Bartending School

“He’s beyond bartending, beyond being a poor journeyman bartender, and has obviously morphed into a misinformed, opinionated, elitist snob.” At first, I thought I had a misdirected email for Jamie Boudreau. Then I realized it was for me. That is the opinion of one David Rattner, president of National Bartender’s School, regarding me. There were a few more shots fired across my bow in his email, which is included below for your viewing pleasure. Now to address some of the accusations: Misinformed? Rarely. Elitist? Not! Snob? Only when in the company of vagrants and hobo’s. Opinionated, well you got me there, and guess what, here it comes.

It all started with a question posted on my bartender’s resumes article. The question is as follows:

Hey Darcy,

Just wondering whether or not it’s a good idea to invest in bartending school. It seems that from what I’ve read (articles, comments, etc), bartender’s hate people who went to bartending school. Would it be a better idea to not do it? Or do it and not put it on the resume? Awesome resume by the way.

I do try to answer as many questions as possible, so I gave my reply:

I don’t find bartending schools teach you anything valuable. They actually give you the impression bartending is easy, then you get a job and find out it’s not. The trend right now (and hopefully for a long time) is on quality drinks. Bar schools don’t teach quality, they just teach speed. Unfortunately, speed is something that requires experience.

My advice, don’t waste the money. Instead take the money you would have spent and go buy a couple of these Bartending Books, and read them from cover to cover. Cheers!

I thought that was a reasonable answer. Standard “bar schools” are still teaching the number of drinks per minutes, etc. etc. The problem is it doesn’t translate very well to the real world. Servers just walk past you and fire off 8 drinks they need, with specifics (i.e. holds, extras, straight, rocks, etc.). Or the printer spazzes out at 5 PM on a Friday and spits out 40 chits, in two minutes.

Anyway, whenever someone comments on posts here, if they have selected the “Subscribe to Comments” checkbox, they will get all the additional comments on that post. Here’s where the trouble starts. Vanessa, an employee of National Bartender’s School (NBS), had posted a comment about my resume. When she received my comment about bar schools, she was none-to-happy.

Dear Darcy:

Regarding bartending schools, I feel that this is an unfair statement. We teach you so much more than just speed. We teach you the fundamentals and give you the on hands experience that is needed to acquire general knowledge about the profession itself. Yes we cannot teach you everything under the sun and speed is something that is definitely learned as you progress, however prior to making such an unfair assessment of bartending schools as a whole, maybe you should do your research and really examine all and any facet of bartending schools as a whole. Maybe you should actually attend a class or two first and witnes [sic] for yourself, as to whether or not we teach quality.

Everyone needs a start and thats [sic] exactly what we do. I never once give my students the impression that bartending is easy and I make them fully aware as to what it truly entails. I beg to differ with you that we do not teach quality, we try our very best to instill [sic] in every student that quality is everything. They need to take pride in their work and the learning does not stop when they leave our door. They need to continue their education. I never paint a glorious picture for them. I am from New York and we have a very solid program that is licensed by New York State and allows many students to go out and truly have prosperous careers. We have been in business for over 20 years. I have had managers from the St. Regis Hotel take my program, a professor from Syracuse University, college students from Cornell, and Harvard. I have past students who have come back to thank me for gaining such insight, not just about bartending but customer service and the industry itself. I have ongoing relationships with my students because of our curriculum. Maybe you should speak with some of them before posting an absurd generalized statement about “all” bartending schools.

I am truly saddened that a professional like yourself would make such a bold statement about career schools without truly doing their research. I commented on your resume sometime last year and shared with you how I felt about the content. Not quite sure why you felt the need to share this post with me, however I will now stop using your site/resume as a point of reference when we teach our students about the professionalism of the career. Especially now that I see where you stand on career schools.

Please feel free to respond, being that you felt the need to share this with me in the first place.

Regards, Vanessa

Of course, she CC’d the boss (Dave) and he chimed in with his delightful opinion:

Thanks so much for your excellent (and most valid) response, Vanessa.

I expect that your strong reaction to Darcey’s [sic] thoughtless statements are not solely due to the gross invalidity of his comments. Your response is most likely driven by the great pride which you take in your work, as well as the great results which you consistently achieve.

Darcey [sic] surely sounds just like one those many snooty “mixologists” we have seen and heard quite a lot about lately during this most recent cocktail “renaissance”. He’s beyond bartending, beyond being a poor journeyman bartender, and has obviously morphed into a misinformed, opinionated, elitist snob. Good for him!

