Behind the Bar

What to Look For in a Bartending School

Classroom full of bartenders
While there's plenty to learn outside of a classroom, a bartending education program can give you an edge when it comes to job interviews and explaining spirits to guests. Photo via Beverage Alcohol Resource/Daniel Silbert.

For many bartenders or aspiring bartenders, the question of whether to get a bartending certification comes up frequently. But with it comes an avalanche of follow-up questions: How do I choose a program? How much should I pay? Will it actually help me get hired? Is it worth it?

There are a lot of programs out there, and some are better than others — so doing your research before enrolling is a must.

There are three main things a good bartending program will teach you, says Shawn Kelley, senior manager of brand education at Pernod Ricard. Pernod runs BarSmarts, one of the most popular bartending certification programs out there.

“The important things are understanding spirits, which is the backbone; mixology itself; and learning about hospitality,” Kelley says. “Customers are getting information everywhere now about spirits and cocktails, so they’re a lot smarter and more knowledgeable. Bartenders need to know about the background of what they’re doing, because their customers certainly do.”

Man listening to a lecture in a bartending classFinding a program that works with actual spirits is critical. Many smaller programs use colored liquids to teach mixology and proportions, preventing students from learning about spirits' flavors. Photo via Beverage Alcohol Resource/Daniel Silbert.

She emphasizes that finding a program that works with actual spirits is critical. Many smaller programs use colored liquids to teach mixology and proportions — a red flag in Kelley’s book.

“You learn how to bartend, but you don’t learn about taste or flavor or the different categories of spirits,” she says.

Paul Pacult is one of the founders of the BAR 5-Day training program, an intensive course often compared to getting a master’s degree in only five days. When researching programs, Pacult recommends selecting a program that has a track record of at least seven years; employs respected instructors in the industry; covers the entire spectrum of mixology, including cocktail history, tools, drink-making, and management; teaches the principles of service; educates about the impact of fermentation, distillation, and maturation; and demonstrates how to taste beverages like professionals.

A bartender flames a lemon peel while an instructor watchesWhen searching for a worthwhile educational program, make sure instructors are recognized in the industry. BAR 5-Day participants learn from the likes of Dale DeGroff (pictured above) and Dave Wondrich. Photo via Beverage Alcohol Resource/Daniel Silbert.

“If a program does not cover all of the topics mentioned above, if a program’s instructors are not recognized by the beverage industry as authoritative or fully qualified, if the program refuses to make clear who has previously taken the class, then it might be best to look elsewhere,” Pacult says.

BAR 5-Day is widely considered the industry standard for bartending certification, but it runs its pupils a steep $3,950 for the course, which is only offered once a year. It’s not surprising, then, that an infrequent and expensive course will lead some bartenders to seek out other options.

But bartenders beware.

“Avoid the cheapest and the shortest programs,” says Ricky Richard, co-owner and director of the Crescent City School of Gaming and Bartending. “Over the 30+ years that we have been in operation, I’ve seen many schools come and go. It’s the schools who try to do things on a shoestring that produce dissatisfied customers.”

Woman studying and taking notes in a bartending classIn general, one can expect to spend between $600 and a few thousand dollars on a good program. Unaccredited programs that operate on a shoestring budget may not be worth your time. Photo via Beverage Alcohol Resource/Daniel Silbert.

Richard adds that one can expect to spend between 600 and a few thousand dollars on a good program, but that lack of funds and lack of awareness of better options do often drive people to subpar and unaccredited programs, which simply aren’t worth it.

But spending a little bit of time and money on the high-quality programs like BarSmarts, BAR 5-Day, Crescent City, or other nationally accredited programs, is worth it, according to the people doing the hiring.

“Bartenders who put those programs on their resume get interviewed first, and it sets them apart from other people,” Kelley says. A lot of people “don’t hire anyone unless they’ve been to BarSmarts," he says. "It’s benchmark entry-level for a lot of people in the industry.”

Bartender pours blazing liquid from one steel mug to another as others look onThe BAR 5-Day is widely considered the industry standard for bartending certification, running at $3,950 for the course. Photo via Beverage Alcohol Resource/Daniel Silbert.

Shannon Healy, the proprietor of Alley Twenty Six, an upscale cocktail bar in Durham, NC, also sees the value in certification programs and recently signed up for BarSmarts Mandate, which offers a training foundation after a bartender has been hired.

“We have always heavily emphasized continuing education,” he says. “The more informed and energized the staff is, the better the experience we can offer the guest.”

Cris Dehlavi, a bartender and manager at M Restaurant in Columbus, Ohio, attended a BarSmarts event and completed the BAR 5-Day certification two years ago. She says she’s never thought twice about her decision, despite BAR 5-Day’s exacting workload.

“I studied every day for six months, and even then, the five days and the large test were challenging,” Dehlavi says. “But I am now a much better bartender, because I have extensive knowledge about the history of spirits and cocktails, extensive tasting [experience] of over 150 spirits, and can talk about every spirit behind my bar now."

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