May 20th, 2009

I survived BarSmarts


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.

barsmarts-cocktailsPreparing 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.)

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11 Responses to “I survived BarSmarts”

  1. Lis Riba

    Dang. Saw the WSJ article yesterday and now this. Wish I had known in time to get involved…

    Are they doing open registrations?

  2. ljclark

    Hey, Lis. Right now, BarSmarts is invitation-only. I’m not sure what their plans are for the future, but it can’t hurt to contact the program (through the BAR website perhaps) and let them know of your interest.

  3. Frederic

    Wish I had known it was only $65. I figured that if the 5 day was $3500, the one day had to be pretty pricey as well.

  4. andrea

    Congratulations on passing muster with Mr. DeGroff, Lauren. Personally, I like silent and methodical bartending – it shows proper attention to the important task of making my drink tasty.

  5. ljclark

    Ha, thanks for the validation, Andrea. Hope to clink glasses with you soon.

  6. Colonnade Boston

    This prestigious event took place at The New Colonnade Hotel Boston. A minor detail but one we thought was important. 🙂

  7. ljclark

    Colonnade, take a closer look at the post.

  8. james fox

    “practising for the exam”. that euphemism will now enter my vocab… haha nice one.


    Lis, et al.,

    Lauren is correct that BARSmarts is invite only and mostly for working industry. It is not at the moment scheduled to return to Boston when we pick up again this fall but perhaps next spring we will be back! I will of course continue to lobby hard for Boston & they were all definitely quite impressed with everything the city had to offer, I’m just not sure if Pernod & BAR will repeat the market or seek to open a new one. The best way to find out is actually not on the BAR website but specifically on the website itself (click on ‘just visiting,’ tour around & sign up for the mailing list). The other way is to contact your local Pernod rep & express your interest. If you are not in the industry please contact me thru Lauren & we will connect you. Good Luck, Hope to see you there!
    and ps…congrats & thanks to all the Boston BarSmarts grads & those who hosted us along the way for making it an incredible experience for all of us as well!

  10. ljclark

    Keebler, THANKS for the much-needed info on this. I think Bostonians would rise to the occasion again if BarSmarts decided to return.

  11. Lewis Ray

    This was supposed to be an amazing event- I would have loved to attend one of these- unfortunately i do not have the time to do so. I didn’t know they owned Chivas Regal. I was under the impression that they were still privatly owned. but hay you learn something new every day right.

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