Bringing Mixology to the Masses: Part I

Darcy O'Neil :: April 14, 2006 8:13 PM

What is it going to take to get bartending and mixology to become the culinary equivalent of chefs? It is hard to say because bartending requires a number of skills that chefs don’t necessarily require and visa versa. I doubt that the two will ever become equal, but there is significant room for improvement. Right now, there are only a very few bartending schools that teach anything mixology related, most just get you to memorize a very long list of shooters and bar shortcut cocktails, then they make you do a speed test. Also, there is the attitude of bar and restaurant owners. In the club atmosphere the goal is just to get people drunk and provide a party. In restaurants, the food is the focus and the bar is just there to serve the basics. Then there is the attitude of “experienced” bartenders who pass on the “knowledge” to the budding ‘tenders. Most bartenders believe that the job is just to get people drunk. So much work, so little time.

Each club or restaurant has an atmosphere that they want to create. High energy dance clubs require bartenders that can flair and be entertaining so they can be the catalyst for that environment. You aren’t going to order a classic Mai Tai from a place like this, and that is fine because I understand every place is different. My focus is on the casual fine dinning restaurants. In the city I live in (London, Ontario population about 350,000) I haven’t found a bartender that can make a proper Mai Tai or Old Fashion, nor do most of them know that bitters belong in a Manhattan. Don’t get me wrong, there are some great restaurants in the city, but there are very few bars that can make a decent drink. Most focus on wine, liqueurs and liquors like single malt scotches. Their cocktail knowledge is weak.

Why do they do this? Because it is easier to stock wine and seem sophisticated. They also don’t put much effort into creating a good bar environment. Usually the bar is too small to be truly functional, and the list of spirits is kept to the basics for inventory / cost reasons. The major factor though is they don’t hire knowledgeable bartenders. Usually, they’ll hire someone out of bartending school, because they feel they won’t be making many cocktails since the wine list will get most of the sales. Also, most of these restaurants have a short list of boring old cocktails that anyone can make, and there is little chance that the bartender will screw up. These drinks are nothing special, but they will meet the basic needs of the guest. On a side note, I always find it ironic that a good restaurant will go to great lengths to promote that they use the freshes ingredients in their food, but behind the bar everything is from concentrate and cheap syrups are employed.

There is such a great divide between the bar and the kitchen. Restaurants put almost all of their thought into the kitchen and menu, but the bar is usually an after thought. But maybe there is a valid reason for that. Maybe it’s the quality of the bartenders available that makes restaurants uneasy about investing money in a proper bar, when there is an ultra small talent pool to select from. In old books, restaurants had huge bars and bartenders that looked like professionals. Now I see small bars were you have a young kid mixing drinks or even worse, the servers are making their own drink, and yes this is in fine dining restaurants, but not where I work.

I know when I started bartending I had no idea what true mixology was, nor did I know that you could create an exquisite cocktail. I was taught to whip out drinks as fast as possible. It was all about speed and shooters. I worked with people who would get frustrated when a real cocktail was ordered. Even now, speed is the main focus of my coworkers, not necessarily quality. Maybe if we increased the talent pool of knowledgeable bartenders, then restaurants would invest the effort into creating a bar and environment conducive to culinary style cocktail creations.

There are a number of people who are making efforts to increase the talent pool. Dale Degroff has just recently launched Beverage Alcohol Resource (B.A.R.) Which is referred to as the Harvard of bartending schools. The curriculum is very comprehensive and deals with everything from the history of the cocktail, appreciation, spirit knowledge and tasting. If this venture takes off, it can only be a good thing. Another person working to increase the knowledge of bartenders is Gary Regan and his Cocktails in the Country seminars. These seminars are two day course that introduces bartenders the craft of the cocktail. Robert Hess (aka “Drinkboy”) has been an active proponent of great drinks and has tackled the Seattle area and is providing courses at local bar to introduce people to mixology and great cocktails.
There are many other people contributing to the growth of the cocktail, and I will over time highlight peoples contributions.

Next time I will look at training and education of bartenders and how it can be improved. This is one area that needs some work. After that I will look at the attitudes of bartenders, since these are the people who do most of the training for new bartenders. This is where a lot of bad habits get passed on.

Fix the Pumps
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