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Sean Kenyon of Williams & Graham on Who Teaches Your Bartenders Their Craft

On the House is Eater's column that goes behind the scenes of the restaurant business, written by the owners, operators, chefs and others who make our favorite establishments tick. Today, Sean Kenyon of Williams & Graham and the Squeaky Bean talks about who is and who should be training the new generation of bartenders.

SeanHouseFinal.pngI was looking over the business cards that I had collected at a recent industry event and noticed that one of them included the title "Master Mixologist." I've seen it many times and I am used to bartenders giving themselves glorifying titles, some bordering on silly — Libation Liaison, Cocktail Artist, Cocktail Mechanic, Cheftender come to mind — but, in this case, it wasn't the "Mixologist" part that bothered me, it was the word "Master." This particular person had only been a bartender for two years. Now, (s)he is heading a program and training bartenders with the self-proclaimed title of "Master." Unbelievable.

I don't care if a bartender has an encyclopedic knowledge of classic cocktails, flavor pairings, and perfect technique. In my opinion it is impossible to be a master of anything in two years time. To quote Albert Einstein, "Information is not knowledge, the only source of knowledge is experience."

When I started in the bar / restaurant business 32 years ago at age 12, my first job was dishwasher. Soon I moved to prep, then to line cook. Eventually, I moved to front of house as a busser. Four years after I first started as a "Dish-Dog" — what they called us back then — by a stroke of luck, the barback didn't show up and I was pressed to duty behind the bar.

I spent my first 2 years as a barback, bartending's version of apprenticeship. As a barback I learned the foundation; everything there was to know about how the bar ran, where everything was, how to fix the broken things or at least patch it up to get through service. I learned what each bartender needed and and when. How they preferred their wells to be set up. I learned timing, speed, efficiency, a strong work ethic, and how to drink behind a bar and keep it professional. At 18 years old, I was promoted to bartender when one of the guys moved away. I was so excited to finally be able to make drinks. I had been memorizing the drinks of the day, Alabama Slammers, Sex on the Beach, Hairy Navels, any awful 80's drink you can think of, I had it down. What I didn't know was that drinks were only a small part of the equation.

The real art is hospitality. That took some time to learn, and I had great teachers. Eye contact, acknowledgement, smiles, names? it took some time to get it all right and at a good speed. The trick was to stay hospitable while not looking hurried. Over the next 26 years, my drink knowledge increased and I sharpened my skills through repetition. Hospitality was the easy part, because being a gregarious person I've loved our guests and enjoyed the conversations. Many of my guests over the years have become good friends.

Here I am now, after all of that experience and I'm still learning. I've taken Sommelier, Cicerone and spirits certification courses. I attend seminars and continue my education and I expect that I always will. What I can do is share my experience with my staff and the bartenders that I work with. I learn from them as well. Even though my life and career have been dedicated to serving people, I would never call myself a master. I'm still a student; I'm just a student with a lot of stories and experiences.

Enough of my life story, I'll get to the point. It is rare these days that bartenders start as an apprentice / barback. With the demand for quality bartenders outweighing the supply, employers have been taking more chances on unproven talent behind the bar. This in itself is not a problem, everyone needs their first chance. In many instances, cocktail enthusiasts are hired as bartenders based on the information that they have stored in their brains rather than the knowledge that they have gained through experience. They are skipping step one (barbacking) where they learn all of the basics.

The problem lies in the fact that these new bartenders are teaching other bartenders and so on. Because they have never firmly built a foundation, many times incorrect information is passed on, hospitality is glossed over, cocktail knowledge is stressed, drink creation is encouraged. Winning competitions and getting press become a priority. New bartenders are taught to serve drinks, not people. It's like a sophomore teaching assistant lecturing at a graduate course?they have an idea about the subject, but not a comprehensive knowledge.

The principles of our craft get diluted along the way and this scares me for our future. Many have worked very hard to bring the craft of bartending out of the dark years, the years of convenience in the 70's and 80's. I want to see this trend continue rather than wane because of a plethora of poorly trained bartenders.

Our craft has surged in popularity over the past ten years, and the need for career bartenders who care about the craft has surged. In top restaurants cocktail programs have become as important as wine programs. The bar is no longer just a place for guests to wait for their tables; it has become the place where the culinary experience and hospitality begins. We need great bartenders. The onus is on us as experienced bartenders, bar owners and managers to recognize talent and bring it up the right way. Start with a strong foundation and then build the structure.

There are educational and certification programs out there for bartenders:
*The USBG Master Accreditation Program: The United States Bartenders Guild program has three levels, USBG Spirits Professional, USBG Bartender, and USBG Master Mixologist (which includes a thesis, as it should)
*BarSmarts, an online or live full day course on spirits & mixology sponsored by Pernod Ricard and taught by six of the top minds in our business, the BAR Partners.
*DrinkSkool, an online educational program also put together by the BAR Partners.
*Beverage Alcohol Resource - BAR 5-Day Program: Put together by industry greats Paul Pacult, Dale DeGroff, Andy Seymour, Steve Olson, Doug Frost and David Wondrich, the BAR 5-day is the pinnacle of spirits education. It is 55 hours of learning and blind tasting. Bartenders will taste over 160 spirits over 4 days and on the 5th day there are exams; written, blind tasting and practical bartending.

The Squeaky Bean

1500 Wynkoop Street, Denver, CO 80209 (303) 623-2665 Visit Website