Are American Bartenders Professional Enough? Maybe…but There’s Still Work to be Done
Early one rainy morning in May, bartenders from New York, Washington, D.C., Boston and even San Francisco gathered in NYC for a chance to hear about the Japanese way of bartending from Kazuo Uyeda, creator of the “hard shake,” a method said to smooth a cocktail by increasing aeration. His seminar attracted a standing-room-only crowd, with bartenders representing some of the best-known cocktail spots in America.
Getting so many bar folk out in broad daylight is worth mentioning, if only because it reveals how hungry the field is for advanced study and how important checking off all the professional boxes has become to those plying the craft. But even though bartenders hung onto Uyeda’s every word, the most astute comment of the day may have slipped past the assembly. Stanislav Vadrna, the sought-after European bar trainer, made it clear what he thought bartenders should take away from the Japanese master’s lesson.
“For me, bartending is about living, it’s not about ego,” Vadrna said during an introduction of Uyeda. “Giving as much attention to the guest as to the craft and giving him a better experience every time, that’s most important — being the best here and now for your guest.” The keys to great bartending, both he and Uyeda acknowledged, include spotting customers from the moment they enter, greeting them properly and acknowledging and fulfilling their needs.
Notably, neither mentioned stocking the latest boutique spirit, creating homemade ingredients or offering exclusive pre-Prohibition recipes. Instead, they focused on a fully professional approach to the craft, something American bartenders have sought since the start of the post-Prohibition era. What’s more, that’s something guests can appreciate, something that will entice them to return to your establishment time and again for the unparalleled level of service your bartenders provide.
Fad or Reality?
The recent wave of interest in cocktails has created career paths unknown to bartenders 10 years ago and has provided unexpected outlets for many. And while creativity and consistency have become more valued at the higher levels of the cocktail world, that doesn’t mean the majority of American bartenders have gotten any better at their craft. Advanced drink-making skills are worth praising, but general barmanship — attracting and uplifting customers with wit, charm and even a handshake — seems to be in decline. Not only that, but quiet conversations with many established professionals reveal a shocking lack of financial and management sense among the new wave of bartenders.
Nevertheless, the changes in the business during the past decade have been beneficial to the quest for professional status, says Livio Lauro, president of the United States Bartenders’ Guild. “How far has American bartending come? Where we are today is great,” he says. “I think we’re where the profession is in Europe and Asia. In countries there, bartending has consistently been a legitimate profession, while in America it has been so only for a very short time. So the question is, is it a fad or a reality?”
Indeed, the rise of the celebrity bartender has elevated the profession. The likes of Dale DeGroff, Tony Abou-Ganim and Francesco Lafranconi have made the world take the bartender — and the cocktail he creates — seriously, and inspired many to pursue working the stick as a career, not a pit stop on the way to a “real job.” However, the fad vs. trend question is a serious issue for many employers. “We need to have bartenders who are experts in their field because I can’t have a consumer walk up to a bar knowing more than the bartender,” says Andrew Economon, director of food and beverage at The Mirage Hotel & Resort in Las Vegas.
In fact, the first question he asks bar applicants is, “What are you doing to stay current in your field?” Their answers? “You’d be surprised at how many times I get blank stares,” says Economon. He looks for people who can prove not only their experience but also an active interest in the trade through some form of continuing education. He cites membership in the USBG as a sign of professional interest among applicants, but being a card-holding member of a professional organization is only the beginning of the intensive Mirage-style training he advocates. In fact, he expects to restart a program soon that will compel all Mirage bartenders to pass a rigorous and up-to-date exam on bartending, wine, spirits, cocktails and beer in order to get the best bar jobs at the Mirage.
Back to Basics
Finding good drinkmakers is less of an issue today, but enforcing professional standards and instructing the basics of tending bar still must be top priority for every establishment.
“What we’re seeing is a lot of people who’ve been bartending for six months or a year and know how to make every drink out of The Savoy Cocktail Book or every drink Jerry Thomas ever made, but what’s lost is the actual ability to tend a bar,” says Jeffrey Morgenthaler, bar manager at Clyde Common in Portland, Ore. Lacking experience in working a room, these bartending upstarts are often socially inept in the skills of hospitality, efficiency and speed that keep bartenders working through the lean years.
