In a regular Eater feature, we invite one of the greats of the industry to share their knowledge. This week, Shawn Soole, mixologist, author and sommelier writes about becoming a great bartender.
Becoming a great bartender takes years if not decades to achieve, there isn't some YouTube video or iPhone app that can speed the process up. Each step is vital to becoming a well-rounded, experienced bartender that can mix cocktails, talk sports and be quick and concise at their job. Here is a list that will help in your development and each step should take at least one to two years to accomplish. Follow these steps and any challenge set in front of you will be a breeze.
Being a barback is a thankless, hard and somewhat disturbingly disgusting job. You are charged with everything from juicing fruit, stocking fridges and polishing glassware to cleaning the washrooms when someone over-indulges. It is arduous labour but it builds character (like my old man said) and shows you the true basics of bartending; being neat, clean and prepped. There will be nights that you feel unappreciated, exhausted and tired but when you get to the stage at the end of this list, you will look back and be thankful that you put in the hard yards.
2. Work in a Nightclub
Now you won't be rushing to make an Old Fashion or Sidecar and the conversation with the guests is minimal, but the nightclub bar is the place to learn mis en place, speed and accuracy. In this fast-paced environment, you don't have the option of putting your bottles back wherever and jiggering every drink; you must learn how to free pour, know exactly where every bottle in your bar is without looking and be able to do this repeatedly over a shift every 30 seconds. Speed, mis en place and accuracy is something that is essential to being a bartender. In short, more tasty drinks, more tips and so on.
3. Work in a variety of establishments
No one facet of this industry is the be all and end all. Working in a variety of places teaches you all the skills that you need to learn. At neighbourhood taverns you learn how to chat to everyone about everything from sports and their recent separation from their wife, while pouring four pints at the same time and talking down the fight that is about to erupt between drinking buddies. Fine dining teaches you the intricacies of cutlery positioning, serving plates properly and the psychology of sub-conscious chaos. Each style of venue will teach you something new and different that you can utilise throughout your career. These little bytes of information should be learned early in your career when you have the option to bounce around from job to job and soak in as much as possible before moving to the next.
4. Learn, read and then learn some more
You are never going to know everything about everything. Read some of the books from 10 years ago and then the latest books from the same authors, which contradict their previous works. The world, and in turn the industry, evolves at such a huge speed that new things are being created, reinvented and re-analysed daily. Enrol in BarSmarts, do your Certified Spirits Specialist, Sommelier and Cicerone training, this is what it means to being a great bartender. Always learning, always growing - not only as a bartender but as a person - is crucial in being that great bartender.
5. Be competitive yet humble
This is the final step, always be upping your game. Never rest on your laurels. Always be better than you were last week or yesterday. Figure out the areas you lack in and focus on becoming better at them, while always remember that that 19 year old barback that you just hired may need guidance and mentoring to be like you one day.
6. Be a Manager
The final true step in becoming a great bartender is to manage even for a short while. Learning labour costs, costing of goods and the general costs of running a business makes you more insightful behind the bar. The big picture is sometimes a lot to take in but can be used to make you a more integral part of the team.
These are just my opinionated points on how to become a great bartender, I believe if you do these steps over let's say a decade, that you can in fact become a world-class bartender. Time, knowledge and experience can't be watched on YouTube or read on a blog (although this is featured on one), it must be learnt with all the triumphs and mistakes thrown in. But greatness comes to those who work for it.