years and have had no issues,” says Lee. “I’ve worked with iSi soda siphons and bottled soda water. They were good options but didn’t make complete sense. By utilizing house carbonation, we save on waste and can dial in the exact amount of Co2 we’re using in the carbonated water.” When Law worked at The Grey in Savannah, he used a house carbonation tap. “It was awesome; we’d use the soda syphon for cocktails.”

4. Consider Your Theme

Altamarea Group corporate beverage director Hristo Zisovski knows to match the water service to the theme of the bar. High-quality Italian bottled waters, like Acqua Panna and San Pellegrino, match the vibe of their restaurants.

“Detroit has a large local freshwater source,” says Lee. So that’s what they showcase. “The water imparts the crisp terroir that can only be found in the Midwest.” Though they use filtered tap water, their drinking water lines pass through a 10-port cold plate and gets dispensed out of a designated water spigot. “It helps get the water optimum drinking temperature.”

5. Set Up a Self-Serve Station

While many bars go above and beyond to elevate their H20, others leave it in the hands of the guest. “One of my favorite bars in Savannah, Lone Wolf Lounge, has a self-serve water station,” says Law. “It acts like a water cooler at work or the punch bowls of days past—a place to socialize outside on your bar stool and the person on either side of you.”