I think time has come for me to explain how to start a bartending career. Mostly because I’m tired of replying to facebook messages like “Hi! I just arrived in Sydney and I noticed you in the fb group XXXX… I want to become a bartender and I’d like to know what to do!”. Basically, most of the people are hoping you to tell them: “Oh hi! Thank God you’re here. Where I work we are searching for a legend like you… Please come in for an interview, I’ll put a good word for you and I’ll teach you everything till you are better than me” (even if you don’t know them). Or they just hope that you can reveal them some dark secret to succeed in life.
Well, unfortunately magic wand for careers has still not been invented.
So here is my step-to-step advise:
Bartending is not the same everywhere on this planet. Don’t expect to win a world award if you are attending to the bar of a small town stucked in the middle of the Italian Alps. Yes I’m pretty sure you can make a fair Aperol Spritz. What about a Sidecar?
Do you want to become a good bartender? WORK WITH THE BESTS. SO MOVE. Yes, CHANGE COUNTRY if necessary. Learn another language, if necessary.
Your best options are London, United Kingdom in general, Australia (Sydney or Melbourne) or America (New Orleans, New York, San Francisco). There are others, of course.
Be hardworking, and start from the bottom. No hospitality experience? Okay. Don’t be shy or lazy, your best opportunity is to START AS BARBACK. I know it’s not fancy, you can’t show your friends how amazing you are, but trust me, you won’t be amazing not knowing which bottle to grab when your recipe says “15 ml vanilla liqueur”.
Barbacking means that you’ll learn how to
– Not break every glass you touch
– Use a dishwasher, if your mum did a terrible job with you
– Polish glasses… Like, THOUSANDS a night
– To move around the bar without getting killed. It’s a little bit like in a videogame. “Baaacks! BAAAACKS!”. And here is someone pointing at you at bullet speed, three cocktails in his hands, and you’re there, looking at him coming to you like a deer would look to a truck approaching at maximum speed.
– To recognise the bottles. “Please grab me a bottle of Glendonach 21 years old!”.
Okay, store room, what was the name? What did he say? Let’s start considering that if you’re not a native speaker of the language name of the spirit, it’s funny how people fuck up. I think it took me three attempts to pronounce Glendonach in a way that a guest could understand. And if only I could get a coin for every time I heard “Maraschino” mispronounced… Furthermore, if you’re a fresh starter, you’re likely not to know that it will be in the whisky section (and if it’s aged 21 years old…). IF you understood the name. Just ask and be annoying if necessary, ask the bartender to show you the empty bottle. Do you want to avoid this? Take the initiative.
Obviously not with Glendonach 21 years old. But if a bottle is about to end in the rail, get the new one before this happens. Fill up the ice weld before you get asked for it. The bar is your realm as well, and you’re important. I’ve seen bars drawn in DEEP SHIT because of the barback’s lacks. Remember: a team is as strong as its weakest link.
(optional but recommended) TAKE A MONTH OFF AND SUBSCRIBE TO A BARTENDING SCHOOL.
No, I’m not talking about a 3 hours course. I’m talking about a professional school, usually a month course for the basics, that can easily be around 1500€ or 2200$. I know, it’s a sacrifice, but will get you better chances to get into the industry if you have zero experience. I’d also recommend not to work while you’re studying, as passing the final exams can be tough (and the higher your score, the bigger the chances). It will teach you the classics, the bar basics, the free pouring, some flair, and masterclass of the main spirits and liqueurs, how to recognise the bottles and how to make two-three-five cocktails at the same time.
LEARN YOUR CLASSICS. And if possible, study your recipes in English. Study them in ounces or ml, depending on your country, and keep repeating them to someone, or in front of the mirror, at least once a week. With classics, I mean at least 70 recipes. And don’t pick them from some shitty website for bored housewifes… Try to understand the story behind the recipe, where it got published for the first time, and if possible stick to the original. You’ll see that many are from “Modern American drinks”, a book you can download in pdf for free online. No, I’m not giving you the link, show some fucking initiative! 😀
Also, the names are always the same… Recipes for mixed drinks (1917), Harry’s ABC of mixing cocktails (1919), Here’s how (1927), The Savoy cocktail book (1930)…
Obviously some classics have evolved so we don’t follow ALWAYS the original one. And for some of them, it’s also hard to put your hands on the original one, as the origins are not always written in stone. So take this as a generic rule, until you’ll get the necessary knowledge (with the experience, you’ll know what to do).
