Worst Shift Ever: JP Caceres

The Bolivian barman relives the career-defining night at Zaytinya that left him covered in cocktail.

By: Jessica Voelker

JP Caceres poses at Dirty Martini. The Dupont bar is a current client of his cocktail consultancy business. Photograph by Erik Uecke.

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“I went to law school, I worked at a desk. It was not for me,” says JP Caceres, a Derek Brown acolyte who owns the Washington-based cocktail consulting business Let’s Imbibe Beverage Consulting.

The Bolivian bartender’s chosen career began when he took a busboy job at Jaleo in the early 2000s. There, he worked his way up while learning English, and when owner José Andrés opened Zaytinya, Caceres moved over to the Penn Quarter restaurant as a barback and service bartender.

It was there that he had his worst shift ever.

“I had worked at Zaytinya for about three months when a club opened up around the corner called VIP. All the pretty boys and all the pretty girls would come very nicely dressed for the club, but they wanted to have dinner or drinks first. And on this particular Saturday, we had a little bit of people coming in. It wasn’t too much. Everybody working was just looking at each other like, ‘What else do we do? What else do we clean?’ And the managers, they said to us, ‘We’re going to get busy.’ And we were like, ‘No we’re not. It’s six o’clock.’ So the manager decided to send a couple of bartenders home. Around like 9:30, 10, people start coming in. We’d never seen the restaurant like that! And by 11 o’clock—I don’t have to tell you—it was four deep at the bar. Crazy. 

“Between running glasses, getting ice, doing barback duties, one of those things that you never want to happen, happened. I cut my finger while polishing glasses, and it was right on the ice well. When you’re a bartender, burning the ice in the middle of your shift is the worst thing that can happen to you. I burned the ice.

“Then I went to the back to change a keg in the walk-in cooler. We used to have a drink called a Pom Fili. It was a pre-batch cocktail made with Greek wine and pomegranate. And as I was trying to move the kegs, one of the batches of Pom Fili—probably about four liters—fell to the floor and splashed all over. I was covered in Pom Fili! No one could see, because my uniform was black, but hours later, I felt my jeans and they were, like, all hard.

“When I train bartenders, I say: ‘Always keep your head up. You keep the cool in your face, they know you are in control.’ I kept my head down that night. Why? Because I was afraid to bring my head up! Everybody was waving their hands, like, ‘Please get me something to drink.’ I was sweating. I was yelling—asking for things. And the manager walked into the bar and said, ‘What’s wrong, JP?’ He said, ‘Just go to the wine room and chill for two minutes.’ When you are that busy, two minutes is just like forever. And I was thinking, ‘Do I come back? Do I go home? This is just crazy; what am I going to do here? What I do? What I do? What I do?’ The time was running very low, and I just made a decision in my head. I was like, ‘Okay, this is what I live for. This is what I want to do. I want to tend bar.’ And I came back, and we finished the work. We all got drunk later that night, and we learned the lesson not to ever cut anyone early.”

JP Caceres serves up cocktails (and stories) behind the bar at Bourbon Steak every Thursday night.