I Went to Bartending School. And It Was an Absolute, Total Waste of Money.

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(illustration: Elizabeth Reyes)

“What job can a young woman do at night to make decent money and still keep her clothes on?” This was the question I asked myself one afternoon three years ago after slogging through a shift at my dead-end retail job.

I was tired of folding and fussing, tired of pretzeling my schedule to accommodate the next big sale. Plus, I was getting nowhere closer to completing my degree. I needed to trade in my 10 to 6 for a gig that freed up my days to take classes. I know: I’ll be a bartender! I thought. The bartenders I had met seemed skillful, cool and charismatic and certainly made more money than I did hocking overpriced Italian knit skirts in the tourist quarter.

The next morning, I enrolled in a two-week crash course in the art of drink slinging from a well-Yelped bartending school boasting dozens of locations, from Seattle to South Beach. Four nights a week, I huffed it to a suburban office park where I learned to mix the hits of the ’80s and ’90s—the Grasshopper, Godfather, Sex on the Beach. I perfected the art of the four-count free-pour.

It was fun, it was exciting, it was interesting, but I can tell you now, after having worked the last three years as a bartender: It was an utter waste of time and money.

Of course, I didn’t think that back then. Our class culminated with a taste of “real work experience” in which we took over a local bar on a slow night and invited our family and friends to come support our education by ordering cocktails, made by our unsteady student hands.

We were then given a certificate of completion and told to go forth and share our spark and knowledge with the drinking world.

The following week, I beat the streets with confidence in search of my next job. I visited every bar, restaurant and hotel I could think of with my resumé in hand. More often than not, I was greeted by dead-eyed stares. The hostess at one fancy French bistro laughed in my face: “Bartender? Oh, honey, that’s cute!”

Certainly in a cocktail-rich town like San Francisco, there would be plenty of places looking to hire a certified bartender, right? Wrong.

“Twenty years ago, a certificate from a bartending school had a fair bit of merit,” says John Gersten, an industry veteran and bartender at San Francisco’s ABV. “It meant that you’d memorized some recipes and probably knew the difference between ‘well’ and ‘top shelf.’ But unfortunately, they’ve become a bit arcane. I’ve seen such huge change in the way people learn now. There’s no substitute for raw experience.”

I continued my quest for months before I realized I needed to adopt a different approach. So I started applying to be a barback—you know, those voiceless, faceless worker bees who hover in the shadows of your favorite bar fetching ice and glasses.

Before long, I got a phone call from an HR representative of an upscale restaurant inviting me to an interview. Ten days later, I was dressed head-to-toe in black wearing new nonslip shoes and ready to kick off my bar career.

Next came all the hard lessons they don’t teach in bartending school, like how to deal with foil cuts and lime rot, and the fastest way to break down the ice well once a piece of broken glass has creeped into it.

After long shifts of constant lugging (ice, glasses, cases of beer, dirty dishes), I’d pass out at home, my body numb from exhaustion, and wake up with sore muscles the next day.

There was also the hierarchy to deal with. Some bartenders—not all—treated me like an indentured servant or, worse, their personal assistant. Though the moment they walked away from the bar, leaving me alone with guests, I often broke into a mild panic. What is Armagnac? Make a what? A Remember the Maine? Can I recommend a good highland tequila? Help!

For the most part, I tried to stay out of the way and do my job. But more than anything, I absorbed what was going on around me. I watched the drink orders come in and noted the careful steps that went into their composition: the showmanship, yes, but also the obsessive attention to detail and measurement.

And when there was a lull, I asked questions—lots of questions: What is Armagnac, Remember the Maine, highland tequila? I didn’t know it at the time, but I was getting “real working experience,” and I was getting it at my own pace.

“I look for personality,” says Shirley Brooks, an industry pioneer and the bar manager at San Francisco’s Madrone Art Bar. “You can tell when someone comes in and has no experience working with people. I can teach you to make a Martini or a Negroni, but it’s how you handle messing up a drink that shows you who you are. It’s important to have a good attitude.”

Confidence has it’s limits too. “A lot of people who go to bartending school think they know everything,” says Brooks. “Somebody who got to bartend somewhere for six months without being a barback can be very cocky. They often come in to interview acting like they know everything, but many times they don’t.”

Another telltale sign that someone has properly come up through the ranks? “They clean up after themselves,” says Brooks. “I know people who’ve always had a barback and they are the messiest. Great bartenders, but they are so messy that they make it miserable for everyone else!” says Brooks.

I’ll never forget the day I was handed my official bartender uniform. It wasn’t glamorous—gray button-up shirt, black vest—but for me, it felt like a badge of honor, a diploma.

