Back in the early aughts, when speakeasies were sweeping the nation, a bartender’s attire was one of the marks of a serious cocktail establishment. But since then, not only have uniform restrictions relaxed a bit but the schmanciness of suspenders and vests have been traded for the practicality of the apron.
Not just any old apron will do, however. Drink makers are seeking out smocks spec’d out specifically for their behind-the-bar needs and, in most cases, fitted to their measurements. Even though these tailored togs can cost upwards of $500, bartenders are seeking them out. A well-designed apron goes beyond protecting clothes from spills and lending a professional appearance. It improves efficiency, and some designs can support your back.
Barman Darwin Manahan, of Guerrilla Tacos in downtown L.A., started his own apron company, Manahan & Co., with his wife, Nikki. “I was ruining a lot of my clothes from normal day-to-day spills and prep,” he says. “I was looking for an apron that was durable and would keep my clothes dry but still looked sharp.” He and his then-girlfriend, who had worked as a bridal designer, collaborated to create his dream apron. The company finally launched in 2018.
“I feel that the importance of a bartender and his apron is just like a chef’s relationship with his/her knife,” says Manahan. “It’s a tool that you invest in that has a specific job. It shows professionalism and is worn with pride.”
Today, with more dedicated apron makers popping up around the country, bartenders have options. They can now not only choose style and fabric but pockets for their tools, the angles of the pockets, and even linings to suit their personality.
Below is how four top bartenders are tailoring the most important part of their uniform.
Cameron Masden (Bar 1886, The Raymond 1886, Pasadena, Calif.)
“My Manahan & Co. apron is customized to me in many ways, not just the pins I choose but the pockets and the way they’re angled,” says Masden. “My top pockets would typically hold tweezers and either my ice pick occasionally and sometimes my wine key. As utility goes, the angles are perfect. I don’t have to think about it. I know exactly where things are. We carry little iPads sometimes, so the pockets are made wide enough on all the aprons to fit it. There’s a strap for our polishing rag, and a lighter goes in a little pocket for me as well. So every pocket was designed for the tools we use.”
Saeed “Hawk” House (Ever Bar, The Kimpton Everly Hotel, Los Angeles)
“When Search and Rescue Denim Co. reached out about sending me an apron, I customized every pocket detail to fit my line of work,” says House. “First off, the chest pocket for pens and the custom logo stitched to rep my Cocktails by Hawk brand also doubles as a pocket to hold business cards. My lower left pocket is customized with four pockets: one to hold my church key, wine key, matches and cellphone. My other pocket on the right has a zipper on it to store cash or whatever I would like not to get wet. That pocket is free to hold whatever I please. Lastly, I went with the leather option because it’s super easy to clean after a night of bartending and it won’t get stained. I love my apron, and S&R really crushed it with the black and gold detail.”
Iain McPherson (Hoot the Redeemer, Panda & Sons, Edinburgh, Scotland; Duello, Los Angeles)
“Our aprons are by Pukka, based in Athens, Greece,” says McPherson. “What’s most important are the straps. The single one across the back of your neck isn’t good for your back. The new ones we use for our bar actually have ropes that meet in the middle so it’s not resting on your neck. Designwise, we like to choose how it portrays our bars. Like for Hoot the Redeemer in Edinburgh, it’s a lot more fun with a more divey feel. And then with Panda & Sons, we have bamboo and pandas, so it’s more tongue-in-cheek. It’s important to have an apron that shows what the bar is about, as well. It has to resonate with your concept.
“I like my apron to be really simple. I like my pens here and just two pockets for my wine key and bar blades,” he says. “I don’t like having too many pockets because of the weight. I like to keep my tools on the bar.”
Kevin Diedrich (Pacific Cocktail Haven, San Francisco)
“I can't bartend without an apron now; I feel naked without it,” says Diedrich. “All of PCH's aprons are custom-fit to our bartenders. Upon completing 90 days of employment, I send our bartenders to Scissors & Cloth (a local designer who does our aprons) to get custom-fit and decide what they want for their apron. If they want it down or up, fabric, logos, straps, belts, etc.—basically tailored to them. Ours have pockets as well, so they hold coasters, napkins, pens, wine keys and snacks.”