May 20th, 2009
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.)
Tags: BarSmarts Advanced, bartending school, mixology course, training
Posted in Bartenders, Books & resources | 11 Comments »
January 12th, 2009
An interview with Misty Kalkofen
By MC Slim JB
Boston bartender Misty Kalkofen recently became one of the few bartenders in the country to be certified by the Beverage Alcohol Resource (BAR). If you’re not in the hospitality industry, you can be forgiven for not knowing what a huge deal that is. Think of it as being named a Rhodes Scholar or a MacArthur Fellow for your work with a shaker and your deep understanding of spirits, cocktail culture and history. It takes a lot of training, serious study and the ability to pass a gut-wrenching examination with both lab work and written exercises.
The credential is relatively new. While wine professionals have been able to pursue Master Sommelier diplomas for decades, and chefs their culinary-school degrees for centuries, bartenders have had little to prove their skills other than their following. That changed in 2006, when a group of the industry’s brightest luminaries founded the BAR in New York City to train and certify cocktail professionals. Its faculty features some of the heaviest hitters in the business, including F. Paul Pacult, editor of Spirit Journal; Dale DeGroff, famed mixologist and founder of the Museum of the American Cocktail; Steven Olson, noted wine and spirits writer and educator; Doug Frost, a rare Master Sommelier and Master of Wine; David Wondrich, famed cocktail historian and correspondent for Esquire, and Andy Seymour of aka wine geek.
Ms. Kalkofen took the BAR’s five-day Intermediate course (tuition: $3,500), and by passing the grueling exam received the greater of the two levels of certification, BAR-Ready, which recognizes professional-level bartending skills in high-intensity environments, plus broad knowledge of the culture, history and makeup of spirits and cocktails. (The lesser credential, BAR-Certified, requires more modest bartending skills.) Her resume already reads like a greatest hits of serious Boston bars: she’s currently at Drink, Boston’s newest temple to Golden Age cocktails (her Drink colleague Josey Packard is the only other Boston bartender to be BAR-certified); she previously managed the bar at Green Street, another of Boston’s three or four best; and she’d worked a long stint at the bygone B-Side Lounge, the birthplace of Boston’s cocktail revival. I sat down with her to ask her about her work and her experience with the BAR exam.
MC Slim JB: Was the B-Side your first stint behind the bar?
Misty Kalkofen: Nope. My first bar gig was at the Lizard Lounge. That is also where I met Brother Cleve, who was instrumental in starting me down the road of cocktail lover/historian/geek! He did a weekly DJ night called Saturnalia, and each week he would teach me a classic cocktail recipe. After two years of Thursday nights, I had this nice catalog of delicious classic recipes in my noggin, and I was hooked!
MC: So what was your motivation for taking the BAR exam? Professional pride? Bragging rights with your peers? Career opportunities?
MK: I’d heard a lot about the BAR and had been interested in it for a while. Obviously, all one needs to do is read the bios of the instructors to realize that you will learn soooo much. And in any profession, if you stop learning, you stop growing, and the rest of the industry will pass you by. So the educational side was a huge draw for me. Also, I knew I would meet folks from all over the country who are interested in the same things I am. I love having people to talk to about ideas and trends, so the more bartenders and brand ambassadors I can meet the better!
MC: Tell me about the exam. I’ve heard it’s more stressful than the SATs and GREs combined. What are the different components?
MK: The exam consists of three parts. In the practical phase, they set up a faux bar situation in the kitchen of the Astor Center and took us in six at a time to make drinks. We were evaluated by two people: one instructor and one BAR graduate. They approached us as guests and started ordering drinks. We had to make six drinks, and were evaluated on technique, knowledge and our ability to make the drinks correctly and deliciously in the allotted time.
Part two was the tasting phase. First, we had to blind-taste two variations of the same cocktail and compare them. The point wasn’t to name the drink, but to contrast the two, saying which was more balanced and why. Next, we had to blind-taste six spirits. For each we filled out an evaluation sheet on which we had to list all the aspects of the spirit’s taste, both generally and specifically.
For example, I would mark the box for “tropical fruits,” but I would then need to write down which specific tropical fruits, e.g., coconut or banana. We assessed for fruit, non-fruit (flowers, herbs, spices, vegetables), wood and aging — for example, what notes (such as butterscotch or pepper) hint at barrel aging, what type of wood the spirit was aged in and for how long. We were also asked to estimate proof and to evaluate cleanliness, balance, oak integration, length of finish, complexity and quality. Finally, we had to identify what the spirit was made from, where, and what category it falls into. You could get extra credit for naming brands, a specific region of origin, etc.
