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Why the Best Bartending Classes Are Held Behind the Bar

by Rob Doherty

One of the most common questions asked of a bartender pertains to whether or not a person has to attend bartending school in order to break into the industry. Some people are under the misconception that it is a legal requirement, while others wrongly assume that putting in the effort to attend and graduate from such a course will help in landing a job and garnering industry prestige.

Both notions are wrong. The fact of the matter is that not a single state requires that a bartender attend bartending school. And as for landing a job and gaining the respect for your peers, a bartending diploma will in fact result in the opposite.

What are the benefits of bartending classes?

I will admit that there is a small portion of the industry that smiles upon an applicant with a bartending diploma—some hotels or casinos, and big chain restaurants like Red Robin or Applebee’s. And bartending classes will teach you the bare essentials of what it entails to be a bartender. You’ll learn what all the tools are called and spend hours playing with colored water. They’ll teach you how to muddle ingredients, a few of the buzzwords, and the recipes to a handful of cocktails.

When I’ve met people who are interested in bartending school, one of the main benefits they bring up is that the classes provide the opportunity to learn a variety of drinks. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Think about it practically: you end up attending maybe 20 or 40 hours of bartending classes spanning a two or three week period, over the course of which you are supposed to learn terminology, technique, and recipes. And then you’re supposed to retain those recipes? I bartended for nearly ten years working sometimes upwards of 60 hours in a week, and I still occasionally find myself struggling to remember what goes into a Mai-Tai, and I have made hundreds if not thousands of them.

So if not bartending classes, what then?

The best way to learn how to bartend is simple—by watching and doing.

By no stretch of the mind does completing a bartending class guarantee landing a job. In fact, when the staff from a bar receives a resume that includes bartending school, it usually becomes the object of much sarcasm then ends up in the trash.

A much surer way of breaking into the bar scene and becoming an expert bartender comes through starting in a lower position then getting promoted from within. This is how almost every bartender starts out.

If you want to learn to be a truly skilled bartender, I suggest seeking a job as a bar-back, which is a sort of bartender’s assistant. As a bar-back it is your job to do everything and anything you can to make the bartender’s life easier—getting ice, replacing empty bottles and kegs, re-stocking straw and napkins, making simple syrup, cutting garnish, running food, cleaning glasses, and so on ad infinitum—and through a sort of osmosis you will learn almost everything there is to know.

Learning under fire

First, bar-backing turns you into perpetual motion machine because there is never any end to the tasks that need to be fulfilled, and as a bartender you should always be moving—pouring drinks, taking money, shaking cocktails, and so forth. Second, as a bar-back you will learn where everything is in a bar and how everything works—dishwasher, keg pressure system, sound equipment, etc.—and a good bartender could find his or her way through a bar in pitch black while simultaneously rewiring the stereo. Third, you will learn the pace of the whole maddening process, and how to deal with the inevitable stress that accompanies it. I have worked with many bartenders who leaped into their first bar jobs without having experienced the frantic speed at which everything occurs, and they rarely lasted because they never had a chance to get a grasp on how dizzying the work can be. It is exceedingly difficult to learn a new skill set under these circumstances.

So bar-backing gives you a chance to get a feel for the temperature, and if it turns out that you can stand the heat and are interested in turning it up a bit, the bartenders you work with will be more than happy to fill in the gaps in your knowledge. Bartenders love showing off how much they know.

They’ll teach you drink recipes, and—unlike at a bartending school—you’ll see the same cocktails made again and again over a long period of time until there is no forgetting them. You’ll learn different shaking and muddling techniques under the pressure of real world circumstances, and it is in these moments when you’ll learn all of the small time and effort saving tricks that will never come up in the lazy pace of a classroom.

Eventually when a bartending slot opens, the manager will recognize the level of effort you’ve put into learning the position, and so will the bartenders who have been showing you the ropes (and they’re the ones who really call all the shots anyway). The trust they’ve gained in you and the experience you’ve gleaned from them will always stand up against a faceless resume with a bartending diploma attached.

Once you’re really doing it

So finally you find yourself bartending. Most likely you’ll start out receiving some of the slower weekday and afternoon shifts, which bring in less tips but provide you with a chance to get your feet on the ground. This is when you can start practicing the more integral bartending duties, i.e., chatting up the cliental while making drinks.

It’s actually more difficult than it sounds. Suddenly you’re not just running around collecting empty glasses. Now you have to take orders, make drinks, handle money, and all the while act as the face of the bar. You have to be able to be conversational, witty, and attentive while simultaneously handling fifty small tasks at once. They don’t teach you how to do that in bartending class.

Real bartenders do whatever they have to in order to get behind the bar and get their hands dirty. The true skills and the good jobs are obtained by those who are willing to put in the real time and effort it takes to acquire them. Anyone can jump behind a bar and play bartender, but only those who have learned from behind a bar will ever become truly great at what they do. And we’ve all known a few truly great bartenders.

The bottom line is that bartending school is a shortcut, and worse yet, it’s a shortcut that doesn’t work. As I mentioned earlier, I have worked in nearly two dozen varying bars over the course of a decade long career as a booze jockey. Over the course of that time I have never once worked with or hired anyone who had taken bartending classes.

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