So, You Want to Be a Cocktail Bartender? Here’s how.
Once regarded as one of those ‘tide-you-over’ jobs to pay the rent until something more parentally-approved comes along, cocktail bartending has since achieved firmer footing as a well-respected, and lifelong, profession. Yes, your Dad might still mumble something about ‘medical school’ when you find yourself waxing lyrical about wash-lines at the dinner table, but the truth is that modern bartending requires a studied mix of emotional and situational intelligence, as well as a broad array of technical knowledge, that often takes years to cultivate. Despite its continued popularity as a side-hustle for cash-poor undergrads, bartending has become an art, on par with the culinary.
With the growth of its prestige, bartending has developed an array of boozy avenues down which its prospective practitioners can journey to make a living slinging drinks: from formal, school-based approaches to on-the-job training, the choices are wide-ranging, and each with their own merits and shortfalls. Let’s run through a couple of them.
The Formal Approach
The last few decades have seen an increase in formal educational offerings from institutions. Founded in 1999, the European Bartender School (EBS) has been churning out thousands of bar-ready graduates with their various courses ranging from 3 hours to 4 weeks. These courses can be taken in any number of eye-watering locations, including Miami, Phuket and Sydney, all of which lend a shade of spring-break to the training provided in bartending fundamentals. While taking on courses in technique, recipes, cocktail history and more, the courses tend to have a decent emphasis on simulating the bar experience in the interest of instilling a practical element to knowledge gained, and its MatchStaff platform provides a handy job-seeking resource to EBS alumni. Walking into a bar with an EBS certification on your CV is a clear way to set yourself apart from other prospective bartenders, and provides employers with a clear metric with which to gauge your bartending knowledge.
Other schools, like the Wine and Spirits Education Trust, offer a more theoretical range of courses that aim to educate prospective students on wine and spirits production, style, and assessment of quality (i.e. tasting). While their courses may veer away from EBS’ practical approach, a solid grounding in wine and spirits knowledge can lend incalculable value to bartender’s skillset, giving a major boost to upselling, recommendations, recipe-building, confidence in bar products, as well as just looking great on a CV.
At the top of the course food-chain lies the BAR 5-Day, conducted by the Beverage Alcohol Resource team (founded by such industry behemoths as Dale DeGroff). The 5-Day provides what BAR refer to as ‘The World’s Most Comprehensive Distilled Spirits & Mixology Program’, aiming to enlighten its attendees not just on the ‘what’ and ‘how’, but the ‘why’ of bartending, situating the profession in its historical and cultural context. This is not a course for aspiring drinks-shakers and dilettantes, however: the selection process is notoriously tight, and those who manage to get a place on the course have normally established themselves as significant presences in their respective bar scenes.
On The Job
As much as courses and theoretical learning bring a broader perspective, however, the reality of bartending is that nothing beats actual work experience. Learning how to balance a boston shaker on your forehead while stirring four negronis is all well and good, but if you haven’t taken the time to build your work ethic, time-management, and practical multi-tasking (i.e. triaging checks, not juggling the contents of the citrus bowl), your resume-friendly qualifications won’t serve as much more than shiny accessories.
A positive upshot of the current recruitment climate is that it’s very much an employee’s market: you can rock up to any number of the world’s best bars with a CV and a sincere desire to learn, and work hard, and chances are you’ll be able to find work. In the post-COVID, post-Brexit age, where bodies are scarce and people are thirsty, bars always have a keen-eye out for under-experienced, hard-working, pulling-themselves-up-by-the-bootstraps types. And in the long term, the emotional and situational intelligence developed from back-to-back shifts of interacting with guests cannot be replicated anywhere else – you just have to put in the hours behind the stick.
In addition to formal learning and work experience, it doesn’t hurt too much to do your own research. The resources for budding bartenders are expansive and generously instructive: for those interested in diving into the fine-print of bartending chemistry, classics like David Arnold’s Liquid Intelligence are enormously instructive. Elsewhere, the innumerable manuals that willed cocktail culture into existence serve as excellent opportunities to delve into the wonderfully deep and obscure plethora of recipes that have in one way or another influenced the drinks we all know and love today: Jerry Thomas’ foundational How to Mix Drinks, David Embury’s The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, The Savoy Cocktail Book… the tomes are numerous and their influence on modern bartending indelible. For the more practically minded, however, books like Gary Reagan’s (slightly outdated) The Joy of Mixology, and Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s Bar Book, are indispensable resources for those wanting to know how to group cocktails into families, how to make drinks taste good, and how to be a good host while making them.
At the end of the day, whichever route the budding beverage-pusher chooses to take, the most important deciding factor remains – you have to be in it for the love of it. While the days of side-hustle bartending are far from gone, the establishment of bar work as a sustainable form of employment brings with it a mandate for consistent enthusiasm and dedication: the moment your heart is out is the moment your guest doesn’t order that second drink.
Written by Ben Watts