Behind the Bar The Business of the Bar

How Top Bars Use Classic Cocktails to Train Their Bartenders

And how your bar can, too.

Cocktail building blocks illustration
Image: / Laura Sant

Cocktail culture has undoubtedly evolved an enormous amount since the pioneering early aughts, which saw bars like Milk & Honey, Pegu Club, and Angel’s Share put craft cocktails on the map globally. In the ensuing years, bartenders have gone from strictly using fresh juices, simple syrups, and back-bar ingredients to exploring avant-garde techniques and creating their own in-house distillates, ferments, and other novel ingredients. 

These ultramodern techniques and ingredients represent a step forward, to be sure. But a problem faced by bartenders entering the industry now is that some of them are learning how to use a centrifuge before they truly understand cocktail fundamentals, including a solid knowledge of classic cocktails and how to properly make them.

“I always tell new bartenders, don't try to reinvent the wheel before you know how to make it,” says Haley Traub, the general manager at Attaboy. The bar, consistently ranked among the world’s best, is known for its bartender’s choice/no-menu approach, in which bartenders converse with guests to determine their preferences and decide what to make for them. “Every cocktail we create today descends from the classics,” she says. “At Attaboy, even if a new bartender is walking into the bar from another bar within the same family, there's still a level of getting back to the basics that needs to be revisited.”

Knowledge of the classics is essential for bartenders who want to successfully create original drinks. But even more importantly, having a standard for how to make classic cocktails is vital for a bar’s drink-making consistency. There’s nothing worse than revisiting a bar you initially loved because the bartender made you a perfectly balanced Daiquiri only to be disappointed on your return visit because a new bartender used different ratios and didn’t shake the drink to full dilution. For the world’s best bars, these details matter.

“I think the mark of a great bar is consistency amongst many other details,” says Leo Robitschek, the vice president of food and beverage at Sydell Group and the global bar director for the award-winning NoMad bars. “Consistency starts at the top with the culture you create and through detailed training programs.” At NoMad, every bartender, no matter their pedigree and experience, starts as a barback and works their way up. 

“Our bartenders go through two weeks of barback, kitchen server, and culture training before they start,” says Robitschek. “Usually, our team members bar back for about a year before they start their bartender training. This ensures that they have all the fundamentals before beginning their two weeks of bartender training.” The training ends with a service and round-building exam, which assesses both the bartender’s practical skills and knowledge and also the effectiveness of the bar’s training program.

At Death & Co. in New York City, bartender training periods are individually curated based on the bartender’s previous experience. “In New York, we are spoiled with talented individuals who have spent ample amounts of time honing their skills at other top classic cocktail bars,” says Javelle Taft, the head bartender. “We embrace their background, evaluate their baseline skill level, and adapt their experience to how we do things at Death & Co.”

Death & Co.’s training gets broken down into overall spirit knowledge, technique, and then speed and accuracy. “We find that there is always room for improvement in all areas,” Taft says. “However, during training, we might focus more time on one of the three sections based on our initial assessment.”

Every bar takes a different approach. But regardless of a bar’s location or status, having some type of training program is essential. Not only do bars benefit from a consistently high standard of classic cocktails made by skillfully trained bartenders, these programs also provide bar staff with the foundational knowledge and technique necessary for success at the world’s best bars.

These are some of the areas of focus and related exercises employed by some of the world’s top bars to train their bartenders—which you can use at your own bar, too.

1. Teach Classic Cocktail Families and Standardize Your Specs 

The first step is to establish your bar’s house specs for classic cocktails. For guidance in standardizing recipes, buy a few books and develop your own specs inspired by some of the best classic cocktail bars with tried-and-true formulas.

In Cocktail Codex, Death & Co.'s book for modern bartenders, the authors do an excellent job of distilling the classics and modern twists down to six root cocktails from which all others are created: the Old-Fashioned, Martini (or Manhattan), Daiquiri, Sidecar, Whiskey Highball, and Flip. 

Once your bartenders are familiar with the standard templates and ratios of these cocktails (for example, the formula for an Old Fashioned is spirit, sugar, water, and bitters; a Daiquiri is a classic sour, so it’s a balance of spirit, citrus, and sugar), it’s then time to drill down into learning their variations.

“Written drinks training is a huge part of the learning process at Attaboy, as everything we do is rooted in the classics,” says Traub. “We focus on learning the family tree of cocktails, and at Attaboy, it is a very large tree.” 

What Attaboy considers to be the cocktail family tree may look different than at Death & Co. Each bar’s family tree will have similarities and differences, reflective of its own style. For your own bar and training program, developing your own tree is a great place to start. Then you can begin testing bartender knowledge via written tests.

“Once bartenders learn about classic families and riffs—for example, the Old Fashioned, and how the Sazerac, Vieux Carré, and so on are just manipulations of the basic spirit, sugar, water, bitters formula—then we get into the nitty gritty of focusing on flavors and how those translate into certain cocktails and cocktail families,” says Traub.

