Sharpen Your Skills

At bar after bar I’ve visited lately, I’ve observed a frightening trend: Patrons often know more about drinks, drink-making and ingredients than the bartenders and wait staff serving them. Knowing that your customer now embraces all things drink is a good thing — they’re more willing to explore and, as the economy improves, spend — but the fact that they may possess more knowledge than your staff doesn’t bode well for your business.Bartender

Let’s face facts: The days of on-the-job training for bartenders are over. No more “just shadow Charlie over there, and he’ll show you what to do.” No matter how good Charlie is, he’ll likely pass along bad habits and incomplete knowledge along with his timeworn wisdom about working the stick. The result can be miffed patrons who, after getting a blank stare when they inquire about the types of botanical gins offered or watching the bartender crack the seal on a shaker by banging it impatiently on the edge of the bar, realize this is not a skilled bartender. In today’s competitive bar scene, that’s the kiss of death.

The antidote to this situation is training and not the fly-by-night two-hour bartender-school variety. Professional bartender training and education programs that address foundational elements, such as history, drink-making techniques and tools, products and product evaluation, hospitality, storytelling and bar management are now the cost of entry for any serious bar operation.

“It’s just not enough anymore to go it alone, even with a strong mentor,” says Jackson Cannon, bar director at Boston’s Oyster Creek Bar as well as Eastern Standard, the 2011 Nightclub & Bar Hotel Bar of the Year.

Although he self-studied his craft for years, Cannon — the 2011 Nightclub & Bar Bartender of the Year — completed the Beverage Alcohol Resource (BAR) Five-day Certificate Intermediate Program in 2009. Known in the industry as the spirits and mixology Master course, the BAR program was developed and deployed by dream team Dale DeGroff, Doug Frost, Steven Olson, Paul Pacult, David Wondrich and Andy Seymour.

“It is a changing landscape whereby both industry workers and the general public are being exposed to more and more choices in spirits and mixology,” Cannon explains. “To stay competitive, I highly recommend taking advantage of the opportunities that this particular course offers.”

Cannon is such a fan of the program that he urged Eastern Standard bar manager Kevin Martin to participate last year. Although not every bartender or bar owner can swing a weeklong hiatus from his or her place of business, let alone the $3,500 tuition (Martin’s tuition was sponsored by Rob Cooper of St-Germain fame), serious training programs nevertheless are readily available and accessible.

In fact, a Google search of keywords “bartender training” will yield 8.6 million results, so do your due diligence and seek programs that cover the crucial elements mentioned previously, involve comprehensive testing (both written and practical, if possible) and certification. Many courses are available online, which solves the accessibility issue, but look for some classroom opportunities where tenders can work with product and techniques.

The United States Bartenders’ Guild (USBG), in its infinite wisdom, recently established its Master Accreditation program; the exam sets the industry standard for bartending knowledge and skills. To prepare for the exam, USBG recommends three programs: The Virtual Spirit, an online learning program from Beam Global that walks users through the basics of 40 major spirits categories; the BAR program; and the BarSmarts curriculum.

I can vouch for the latter: I’m BarSmarts Advanced Certified, and several NCBers have been through the online curriculum. Designed by the BAR team for Pernod Ricard USA, BarSmarts is available online as BarSmarts Wired (registration currently is open for this free program) and BarSmarts Advanced, which involves a workbook and DVDs and culminates in a one-day event where the BAR instructors lecture and then administer written and practical exams.

So do your homework — see the “Get Schooled” sidebar for more programs worth investigating — and get yourself, your bartenders and your servers trained and educated. And owners, don’t whine about spending money training staff who are only going to leave. I can show you
numerous studies confirming that hospitality workers who are trained and developed by their employers stay longer than those who don’t. So don’t ask, “What if I train them and they leave?” Ask, “What if I don’t train them and they stay?” NCB

Continuous Learning

Don’t stop once the certification is in hand! Make ongoing education a priority by reading magazine and online articles by industry pros (you’re already on the right track by reading Nightclub & Bar). Let’s not forget books: Some of my favorite tomes include anything by NCB Contributing
Editor Robert Plotkin — who has authored 16 books on beverage and bar management — and Chris Lenahan, whose “Little Black Bar Book” is true nuts-and-bolts.

Also — here’s a shameless but heartfelt plug — attend the Nightclub & Bar Convention and Trade Show, where the best speakers in the industry are ready to share their expertise on everything from the proper draft pour to accurate pour costs. We’ll soon finalize our lineup of NCB University Workshops and our conference program for the upcoming show, which is being held March 12-14, 2012, in Las Vegas — so stay tuned.


Get Schooled

Bartender training programs of note:
Bartending, Spirits & Mixology
BAR Five-day:
The Virtual Spirit:
Wine & Spirits Education Trust:
Vino 101:
Cicerone Certification Program:
Responsible Service
ServSafe Alcohol:


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