“Back in the day, you couldn’t find anybody who was willing to use fresh juice,” says Morganthaler. “Now you have people who are way ahead of themselves mixology wise, but they’re not really good at tending bar.” The real challenge today is reconciling bartenders who are advanced in their mixology but are unable to sell the drink to the customers and keep them coming back for more.
USBG certifies bartenders at a number of levels, which is important, but Lauro says he thinks bars and restaurants should employ someone to maintain training, education and recruiting programs to draw attention to their importance. To really demonstrate skilled bartending as a priority, beverage managers and execs should have bar experience and keep those skills fresh by working occasional shifts, shaking cocktails as a way to emphasize the importance of the position and the importance of the guest interaction.
Presentation and Profits
Additionally, the presentation of drinks in the U.S. needs to be improved. Lauro praises the spirits industry for its commitment to product education, but he sees a weakness in current presentation standards. “We’re making good drinks, but it doesn’t seem to matter much how we make them. In Europe and Asia, the style and presentation mean a lot more, and we could learn from that.”
There’s also a long way to go before garnishing style reaches an elevated level. Too many places don’t go beyond the default garnishes — lime wedge, lemon twist, orange wheel — and, for some reason, ice carving seems to have more currency than crafting quality garnishes. Lauro also mentions the sometimes-slapdash appearance of house-made ingredients like bitters and syrups, complete with tattered, tape-lined labels. The homespun style is a nice element but lacks any professional elegance, something few Asian or European pros would tolerate.
Beyond the presentation and social issues, Morgenthaler mentions another glaring problem among many bartenders who may not have much bar experience: lack of financial understanding, especially of controls, inventory and productivity skills. Bartenders who plan to open their own places or move into management need to know that designing a cocktail menu and hiring and running a staff is the most obvious of duties; plenty of great bars have never made a profit, and without a solid understanding of the nuts and bolts of pour cost and other tools of the trade, even the hottest cocktail destination is doomed.
Of course, this is the old school talking, encouraging the kids to eat their broccoli just when the party’s getting started. It might be more astute to enjoy the spectacle of the rock star bartender and let it play out, rather than killing the buzz with tales of the way things were or ought to be. But when this wave of cocktail enthusiasm ebbs, those left standing will be the most professionally prepared for the next new thing, which will, undoubtedly, still be served from behind a bar. NCB
Learn the Craft & More
Looking to train yourself or your staff in the craft of the cocktail, the ways of working the crowd and the essentials of bar management? Consider these programs:
Beverage Alcohol Resource (BAR)
Founded by spirits, mixology and bar management experts Dale DeGroff, Doug Frost, Steven Olson, F. Paul Pacult, Andy Seymour and David Wondrich, BAR is an intensive curriculum taught through the BAR Five-Day Intermediate Certificate Program or customized program. www.beveragealcoholresource.com
This direct-to-the-bartender spirits, mixology and service training certification program is designed exclusively for Pernod Ricard USA and instructed by the celebrated partners of Beverage Alcohol Resource (BAR). The invitation-only BarSmarts Advanced involves individual study and a one-day lecture/exam event in select cities; BarSmarts WIRED is 100 percent online study and exam open to anyone interested. Both result in certification.
Southern Wine & Spirits’ Academy of Spirits & Fine Service
Available in Illinois and Nevada, the 12-week program involves two-hour sessions each week, covering spirits and cocktail knowledge, garnishing, responsible service and barmanship. www.southernwine.com/academy
Successful Beverage Management – Profitable Strategies for the On-Premise Operator
Developed and presented by NCB contributing editors Robert Plotkin of BarMedia and Jack Robertiello, the program covers bar management from pour costs to payroll as well as strategies for driving drink sales and revenue. It also involves certification testing. www.barprofits.com
The Virtual Spirit
This online educational program created by Beam Global Spirits and Wine is a multimedia course covering the basics of 40 spirits categories at your own pace; industry pros can take a certification exam. www.virtualspirit.org
USBG Master Accreditation Program
Launched in 2009 by the United States Bartenders’ Guild, the testing program certifies participants at three levels (USBG Spirits Professional, USBG Advanced Bartender and USBG Master Mixologist). USBG recommends the BAR, BarSmarts and/or Virtual Spirit programs as preparation study courses. www.usbg.org