Imagine people three drinks deep, trying to catch the bartender’s attention for a beer or something stronger. The people behind the bar are shaking, stirring, pouring and finally, it’s time.
Last call. The lights come up, the music goes down and people head out the door. It’s a time of ritual for bar staff that patrons rarely get to see.
It’s that ritual that intrigued author Brad Thomas Parsons and took him on a journey for his latest book. Parsons traveled around the United States to more than 80 bars, asking bartenders for their take on last call.
“The answers were surprisingly — they got a little existential,” he says. “Talking to people late at night about their customs and rituals at that kind of interesting post-shift closing time, was quite an adventure for sure.”
Parsons asked all the bartenders what their final drink would be. He left the question open for interpretation on whether it’s their death row drink, the drink they have at the end of their shift or the best drink they’ve ever made.
He packaged the bartenders’ answers, along with the drink recipes and photographs in a new book Last Call: Bartenders on their Final Drink, and the Wisdom and Rituals of Closing Time.
Chad Spangler is the one of the owners of Service Bar in Washington, D.C., one of the bars featured in Parsons’ book.
“This is my baby. I’m here every day,” Spangler says.
Service Bar has a laid-back feel of a neighborhood spot, with cocktails that you might find in a much fancier place. It’s just one room with an eye-catching octopus mural on one wall and the back wall is papered with pages from a vintage book on entertaining.
On the weekends Service Bar has DJs performing, so it’s usually pretty loud just before last call happens, Spangler says.
“We get exceptionally busy about an hour before we close,” he says. “Once we get to last call, as sometimes a break from whatever loud, energetic music is playing, we play ‘Bedroom’ by Litany a lot.”
Spangler says the song usually slows down the energy in the bar.
The concept of last call is a little bit philosophical and people can wax poetic when they think about it.
As a bartender, Spangler watches last call happen night after night.
“You go through this wild shift [and] hopefully it was really busy and you’ve been stimulated for hours and hours. Once everyone is out the door [you] turn the music off and it’s just silent and relaxed and I think it gives you this kind of sense of balance of everything,” Spangler says. “Whether it’s behind the bar or just in life, yeah, you can have fun, but there’s a time where it needs to come to an end and you need to get home and then you can come back the next day and do it all over.”
Spangler’s final drink of choice is a grilled apricot iced tea, on the menu at Service Bar — although there are some seasonal variations. This time, it’s a boozy iced tea made with whiskey that he infused with late summer peaches smoked over a mesquite wood grill.
Parsons has spent his life writing and thinking about drinks. He says digging into the concept of last call did help him understand some things in a different way.
“I found the the sort of unintentional somberness that came out by just hanging out at bars at night and seeing that shift from busy active floor to the bright lights on and it’s over,” he said. “When you’re at a bar and it suddenly closes where it’s like being on a stage where the house lights come up, that bare bulb is onstage. The music changes from crowd friendly to the bartenders picks of what they’re playing. You start seeing things a different way.”
Parsons visited all kinds of bars for the book, ranging from dive bars to fancy cocktail bars to hotel bars.
He says if he were to average all of the experiences he had to a single story of what happens at the end of the night there would be a song played: either “Purple Rain” or “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
“At the end of the night the staff gets to have their drink and there would be a shot of some sort,” he says. “And then bartenders are there for several hours after, cleaning up, counting the money and getting ready for the next shift, but they’re also about hospitality and sometimes it’s about letting that person hang out at the bar a little later.”
Parsons says his own first unintentional last call experience was the spark for this project.
“It was a night out with friends and one of my favorite Brooklyn restaurant bars, and they were all coupled up and went home in their respective Ubers,” he says. “And I was still at the bar, kind of feeling a little sorry for myself having a whiskey and then having it tomorrow. And I said, you know, I should let you guys close up. And they were like, Brad, we closed two hours ago.”
As for his own last drink, Parsons says he would keep it simple.
“Like many bartenders at the end of their shift, you just want something cold, crisp, clean. And that’s usually for me, a cold beer,” he says. “I kind of get a little sentimental when I think about my father. And I think it would have to be like his favorite beer, a bottle of Miller Lite. And if it was indeed my last call, as in it’s over, I would hope he would be the other side. Clinking my bottle with me.”