Besides the points you have made, and as you know, there are many other benefits to be garnered by those who have attended and graduated from a good bartending school (job placement support being just one). So, please do not be further upset or aggravated by this. Relax, and have yourself a wonderful cocktail while putting his resume to the shredder.

Where to start. I guess Dave is under a little pressure, with all us “snooty mixologists” setting standards and horning in on his New York bartender factory. The problem I have with the schools is they think 40 hours is plenty of time to become a bartender. The reality, McDonald’s spends more time training their burger flippers than that. So basically, the bar schools are putting out McDonald’s quality bartenders.

I have no problem with McDonald’s–very tasty fries. But I don’t want to eat them every day, more like once or twice a month. If every bartender behind the stick gets only 40 hours of training, I’d only ever get to drink the simplest “cocktails”. I don’t want that, I want choice. The restaurant industry has chef’s, some who go to school for years, but never stop learning, and we have the full spectrum of food to choose from because of this. The same cannot be said of bars, and bar schools are part of the problem.

Quality at a bar school means mixing the same old, boring, shortcut, cocktails over and over and over. Most of the bartending school recipes went out of style two decades ago. If you really want to learn about drinks, the proper way, check out Bar Smarts. It’s a magnitude better than a “bad school”.

At these schools, creativity is not part of the curriculum. Hell, tasting a decent cocktail isn’t even part of the course. Do these students ever actually taste a real drink? It should be mandatory that they go on a field trip to PDT, Taylor, Pegu Club, etc. and taste a real cocktail, made by a professional bartender. Then go back and taste what the school teaches you, and watch the light bulbs go on.

The other problem with bartending schools is their heavy promotion of income and “social life” if you become a bartender. I looked on the NBS site and voila, there it was. In a short and simple five-paragraph letter, here’s excerpts of what I found:

“very lucrative and exciting career”
“When you have completed our program, you will be qualified to work as a bartender in the best establishments.”
“we have each personally experienced the good life that comes with bartending”
“So, whether your reason for joining is social, financial, or a combination thereof”
“Here’s to an overflowing tip-cup! “

That’s a lot of promises, the letter reads like an infomercial. The question is: Can their product deliver? The answer is: Only for the bottom rung jobs behind the bar. And the social life of those positions are…drunks, weirdoes and off-duty hookers. Sorry, those are the facts.

The reality is that if you want to succeed at bartending, it takes effort, perseverance, thick skin, intelligence and stamina. Not a single one of these things can be taught. You can lead a fun life as a bartender, but 40 hours of training isn’t going to get you there.

Bartending should be more like a “trade” with two years as an apprentice before gaining the title of bartender.

So to Dave and Vanessa, I’m sorry you find me, and many of my readers, so snooty. But, my opinion is that bar schools have nothing to do with genuine quality. This isn’t the first time I’ve written about the divide in the world of bartending. But it is only a matter of time before the “Tom Cruise” style of bartending fades away like acid washed jeans and bad hair. Once a person has had a good cocktail, it’s really hard to go back to drinking crap.

Now for a little confession (not really, I’ve mentioned it before). Many years ago I did take a bartending course. The most enlightening part for me was: “Why am I pouring water really fast and when do we get to taste a drink?” We never did try a drink.

How the hell is that going to help you? It’s like a chef never tasting food, sommeliers never tasting wine and engineers never using a bloody calculator! After that short experience, I took up some weekend bar shifts, and not because of “bar school”, I left that off my resume. I started tasting the bar school “cocktail recipes” and wondered why the hell did people drink these? That’s when I started researching cocktails, and Art of Drink is a direct response to the crap being taught and served at many bars.

Verdict: Bar Schools are cloning facilities. You will know nothing more than the thousands of people who attended before you, and they can’t teach you what it is really like to work behind a bar. Courses like Bar Smarts and self-motivated learning (books, blogs, etc.) are much better options to gain knowledge of drinks. Throw in some dedication, willingness to learn, a good mentor at a small local bar and you might get to live the “good life” of a bartender.

After having said all that, I feel compelled to highlight Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s opinion on bar schools and the video reel of the American Bartending School.

ps. the “snooty mixologists” are probably some of the nicest people you will ever meet.

Update: Rick at Martini Groove has some additional commentary.