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Passing the Bar

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Forget soda guns and high-volume drink slinging. Bartending education in the age of craft cocktails teaches how to work with scratch recipes, homemade syrups, infused spirits, and seasonal ingredients.
By Camper English August 2014 Bar Management

Typical bartender schools aren’t very thorough or well-respected. In fact, driven by the craft cocktail renaissance, some bar managers claim they won’t hire graduates of bartending schools, as this training is nearly always for high-volume bars that use soda guns and outdated recipes. These skills aren’t useful in bars with homemade flavored syrups and more than one bottle of bitters, so bar managers say they’d have to retrain bar school graduates from scratch.

However, there are hundreds of options for continuing a bartender’s education and providing next-level information, many of them free.

Rick Dobbs, owner of The Last Word in Livermore, California, didn’t rule out graduates of bartender schools, but it wasn’t his top criterion either. “I hired for personality and willingness to learn, first. Even the bartenders who had experience, I told them that I was taking them back to Bartending 101,” he says.

Dobbs’ program is a useful example of modern bar and bartender education. The town of Livermore is far enough from San Francisco that Dobbs is not pulling from that area’s very experienced employee pool, yet it is close enough to take advantage of the city’s educators.

For starters, Dobbs required his staff—bartenders and servers alike—to take an online course called BarSmarts Wired before their first day of training. “I didn’t want servers to drop a drink menu off and then come back and just take an order,” he says. “I wanted interaction, conversation, and dialogue. I required BarSmarts for everyone. Even my hostess has taken it.”

Sponsored by liquor company Pernod-Ricard, BarSmarts uses content produced by experienced industry experts including historian David Wondrich and spirits judge F. Paul Pacult. BarSmarts is available as a Wired (online only) and Advanced (with additional live education and written/practical testing) tutorial.

These same educators also produced a simple program for enthusiasts and beginning bartenders called Drinkskool, which can serve as a transitional education program for entry-level bartenders, who might be considering a change from catering-style bartending to more advanced cocktail bartending. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the group offers an annual five-day, hyper-intensive program in New York City called B.A.R., considered by many to be the most advanced training program in the cocktail and spirits industry.

Branded Training Programs

In larger cities, educational programs may be available locally and are often run by distributors. A notable example is the Southern Wine & Spirits Academy of Spirits and Fine Service in Chicago and Indianapolis, which is a 12-week program of weekly two-hour classes covering product knowledge, classic and modern cocktails, and training on how to create new cocktails.

Even if classes might be skewed toward their own products, distributors and liquor brands can provide some of the best educational services. Many of the largest liquor companies have teams of educators placed around the country, or who travel to restaurants to provide training. While they may make more of an effort to travel to higher-volume accounts, it can be worthwhile for bar managers to ask brand representatives which training programs are available.

Erik Adkins of San Francisco’s Slanted Door group of restaurants says he was particularly impressed by a Scotch training provided by Campari for the staff of Slanted Door’s newly opened restaurant The Coachman. “It was a really great, fun, three-plus hour training on the category,” Adkins says. “Campari USA has Lowland, Speyside, and Islay whiskies in its portfolio so [the brand ambassador] really teaches regionality, plus gets everyone excited about the category. It was the best I’ve seen.“

For brand-neutral education, the Society of Wine Educators offers a Certified Specialist of Spirits program that provides local education and testing, and as of this year offers an online option as well.

Bar consultant groups like Soigné Group in Los Angeles and BarMagic of Las Vegas also provide differing levels of education. And when cocktail consultants are brought in to the restaurant, they should provide more than a list of recipes. There should be education about the drinks on the new menu, a larger education on the history of the drinks and the categories in general, and continuing education throughout the first few weeks or months of any new program.

A combination of entry-level classwork and continuing education seems to work for the operations with better cocktail programs. Jonathan Forester, a consultant on the East Coast, says, “I start with BarSmarts Wired with the restaurants [where] I consult. Then I do intensive training from there.”

Dobbs echoes the sentiment. “Having them get certified on BarSmarts Wired was just the beginning of my education program,” he says. Dobbs brought in brand ambassadors for eight days of training, and they educated the staff on the entire category before launching into a discussion of the brand. “The time became a lot more valuable since [restaurant staff] already had a foundation of knowledge that BarSmarts provided. They’re not asking questions like, ‘How is whiskey made?’ They’re asking questions like, ‘How does the water source affect the overall distillation process?’”

Boondoggle or Bar Worthy?

Cocktail events are now hosted in cities from Seattle to Boston, and many are worth the resources and time to attend. Although they always sound like events for the public, they are specifically designed for the industry—albeit with a blend of nighttime parties and daytime educational events.

An extreme example is Oregon’s Portland Cocktail Week, which hosts nearly 300 official students and almost 200 auditors attending classes. In 2013, the Portland Cocktail Week’s Bar Institute invited bartenders to choose a major like Advanced Bartending or Innovation and Development. Classes during the event included topics like “Advanced Spirits Evaluation Techniques for Professional Servers” and “Pattern Recognition: A Case for Art in the Barroom,” and after-school activities took attendees to local distilleries for hands-on classes or to attend a botanical field trip.

In the Kentucky bourbon region, another event, Camp Runamok, is a live-in program that will host 300 campers in two different sessions this summer, and will also take attendees to visit nearby distilleries.

Of course, the country’s largest cocktail convention, Tales of the Cocktail, is held annually in July in New Orleans, and while it may look like one gigantic party (it is that, too), there are plenty of learning experiences as well, including a Cocktail Apprentice Program (CAP) for select bartenders who make all the drinks for the week.

David Burnette of South on Main in Little Rock, Arkansas, was a CAP participant and also took a class at his local community college. “[The class] was very helpful, but nothing compares to being a Tales apprentice,” he says. “Before going to Tales as a CAP, I felt alone and unguided; I didn’t have many people that understood my passion. The CAP program gave me the contacts I needed for a support system that has helped establish my career.”

Restaurants may balk at the expense to send a lead bartender to a national convention for additional training, but often that person returns with the capability to train the rest of the staff, creating both a mentorship situation and an in-house educational program.