“I’m thinking of becoming a bartender. Where do I start?” is a question I get asked regularly. It generally comes from people fired up about the rise of craft mixology, the notion of bartending as a “real” career, and the infectious passion and knowledge displayed by many of today’s serious bartenders. People fed up with their day jobs, or just out of college and considering career choices, dream of hoisting a Boston shaker and making the world happy with good drinks and banter like Ted Lange on the Love Boat.
These are all fine reasons to want the job. Oh, the money can be good, too. But unless you own the bar or are very close to the person who does, you’re probably not going to find yourself behind the slab if you don’t have experience. OK, so how do you get there? Here’s some advice that comes from conversations I’ve had with career bartenders. By the way, this isn’t a step-by-step process; it’s a multi-pronged strategy.
You don’t need a license or a bartending-school diploma. There’s no such thing as a bartending license. (However, many bartenders must take the TIPS course on avoiding overserving or serving to minors.) Most bartenders don’t recommend bartending school; very few of the professionals I know have attended one. They say that while it won’t hurt your chances of getting a job, it doesn’t really prepare you for working in a real bar, and that your money and time are better spent on some of the following.
Learn all you can on your own. Get some basic bar equipment, some recommended books (Gary Regan’s Joy of Mixology and Dale DeGroff’s Craft of the Cocktail are good places to start) and some booze, watch a few videos by bar/mixology experts, and start mixing drinks at home. (Also, consider taking a short, basic mixology class at the Boston Shaker in Somerville.) This will give you a certain comfort level with pouring, measuring and shaking/stirring. Your friends and neighbors will serve as your first customers.
Take a lot of field trips. Again, this is where your bartending-school money is probably better spent — at actual bars. Go to a top-notch cocktail bar, park yourself on a stool and observe, observe, observe. Watch the bartenders’ drink-making technique, see how they multi-task and interact with guests, notice the types of spirits they use, witness them card or shut off a customer (hopefully not you).
Talk to your bartender. It should go without saying that you only do this during lulls in service. And don’t ask, “How do I do what you do?” Rather, think of specific questions like, “Why do you shake some drinks and stir others?” or “Could you tell me about the bitters you used in my drink?” or “What do you do to prep the bar for a shift?” or “How did you start tending bar?” Note: being a good-tipping regular will greatly facilitate these interactions. See: How to treat a bartender.
Get experience any way, anywhere you can. Even it it’s unpaid at first. Got an acquaintance who works for a catering company or does events where drinks are served? Offer to go along and cut limes, fetch ice, etc. Find a bar that has sleepy daytime shifts and offer to work other positions that need filling in exchange for getting a shot at a bar shift. Put feelers out to all those bartenders you’ve been getting to know as a customer. See if a bar is willing to try you out for a couple of uncompensated bar-back shifts.
Be realistic. The bartenders who are truly adept at what they do have usually been at it for several years. They have the personalities, talent and toughness it takes to stick with a job that demands long hours without a break, is physically and psychically stressful, generally offers no benefits of any kind, and involves the various hazards of late-night shenanigans. You will probably know very quickly whether you are cut out for this. That said, I don’t mean to discourage you. Give it a try. A good bartender is always in demand.
» Interested in going to bartending school? A website called Groupon, which posts daily deals in various cities, including Boston, is today advertising a $445 course at the DrinkMaster Bartending School for only $150. I know nothing of this school’s reputation, but, hey, it sounds like a deal worth exploring for those so inclined.
» Storied Seattle bartender Murry Stenson of the ZigZag Cafe recently celebrated his 60th birthday with a group of fellow bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts, including Jeffrey Morgenthaler, who was soliciting toasts for the fête from Murray fans nationwide. Even though I’ve never met the man, he has bought me drinks on two occasions through other bartenders. So I got together with two ladies from LUPEC Boston—Misty Kalkofen of Drink, who has also been remotely treated to drinks by Murray, and Kirsten Amman, who recently actually met him in person—to pen an homage (after downing a few cocktails, of course). To our delight, it was transcribed into “one of Murray’s first-edition copies of Embury,” says Morgenthaler. Yes. One of them.
Here it is: “Legend has it there is a bartender in the Northwest named Murray Stenson. His myth echoes from the Pacific through the hills of the Midwest, past the Isle of Manhattan, up the coast of the Atlantic. His legend comes bearing twenties to the heirs of the Pilgrim Rum. Puritans near and far long for the opportunity to glimpse Seattle’s beacon of hospitality. For now, we raise our tankards to the gracious man who touches the heart of Boston. Happy birthday, Murray, from a city of folks who love you though we’ve never met you. We look forward to having you at our bars.”
