Keith Caywood is exactly who you’d want manning your bar when it’s three deep, two kegs have blown and the point-of-sale (POS) system is acting up. The more pressure-packed the situation, the more efficiently the steely nerved Caywood performs. For those looking to further evolve as a mixologist and bartender, he provides the perfect role model.
Caywood is easy enough to hunt down. He mans the lobby bar at Hotel Congress, a historic destination venue in downtown Tucson, Ariz. While busy throughout the week, the place swells to capacity Thursday through Saturday nights with hip professionals and students from the nearby University of Arizona. The feverish pace would overwhelm many bartenders, but Caywood thrives under the pressure.
“Sure, it’s challenging keeping cool under those situations, but that’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. I like the fast-paced game. Guests notice if a bartender can’t keep it together, and they don’t come back. It’s just too nerve-wracking to watch a bartender melt down. I take pride in making great-tasting drinks quickly and being able to properly prepare a classic cocktail in 40 seconds or less.”
While Caywood’s speed, knowledge and refined skill set affix him in the upper echelon of the trade, his most remarkable talent is his ability to engage guests while moving at flank speed. It is as if he’s able to block out the din and focus on connecting with whomever he’s serving at the moment — all without missing a beat. Few people can do two things at once and do them well. Caywood makes it look like child’s play.
“That part of the job comes naturally to me. Even when all hell is busting loose, I think it’s important to smile and remain warm and hospitable. For me, rendering excellent service entails maintaining eye contact and engaging guests in conversation. It only takes a few moments to connect with people and make a favorable impression. Frankly, I think being genuinely hospitable is what differentiates good bartenders from great ones.”
Excelling in the fast lane is not a skill set one acquires overnight. Caywood’s career began in 1998 as a host at Applebee’s in Enid, Okla. When he turned 21, Caywood began pursuing a hotel/restaurant management degree and applied to work behind Applebee’s bar. After a lengthy interview, he jokingly added that he could lift a full keg over his head. Sure enough, the managers called him out and demanded he prove himself. So out they marched out to the back parking lot with a keg in tow. A week later he became the newest member of their bartending staff.
A year later, the company promoted Caywood to corporate trainer and sent him to other stores to work with their bartending staffs. After moving to Arizona he began working at a string of high-volume nightclubs. That led to several tours of duty as a bar manager.
“Being thrown into the deep end that way was an effective way to learn about payroll, insurance, profit and loss statements, product mix and compliance issues. I learned more from the on-the-job training than I did studying management in college,” Caywood notes.
Eventually his career path brought him to Hotel Congress where he started working with mixologist extraordinaire Aaron “Doc” Defeo.
“Doc instilled in me an appreciation for crafting cocktails with fresh ingredients and in-house-made bitters and syrups. Over time, I incorporated all that I had learned from Doc and BarSmarts into my bottle-flipping, glass-spinning, wham-bam style of pumping out drinks. That’s when I evolved from a barkeep to a professional bartender. I like to think that it smoothed out the rough edges and refined my behind-the-bar persona.”
Caywood obviously learned well. Even during times of peak demand, he makes cocktails with surgical precision. His knowledge of classic mixology is well developed, and he delights in sharing what he knows about spirits and cocktails with his guests.
“People seem genuinely interested in learning something about the cocktail they’re drinking or more about spirits, beers and wines. I like to talk with people while I’m shaking their drinks. It helps me stay aerobic and connect with guests at the same time. Talking while making drinks has also helped me perform better in the various cocktail competitions I’ve entered. Engaging the judges while you’re competing is a must. The same thing is true for guests at your bar.”
Caywood has been one of the driving forces behind the formation of the Tucson chapter of the United States Bartenders’ Guild. He sees it as an opportunity to further strengthen the society of dedicated professionals who live and work in Tucson. “The Guild provides an invaluable forum for further education. Whether a rookie or wizened old pro, there’s always more to learn about the art and science of bartending. I also really enjoy the camaraderie of being with others who feel equally passionate about cocktails as I do.”
In his free time, Caywood works on developing a business plan with the intention of opening a classy little joint of his own.
“I want to open a place where people can enjoy classic cocktails and be treated with respect and hospitality. Until then I’m going to work hard, save my money and enjoy every bartending shift to the fullest. I believe that’s how I’ll turn my dream into a reality.”
Sitting at the Lobby Bar the other night, a guest elbowed me and said, “Keith’s why I come to this bar. He’s the fastest bartender I’ve ever seen, and he never makes a bad drink.”
That about sums it up.