There are many layers to classic cocktail knowledge, and every bar will have a different approach, but establishing this baseline before diving into technique is essential. 

2. Use Classic Cocktails To Teach About Ice and Dilution

Many classic cocktails call for only three or four ingredients, which makes them excellent for teaching purposes: With fewer elements in the glass, it’s easier to pinpoint when a drink is out of balance, and why.

Beyond a drink’s ingredients and their proportions, the key to balance in a cocktail is temperature and dilution, and both of these factors are typically a result of mixing a cocktail with ice. 

“The ice we use is a crucial part of our training,” says Traub. “It is arguably the most important ingredient in all of our cocktails.” For example, bartenders should know why Attaboy hand-cracks ice straight from the freezer for stirring with: Ice that comes straight out of the freezer has less water on the surface area of the cube, so cracking the ice helps it dilute and chill drinks more efficiently. They should also know how to build spirit-forward drinks on a single dense cube and how to shake with single large cubes. “Through each exercise, bartenders begin to understand how these different forms of ice affect the water content of a cocktail and its presentation,” says Traub.

One of the simplest exercises to enable bartenders to understand how different forms of ice affect a cocktail’s temperature and dilution is to have them make three of the same cocktail side by side using different ice and in different quantities. For example, shake three Daiquiris for the same length of time (10 seconds)—one using 1x1 cubes (Kold Draft), another with crushed or pebble ice, and the third with one large, tempered cube. Pour the shaken drinks into graduated cylinders to see the differences in volume, and also notice the textural differences as well. For instance, the drink made by shaking with one large cube aerates the cocktail more than standard cubes, so you’ll notice a greater volume of froth on that serve. Then have the bartender taste each cocktail to understand how the ice affected the flavor of each. You can use this same exercise for all types of drinks and mixing methods, and can implement other techniques, such as the whip shake, as well.

At the NoMad bars, Robitschek’s team also ensures that all bartenders understand the shelf life of each individual cocktail—that is to say, when it’s at its peak in terms of balanced temperature and dilution and when it’s past its prime. Cocktails that are served over ice and thus dilute over the course of the drinking session have especially volatile shelf lives. 

In general, the finer the ice (and, thus, the greater its surface area), the quicker it chills and dilutes a cocktail. The larger the ice, the slower it dilutes and chills. There is much more to know about this topic, which is covered well by Dave Arnold’s work on temperature and dilution, recommended reading for all bartenders. 

3. Focus on Speed, Accuracy, and Round-Building

Once bartenders in training have established solid knowledge of classic cocktails and the specs preferred by their bar, it’s time to focus on efficiency. This starts with the speed and accuracy of a bartender’s pours.

If bartenders have basic pouring technique down, speed and accuracy are just a matter of repetition. Satan’s Whiskers, a classic cocktail bar in London, has its bartenders complete timed speed and accuracy tests to get a better understanding of each bartender’s proficiency level. This testing format can also be applied to creating full cocktails instead of merely pouring one ingredient. This makes it perfect for round-building.

Properly building a round is one of the most important skills for a bartender to possess. At busy cocktail bars, drink orders usually arrive several at a time, so understanding the correct order in which to make a round of drinks is crucial for maintaining a bar’s standards. 

"Accurate round-building is important because we want to ensure that all guests in a party receive their drinks at the same time and that their drinks are the best versions of that drink they can be,” says Robitschek. “At NoMad, our bartenders keep in mind the ‘shelf life’ of each individual cocktail and learn to modify the drink-making depending on whether the guest is right in front of them or if the cocktail is going to the floor, as the timing of drinks being run to guests can affect how a bartender serves it.”

Classic cocktails are ideal drinks to make when practicing round-building, since the manager who’s evaluating the round can easily recognize the cocktails that are being made when the bartender begins building them. As with ice and dilution, it’s also easier to evaluate classics during the post-round tasting to understand which ones are unbalanced and why.

At Death & Co., as at NoMad, round-building is one of the final exercises new bartenders undergo before being considered ready for service. While some bartenders have varying perspectives on the order in which cocktails should be built, Death & Co.’s rule of thumb is as follows:
1. Neat spirits
2. Stirred, down, on ice (Old Fashioned)
3. Stirred, up, no ice (Martini)
4. Shaken with crushed ice (Fix)
5. Shaken, down, on ice (Whiskey Sour)
6. Shaken, long/effervescent (Collins)
7. Shaken, up, no ice (Daiquiri)

There are an infinite number of variables to account for when round-building as well, such as how long ice has been sitting in the well, the style of ice you’re shaking with, and other techniques that may be more intricate (say, if your bar throws Martinis instead of stirring them). 

If bartenders have a fundamental understanding of classic cocktails and the techniques required to make them, they’ll have the knowledge necessary to make these and other on-the-fly decisions which, combined with drink-making skill and style, render bartending the elegant art that it is.