Part three was a written exam: about a hundred true/false, multiple choice, short answer and essay questions. Then I had to critique a cocktail menu.
MC: Yikes! So, what drinks did you have to make?
MK: Four were from a list of the most important/common drinks from the manual that we’d been studying. For number five, I had to buy a spirit from Astor Wine and Spirits, make an infusion from it, and then create a cocktail based on the infusion. It could be something I’d worked with before or something new — it was up to me. The final cocktail was my choice. I made my evaluators (Don Lee of New York’s high-craft speakeasy PDT and Willy Shine of the BAR) a Hearst for my chosen cocktail. Interestingly enough, on the night before the exam, at a dinner in Chinatown, I predicted that Don Lee would be one of my evaluators and that I would make him a Hearst. Perhaps I missed my true calling: fortune teller!
MC: How cool! I’m dying to get to PDT. Do you remember the spirits in the blind tasting?
MK: Well, an answer to that would be pure speculation, as we never get a corrected copy of our exam back. The interesting thing about the blind tasting is that you could evaluate a spirit correctly as far as taste descriptors and aging evaluations were concerned and receive many points, while still arriving at the wrong conclusion as far as a spirit family was concerned.
MC: Sounds like my college topology course. What was the scariest part of the exam?
MK: Hmmm … well, making drinks in the practical phase was nerve-wracking because the setup was unfamiliar, and I was making drinks for two people that I have the utmost respect for in this field. But I was most nervous about the blind tasting. Even in an unfamiliar situation I feel confident in my mixing skills, but the finer points of tasting were new to me. Many of the other folks in the course had amazing palates and also had more background in the proper way to taste spirits, so the group tastings could be a bit intimidating and overwhelming.
MC: You’re a well-educated person: you’ve taken your share of other standardized tests. Were you one of those kids that slayed the SATs? Do you remember your scores?
MK: I don’t. I know my parents were psyched by them, but I have no recollection of what they actually were …
MC: Baloney! You’re just being modest, Ms. Smarty-Pants! So, did you come out of the BAR exam thinking, “Pish, I nailed it,” or were you on tenterhooks waiting for the envelope to deliver your fate?
MK: I didn’t breathe for weeks. I was so frickin’ nervous. Even after I found out I passed I didn’t believe it.
MC: How did you celebrate?
MK: I drank a couple big bowls of punch with the ladies of LUPEC [Ladies United for the Preservation of Endangered Cocktails] and our great supporters at Grand at the first LUPEC punch party!
MC: I’ve seen the photos; that one looked like a lulu! Is there a diploma on your wall now, or do they just teach you a secret handshake? Do you get to put extra letters after your name on your business card?
MK: I wish there was a secret handshake — I think I’ll bring that up. As far as the extra letters, I don’t think there is anymore room after the four already there: l.u.s.h.
MC: So does membership have its privilege, like better shifts? Can you ignore [Drink bar manager] John Gertsen’s advice now? Must your colleagues now refer to you as Madame Bartender or Queen of the Stick?
MK: Queen of the Stick — I like that one! Honestly, it just pushes me to stay on top of my game. Colleagues and coworkers come to me with questions because I’ve taken the course and I want to represent well. So I spend a lot of time with my head in the books reviewing materials and learning more!
MC: Any advice for would-be BAR exam takers?
MK: Start testing yourself on spirits. It doesn’t necessarily need to be blind, but taste ingredients outside of cocktails. Unfortunately that’s not something most bartenders frequently do unless they deal with purchasing. And read everything you can get your hands on.
MC: As a longtime fan of your bartending and hospitality skills, let me say thanks for taking the time to talk with me, and congratulations on your remarkable achievement!
MK: My pleasure!
Guest blogger MC Slim JB is a Boston-based writer whose restaurant reviews and food/drink features have appeared in Boston Magazine, the Boston Phoenix, stuff@night, and the Weekly Dig. MC is also a frequent contributor to the restaurant review website Chowhound.
Tags: MC Slim JB, Misty Kalkofen, mixology course
Posted in Bartenders | 9 Comments »