» Check out this clever montage of Boston bar and cocktail folk (including me) shaking their tails off to a soundtrack by dSonic.
When was the Rob Roy invented? Which region of Armagnac is considered to produce the finest brandy? At what point in history did people begin distilling beer and wine to produce spirits? What volume of liquid does a standard barspoon hold?*
These are the kinds of things I had to know in order to pass BarSmarts Advanced, a spirits and mixology class conceived by BAR (Beverage Alcohol Resource) LLC and sponsored by the U.S. unit of Pernod-Ricard SA (whose many brands include Absolut, Wild Turkey, Beefeater, Plymouth, Martell and Chivas Regal). It’s a four-week course with four online quizzes that test you on material from a 68-page workbook full of info on the nature and history of spirits and cocktails, plus bartending tools and technique. Passing the four quizzes earns you a spot at BarSmarts Live, a.k.a. the final exam, which involves a 100-question written test (complete with blind evaluation of spirits) and a practical section where you are asked to mix three cocktails out of a possible 25 in 10 minutes.
May 6 was the day of reckoning here in Boston. About 100 bartenders and liquor-industry folk from all over New England, with a sprinkling of writer types like me, gathered in the Colonnade Hotel for the exam, which was preceded by a morning of seminars supplementing the stuff we learned over the past month. The $65 fee for the course suddenly seemed amazingly cheap when I learned that all of BAR’s primary instructors had traveled up from New York to administer this thing: Dale DeGroff, Doug Frost, Steve Olsen, F. Paul Pacult, Andy Seymour and David Wondrich. Not only are these guys impressive (check out their bios on the BAR website), they’re a good time. I mean, you’ve got problems if you’re teaching spirits and mixology for a living and aren’t having fun, but this group is notable for its combined depth of knowledge and breezy attitude toward the subject at hand. After all, what they’re essentially doing is helping everyone have a better time in bars.
Preparing myself for the practical part of the exam was nerve-wracking, given that the last time I worked in a bar Fuzzy Navels and Slippery Nipples were popular (what a weird era). I actually mixed all of the Classic 25 Drinks Every Bartender Should Know, to the workbook’s exact specifications, in my kitchen one night. Bloody Mary and Dry Martini, meet Pisco Sour and Irish Coffee. I am glad I did this. When my evaluator for the practical, Dale DeGroff — who had just won the James Beard award for best wine and spirits professional — ordered a Caipirissima (a Caipirinha with rum instead of Cachaca), a Manhattan and a Margarita on the rocks, I cranked them out pretty smoothly. Thank god I wasn’t being judged on flair; nothing like a silent, methodical bartender to get the party going.
There were some glitches over the course of the four weeks, namely with the online quizzes. Compared to other cities that have participated in the program, Boston quickly distinguished itself by the number of complaints lodged about quiz results that were flawed or downright incorrect. Confession: I was one of the nerds who emailed the administrators screen shots of my results as proof. Hey, the upside was that we helped BarSmarts do some crucial website de-bugging!
The funny thing is, I almost turned down the invitation to take the course. A friend who had taken BAR’s 5-Day course in New York prodded me to sign up. “Can’t do it. Way too busy,” I whined. But he wouldn’t take no for an answer. At one point, he emailed me:
Remember that part in Oceans 11 where they all go meet at Roman’s house & Matt Damon is kind of sitting outside at the pool trying to decide to go inside or not after Clooney tells them all what they’re in for? And Roman comes over & talks to him for a minute & then shoves him inside ’cause he really didn’t have a choice anyway ’cause it was the right thing to do? You’re Matt Damon & I’m Roman. Get in the house.
So I did. And I passed. Of course, I have no plans to work behind a bar again. But at least I’ll know what the hell I’m talking about when I scold a bartender for putting ice in my Gin Fizz.
(*BarSmarts answers: 1890-1900. Bas Armagnac. 500-300 B.C. 1/8 oz.)
The Kissinger’s Eyebrow — that’s the first “specialty drink” Conan O’Brien wants to learn in bartending school. “You’re a piano teacher, and Mozart just walked in,” he informs his instructor.
This is one of the many classic Conan sketches that have been virally making the rounds lately amid speculation over whether, now that he’s moving to L.A., hosting the Tonight Show, and going on air at the tame hour of 11:30 p.m., the Brookline native will continue to be ass-kickingly funny. Well, if the feared scenario rears its ugly head, at least we’ll always have stuff like this to watch online.
Based on Conan’s description of his favorite specialty cocktail, I’ve attempted a recipe.
1 oz gin
1 oz tequila
1/4 oz grenadine
1 hair from Kissinger’s eyebrow
Shake first three ingredients well over ice and strain into shot glass. Garnish with eyebrow hair. Shoot.