Do you need to go to bartending school?

I have worked in the hospitality industry for over 20 years. I am a certified teacher and the owner of a bartending school in the Philadelphia area. Let me start by saying that there is what’s called a “bartender” and what I call a “beertender.” Anybody can work at Billy Bob’s Toothless Tavern or at the Bubble Gum Booty Lounge and open up Budweiser and pour shots of Jagermeister–that’s beertending. Bartending is an art form and you could never work at an upscale lounge or restaurant if you haven’t been classically trained.

Not that I think that there’s anything wrong with beertending. I was once a beertender. I began my journey as a cocktail waitress at a busy restaurant & nightclub. I didn’t mind squeezing myself through thick crowds of inebriated party goers while slinging a full tray of drinks and rocking dance tights and high heels. But after 2 years of getting my ass grabbed every 10 minutes and making a fraction of what the bartenders were making for doing less work I decided it was time to get myself behind the bar. At the time, my manager was only interested in experienced male bartenders. But lucky for me there was one shift that no other sane bartender there wanted to work–Country Western Night. Although I didn’t make much money and only opened up the likes of Miller and Anheuser Busch I thought of myself as a “bartender.” And so I headed downtown to Philadelphia where I landed another job at a new nightclub. I don’t remember much other than loud music, wild lights, strippers and midgets (oh, sorry–little people) in cages dancing, and of course more beertending.

I do recall some instances where a customer would say, “What kind of scotch do you have?” or “What’s your best tequila?” Luckily for me I knew how to b.s. my way through these uncomfortable moments. But as my desire to work at nicer places and make more money grew each year, so did the need for me to know how to really bartend. Customers started asking for “Very, very dry Bombay Sapphire Martinis–up, rocks side with a twist” and “Can you make me a Perfect Manhattan and add a little bitters please.” At that point I knew that I needed to buy some books or go back to beertending at white trash sports bars.

I have dedicated much time in the past 10 years to researching and reading about cocktails and spirits. And I’m sure I think about what it takes to be a great bartender more than most people in this industry–it’s my job to do so. What I do is ultimately try to filter this information and teach each of my students what’s necessary to start as a good bartender. Why not take a couple weeks out of your life and learn the right way. What’s wrong with that? Anyone who doesn’t believe in education is an idiot.

I have also heard that a person should just skip school and start out as server at a restaurant where they could get promoted and be trained by another bartender. If this is what you want to do, then great. But remember, it may take years for you to earn a spot behind the bar and you may not be trained the right way–there’s a lot of beertenders out there doing the training. Point in case: I was once talking to a bartender that mentioned “I didn’t need to go to school–they trained me here.” At which point my friend and I said, “That’s cool. We’d like to do some shots. Do you have any Patron?” She said, “No, we don’t have that.” Then we said, “Okay, I guess we’ll have Jose Cuervo.” And then she replied, “Oh, Jose’s not working today.”

It’s actually not enough these days to have just gone to bartending school. A good mixologist interested in working at top-notch establishments needs to continue their education to stay current. In the latter part of the decade old-fashioned libations are making a huge come back. I have seen the use of orange bitters, simple syrup, egg whites, fresh muddled fruits and herbs, as well as seltzer canisters. Bartenders are being called upon to pair food items from menus with new innovative cocktails. Some bartenders are using only freshly infused vodkas and specific shaped ice and are demanding to be called “bar chefs.”

But let’s not forget a key component of being a great bartender–personality. I like to think of a bartender as a cocktail itself. One should be charming, vibrant and well balanced (not too sweet, but not too dry). He/she should have an immaculate appearance and provide a memorable impression that leaves a customer satisfied and wanting more. In my opinion bartending is 40% knowledge and 60% personality.

Unfortunately for me there are some bartending schools out there that really only prepare you to be a beertender. They hand you a book with 300 recipes and say “go practice.” I once had a woman pose as an employee because she was planning on opening up her own school and wanted to suck as much information from me as possible–because she was too stupid to do her own research, I guess. I knew she was a beertender once I heard her telling my students things like, “You really don’t need gingerale. Just mix 7-up and Cola” and “You really don’t need White Zinfandel. Just mix white wine and red wine–it’s the same thing.” Ugh!! She is a beertender with a school at the moment. I feel sorry for the innocent people that are paying her money for an education. It is schools like these that give bartending schools a bad name. But as the owner of a Pa winery once told me “You’re only as good as your worst competitor.” He too has to deal with many people assuming that wine made in Pennsylvania wineries is not good (even though he holds platinum medals).

But on the bright side, I know that there are other good schools out there–and my hats off to you! So if you do decide to go to bartending school, don’t just look for the cheapest tuition–do your research. For more information about my school go to: http://www.utendbar.com/