RESTAURANTS BEFORE COCKTAIL BARS. Before thinking that you already know everything and you’re ready for war, you’d better learn how to make a gin and tonic (if you skipped point 3). And how to make two drinks at the same time. Restaurants can be a valid option to start with because of a magic word called DISPENSE. Also known as DOCKET STATION. This is where new starters usually take the firsts steps, preparing the drinks for the floor without the hassle to have a guest staring at you. Be mindful, dispense can be crazy busy, depending on the restaurant. But you’ll learn not only cocktails, also wines, beers, and coffees, and mocktails. You can fuck up during your preparation as much as you want, at the only condition that your final product gets out of the bar in a decent amount of time and in good condition. If you still need to look at the cocktail specs because you don’t know the recipes, there’s usually a hidden spot where to do it (even to google something, usually in the dishwasher area). If you don’t know where a beer is, you can open every single fridge without a guest getting impatient. If you don’t know how to gather a payment, it’s okay at the beginning.
Don’t be scared to try something new. Even if it means flexibility. Hostessing for a night, or be food runner. There will be people that will try to push you out of the bar, especially at the beginning, when they’ll think you’re still not ready. BE FLEXIBLE BUT FIRM IN YOUR INTENTIONS. If your goal is the bar, be mindful that everything comes with time and sacrifice. Understand your venue’s needs and be a team player. If your host fell sick, someone has to take the ball. If the floor is short of staff, food still has to make it to the table. But at the same time, if it’s always YOU who get picked for those jobs and you end up being in the bar only during the weekends, while the rest of your time you get assigned to other tasks, don’t be scared to remember them that you can’t get any better or any faster without practice. If things don’t move and you feel like you’re not appreciated, and therefore not given the opportunity of growing in the company, while everyone else is, just quit.
Okay, now that you had your dispense training, and your restaurant training, and your extra experiences in making coffees, hosts and floor, you should give it a go and try to get faster and better. We assume that at this stage you know how to balance sweet and sour, you know all your classics, you know how to open-close a bar, and you know how the Cherry Heering bottle looks like. Move out of the dispense and interact with the guests sit on the bar stools. MASTER THE ART OF THE SMALL TALK, if the place is quite. Learn how to GET FAST, TIDY AND PRECISE, if busy.
COCKTAIL BAR: the WAR BEGINS. If you are tired of restaurants and to have to know your vegan and gluten free options to get your tips (even when the bar food is on a different menu, but OKAY), be ready for war.
First of all, pick the right bar. You don’t want to start with a selection of 400 whisky, 200 gins, and a complicated selection of made in house syrups, tonics, bitters, etc.
I mean, obviously if you got the job congratulations!
But in this article we’ll try to go for the smooth way, step by step, so go for a fast paced environment with plenty of classics. Yes, I know you should know your classics already. But how many people have asked you for a Mai Tai, a Zombie, a Fog Cutter, a Brandy Crusta, a Toblerone, a Japanese Slipper, so far?
I’m pretty sure you’re good with Aperitifs, Espresso Martinis, Digestifs, but there are many options that are not very popular in restaurants, like after dinner cocktails. Often the typical guest of a restaurant is also not as knowledgeable about cocktails and doesn’t know what to order other than what’s in your list. So go for a cocktail bar with possibly not more than 15 wines by the glass, 3-4 beers on tap and 15 beers by the bottle, a hundred bottles of spirits and liqueurs and 10 purees and 10 juices.
SPIRIT KNOWLEDGE. You did well and I’m proud of you. Now you sling drinks like a pro, have the small talk of a comedian, you know who you are. Still, when someone names you “dry wine”, “Oaxaca”, “Akvavit”, “triple distilled”, “shrub”, “sherry cask”, “malted barley”, “Rhum Agricole”, “Pot still”, your eyes are still open wide as the mentioned above deer-against-truck. And your mind starts spinning in “Ozzy man review” style, swearing at your guest the worst things you can possibly imagine.
Do you remember that masterclass book you had to study in point 3 for your exams? Well, for your knowledge, the exam is STILL ON. And always will be.
If you still feel like a life change, go work for a distillery. That would be your greatest chance. Do you live in Italy and your only whisky distillery is in the middle of the Alps, and you moved to Rome to learn how to bartend…? Well, books will be your salvation.
STUDY. Start with Vodka, Gin, Rhum, Tequila. Then go Whisky, Beer, Wine, Cognac, Liqueurs. Then go unusual, go rare. Go Akvavit, go Mezcal, go Mirto di Sardegna, go Falernum.
MIXOLOGY. Don’t study only for spirits. Go for crazy herbs and plants, unusual fruits and flowers. Experiment. There are amazing books in Amazon. Your goal is your guest’s aw, what they would describe as “WEIRD&TASTY&GOOD”. Make shrubs and syrups, bitters and liqueurs, take inspiration (also from other fields, like your grandma’s cuisine, molecular science, chemistry, groups on facebook, trips, etc) but don’t steal recipes. You can create something yours.
I just want to leave you with one simple conclusion: don’t ever think you already reached your goal. No no no. Your goal is always one step forward.
The moment you think you know everything, you lose.
There will always be room to new flavours, new combinations, not everything is been invented yet.
The more I move forward in this field, the more I know, the more I realise how much I don’t know.
So good luck and… Never lose your enthusiasm 😀