I wore it proudly as I made the long walk from the back of the house to my place behind the bar. A middle-aged man in a suit, one of our regulars, sat down, pulled out a laptop and began typing furiously. He noticed my approach and, without looking up, ordered a Mezcal Margarita, extra spicy, on the rocks with a smoke-salted rim. But he didn’t say that. Instead he said, “I’ll have my usual.” And I knew exactly what he meant.

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  • tim.robert@yahoo.com posted 3 weeks ago

    Interesting to hear how the value of the school has changed. Was over 20 years ago when I did it in New Orleans, and mainly because I wanted a shot to be behind the bar instead of relegated to wait staff. As with any job, including my current engineering one, experience is indeed the best teacher, but the certification will often get you the opportunity you need to showcase the initiative and attitude required to earn better jobs. Asking questions and showing that you care about quality and the history of the craft go a long way toward making that happen! And agree - glass in the ice well on a busy shift is the worst, along with glass/knife lacerations!

  • Cgottschall posted 3 weeks ago

    Great Article! Thank you so much for sharing. I've been bartending for about 8 years now and some of the worst bartenders I've ever worked with were those who attended bartending school but had no experience. I love your example of having to clean the ice well when a piece of broken glass gets in there. Knowing how to make a sex on the beach is great and all.... but it's not the 90's... and thats rather invaluable if you can't organize a chit with 7 different high balls on it, prep a bar properly, and know what to do when the glass washer stops working.

  • Bestbartender54 posted 3 weeks ago

    I somewhat disagree with this article. I have been a bartender for 45 years and taught many bartenders on the job through my catering service, as an Instructor of Mixology at Johnson and Wales University and my own school. Students that I have taught are very knowledgeable particularly of the basics. You have to walk before you run. I have taught bartenders who went on to become managers in a very short time. It would have to be a year long school if you want to teach every liquor, liqueur, wine and beer on the market today. Starting out as a barback is one way to get into bartending but if that bartenders has some bad habits then those same bad habits will be passed on. I agree that most schools of bartending are ripoffs. They just want your money and turn you lose. One of the most important parts to get a job is experience. Schools should go the extra mile in doing so. Walking out with a diploma in your hand is not going to make it. When I go in a bar, I can tell if a bartender has been trained or not. But one thing I do agree with in this article is the batender must have an outgoing personality. We are in the people business and how you inter react to your customers is directly proportional to your tips. Just my 2 cents worth.

  • theathomebartender posted 4 weeks ago

    Bartending school here in Austin was invaluable to me as I went from zero experience to running a bar alone without a barback in a few days. I was able to apply each new thing I learned each day. It was a great way to learn a large amount of information specifically targeted to the industry and that a Cosmo is not served on the rocks. There were students in my class that were not active bartenders, and can see where it might not have benefited them as much. The school I attended, focused on learning and making cocktails quickly and very accurately down to the garnish. This in both written exams and in practice. Now, three years later, I manage the bar and have several cocktails I have created on the menu with more in the lab. It would not have happened without bartending school.

  • corkyjon posted 4 weeks ago

    I quit in the middle of my two weekend SF Bay Area bartending class over philosophical differences. First, I was instructed that Cuervo Gold was an upsell! I was told to free pour, not to measure. Then they told me that tonic water is sweet and club soda is tart. Most of the drinks taught were those ordered by college students and were related to sex.

    Bartending schools need to reflect drinkers' sophistication and gravitate to mixology.

  • RenoPete posted 4 weeks ago

    GREAT article. I joined this site just to comment on it. Nice twist at the end, too. You may bar tend well, but you write well, too. (I learned bar tending in an old fashioned bar in KC while attending art school. Old sports figures came in there and reporters, some cons--mostly beer, shots, bourbon & water, one night a couple came in, I'll say offhand connected, lady ordered a sidecar. I went to the bar book, fixed one right up complete with rimming it in sugar.) Experience was my teacher. Again, loved your article.

  • bsfdx30 posted 4 weeks ago

    School offers a basis, but as in any profession it set you up for a'top shelf' position. Working as a bar back,as noted in the story, is your best way of actually learning the business. Have to get your hands dirty, watch and listen to know the business. It's not just making drinks, it's knowing that you must provide a product and a service in an excellent manner, that each customer expects.

  • richardcustisyahoocom388222120 posted 4 weeks ago

    Many years ago, going to school for it was required in many jurisdictions before you could take your ABC exam... Not so much anymore, I guess, because education in general is less important to many people compared to a generation or two ago. Which explains why we have fallen from a Top 5 country - quality of life-wise - to 14th and plummeting on that list over the same period.

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