Bartender’s Choice

Story Birney Imes | Photograph Luisa Porter

It’s Valentine’s Day. The setting is a screened outdoor room in a sprawling stone house in a fashionable north Columbus neighborhood. Rhythm and blues drifts from speakers overhead; a gas-log fire flickers in the brick fireplace, offering a modicum of comfort on a cool night. In another part of the house the first guests are arriving.

Across the room two men are noiselessly polishing glasses and placing them on red napkins. Chardonnay and vodka are on ice; glass pitchers of water and fruit juices occupy one corner of a table that will serve as tonight’s bar. The men, crisp in black pants and vests, white shirts and bow ties, make their final preparations with few words and no wasted motion.

For them the most challenging part of the evening is almost here.

“The key to the process is to get a drink in everybody’s hand as soon as possible,” one of them says. “After that it mellows out.”

Mellow is the byword for Johnnie Brown and Kermit Parham, tonight’s bartenders. The two have been moonlighting as a team for about 15 years. Both men are in their 60s. They met two decades ago while working for the late Happy Irby at the Columbus Club at Columbus Air Force Base. Both still work on base as civil servants.

Ask their clients and they will tell you Brown and Parham are an essential ingredient of any party. A local caterer, who has worked with them over the years takes it a step further.

“Well … ,” she says, pausing to think, “they’re family.”

Brown and Parham have that ineffable quality treasured in this line of work, the ability to make you feel as though they’ve known you for years, even on first meeting. And patrons respond to the empathy these two gentlemen project.

“They’ll come to me and reassure me they’re not driving,” says Brown about party-goers who have had too much. “Sometimes they will bring their designated driver and say, ‘Tell him I’m not driving.’”

“They have an amazing ability to remember what people drink, and I mean what many people drink,” says Eulalie Davis, who has hired Brown and Parham for this night’s event, a dessert fundraiser for the Lee Home.

“It’s just not a party without them,” she said.


SO YOU WANT TO BE A BARTENDER …

• “For a general crowd, a 100 people, you’ll need 16 bottles of liquor (four each of scotch, bourbon, gin and vodka), two cases of red cabernet and a case of chardonnay, and if it’s a younger crowd, 10 cases of beer.”
• “Around here Old Charter is the most popular whiskey; Dewar’s the most popular Scotch. We also serve a lot of Jack Daniel’s.”
• “If you have a younger crowd, you won’t have anything left over.”
• “An older crowd drinks more hard liquor. At a party, 10 or so people are going to bring their own flask.”
• “How do you handle someone who’s had too much? You water down a drink. If they’re drinking bourbon and Coke, they’re getting a Coke.”
• “Over the years you get to know people. You know what they’re going to drink.”
• “When you have a few drinks, it’s your best friend you don’t know. You just kinda listen and let them say what they want to say.”
• “I don’t care anything about baseball, but I always watch the news to know about the games. During football season, if you’re in Columbus, you better know who won.”
• “You’ll get asked, ‘What’s your favorite team?’ If I’ve got a room full of Mississippi State fans, I’m not going to say ‘Alabama.’”

— Johnnie Brown & Kermit Parham