Posted on | February 27, 2013
Written by | Jack Robertiello
Pure knowledge matters, but pro trainers emphasize techniques, service and efficiency as well.
When bartender Jacob Briars first visited New York City, his verve to sample the fare at bars and boîtes made famous as cocktail cathedrals ran smack into a cold and unpleasant reality. His request for an Algonquin (rye, dry vermouth and pineapple juice) at the hotel bar of the same name was met by a blank stare—a typical response from a server accustomed to orders no more complicated than a Tanqueray and Tonic.
That was some time ago, but it’s fitting that Briars’ latest enterprise includes setting up a bartender training program for Bacardi in the U.S. There was a time not so long ago, as Briars’ experience reminds us, when bartender training consisted mostly of the new hire showing up an hour or so early to get familiar with the bar layout, product mix, rules and regulations and general decorum expected. More time was likely spent trying to figure out the POS system than mastering the cocktail menu.
There’s little doubt among cocktail cognoscenti that the overall skill level expected among new employees at craft cocktail bars today far exceeds that of any previous era. Supported by numerous brand-based programs, seminar-rich conferences, traveling brand ambassadors, and supplier and distributor efforts, the average bartender working at any level today enjoys a wealth of opportunities to learn.
The same avidity for cocktail training may not be at work in most non-craft oriented bars and restaurants, though throughout the vast range of American watering holes, there has been a noticeable uptick in general knowledge and enthusiasm in drink-making.
“It’s great to see so many bartender training programs out there, and they all seem to have their own take on the craft,” says Gaz Regan, author of numerous books including The Joy of Mixology and host of gazregan.com. Now that bartending is widely seen as a legitimate food service career choice, one with prospects and potential, being trained at the highest level is increasingly seen as a significant step for advancement.
Paul Pacult, who leads the hydraa-headed Beverage Alcohol Resource program (better known as BAR) in partnership with Dale DeGroff, Doug Frost, Steven Olson, Andy Seymour and David Wondrich, notes that when the program started in 2005, no specific form of professional certification existed, something the culinary world offers in most disciplines—pastry, kitchen management and other aspects. Says Pacult: “A first sector of professionals had already been working as bartenders long before we started BAR, but they still looked to perfect their craft. I believe that we are now attracting what I think of as a ‘second wave’ of young women and men who in the last five years have become intrigued with the bartending profession.”
BAR is an intensive five-day course focusing not only on mixology but also the history of spirits through a broad range of categories and traditions. BarSmarts—also created by BAR, in conjunction with Pernod Ricard—focuses on bartenders, drink-making and service issues in a shorter course that can be taken online or live. As Pacult puts it, “Think of BarSmarts as bartending high school while the BAR 5-Day is more akin to major university studies.”
Francesco Lafranconi, the executive director of mixology and spirits education for Southern Wine and Spirits Nevada, says that these days hotels and restaurants are seeking to provide better quality cocktails when they turn to him for training and menu development, and therefore more skilled bartenders. “Guests have much higher expectations now,” he says. “They have a better understanding of what makes a good drink, and operators need help trying to cope with what their guests demand.”
Even union bartenders in his market, a group not usually considered open to new training requirements, are more receptive now, especially in sophisticated technique areas, like handling egg whites and fresh products, Lafranconi says.
BALANCING THE SKILL SET
The efforts of Pernod Ricard and other suppliers, and distributors including Southern, Glazer’s and Wirtz, may have helped increase bartender knowledge dramatically over the past ten years. However, it’s commonly agreed that the general rules of hospitality haven’t received the same sort of focus, which bugs trainers like Tanqueray Brand Ambassador Angus Winchester.
“When you get bartenders who say, ‘I got into this because I don’t like talking to guests, and craft cocktails take so much time that I don’t have to,’ it’s hard to know what to say,” says Winchester.
“There’s a generation of bartenders now that are the most knowledgeable and creative that has ever existed on the planet. They can tell you the mash bills of all their whiskies and talk about the botanicals in gin, but they slightly suffer with a fixation with the drink as opposed to the drinker,” Winchester points out.
In addition to the widely criticized fixation of many craft bars and bartenders on the sometimes geeky, even snobby topics of cocktail history and approved classics, Winchester says that there are also plenty of skill issues for even the best bartenders. Last year, he toured the U.S. for Tanqueray in a program that gauged the capabilities of more than 300 bartenders, testing bar skills considered important to all levels of the trade: pouring accuracy, speed, memory, numeracy, technique and final presentation.
Participating bartenders all received the same sets of recipes, then were given a series of orders and were timed. Drinks were examined for proper garnishment and presentation, bottles weighed for pouring accuracy, and objective scores tabulated. (Tanqueray now offers a similar evaluation to operations, in which bartenders are evaluated against their co-workers.)
The results? Some very good and well-known bartenders didn’t do so well, and many newer folks performed exceptionally. Good skills were evident in cities considered outside the main cocktail circuit—Kansas City and St. Louis, notably. The average American bartender tested poured with 86% accuracy, a score most operators would find wanting.
Another issue: less than 30% tasted their drinks with a straw at the correct time—many forgot altogether or did so after they poured the drink, instead of when it was still in the shaker and correction would be less obvious. More crucial for operators was the common problem of poorly managed pour spouts and spillage. As Winchester notes, “Even the meniscus on a jigger allows for a 10% overpour and these mount up—one bartender working three shifts a week overpouring at a 10% rate making 100 drinks a night will overpour 187 bottles of spirit per year.”
Briars, the newly named Bacardi global director of brand advocacy, says the time is ripe for suppliers to train not only about their brands, but to support the industry to run businesses more efficiently and profitably. “I’m amazed when I’ve talked to leading some leading mixologists who are great bartenders but still have no idea how to cost out a cocktail,” he says.
Now that cocktail-centric bars have opened all over the country, competition is a given, and how to run a bar profitably will be seen as much more important. “We’ve never had this much knowledge and it’s never been this good to be in the bar industry. I’d hate for us to squander this opportunity,” he says.
Says Winchester, “Hospitality is relatively simple: put a smile on a guest’s face, optimize the sale while in the venue and give them a reason to return.” A bartender at the top of her practical skills who can do that in the midst of a Friday night rush would be worth his/her weight in Sazeracs.
In the big picture, perhaps the greatest value in training is the prospect of making the maneuvers and mindset of bartending second nature, empowering the person behind the stick to develop an identity while being an asset to a drinking establishment. That said, a neophyte bartender can still choose among all sorts of training programs, including the much-maligned “flair bartending” style that still has pockets of aficionados. As Gaz Regan says, “I can’t think of any facet of bartending that’s being missed at present, but I’ve no doubt that someone will soon start offering a course in techniques that I’ve never dreamed of. I’m really looking forward to that.”