Saturday, July 26, 2008

How I Became A Bartender

A customer asked me the other night if I went to bartending school. I told her that I didn't, but people do go to bartending school to learn the industry. I didn't have time to break down the pros and cons for her. I only had time to tell her what I did. My training was all on the job. That's usually how most people start in the industry.

I was very fortunate in that I had an "in" from the get-go. I had a friend who owned a few places and was willing to take me under his wing. This is the best way to get into the bar industry, in my opinion. You not only become well versed on the technical sides of things, but having an "in" like that also sets you up for future networking opportunities abound. Sometimes, it really only comes down to who you know, not exactly what you know. Sad, but very true.

I got my start in bartending over six or seven years ago. At the time, I was going to college full-time and really wasn't digging my job. It just didn't make me feel happy or very good about myself. I called up my friend one day out of the blue (who owned a few bars in the city I lived in) and told him that I wanted to learn how to bartend. The next week he had me on the schedule at one of his bars. To this day, I still can't thank him enough for helping me like that.

I fell in love with bartending immediately. I had never been a real big drinker. In fact, I knew next to nothing about all of the spirits. I was a fresh, clean slate and eager to learn. The first bar I worked behind was on the restaurant side of a restaurant/nightclub venue. I worked there for a year learning all about the bar and restaurant industry, building up my repertoire of regulars and developing my specialty cocktails and shots. Once my friend felt that I was ready, he moved me on to one of his more busier bars.

I worked at the busier bar (which had a large college crowd and lots of late, crazy nights) for almost two years. This is where I continued my education on beers (we had several beers on tap) and spirits (we had a healthy selection of everything). We even made blended drinks! This is also the bar I really started to focus on my speed and taking numerous orders at once.

Once I graduated from college, I headed to the big city. Here, I had hit my bartender prime by scoring a bartending gig in a very busy, two-leveled nightclub, three nights a week. In addition to pouring the standard cocktails, shots and bottled beers, I also became well-versed with working with cocktail waitresses and taking care of the bottle service at the bar.

I had a lot of fun in those earlier bartending years, not only discovering a new profession in a new industry, but discovering myself as well. After five years, I decided that I couldn't bartend for the rest of my life. I had reached a form of bartending burnout. Now that I had my college degree, I fely like I had to grow up and get a day job that required me to work 40 hours a week, behind a desk, in an office downtown.

The job was fine, but I had never been more miserable in my life. I gave it a go for two years until I took the time to do some serious soul searching and realized that I was nowhere near where I wanted to be. I opted to come back to bartending so that I could have my days free to do the things I really wanted to be working on.

Now, I am happy to be focused on what's important to me and to be working behind a bar again. I was fortunate enough to have another friend who recommended me to the current bar I am working at. See, sometimes it really is all about who you know. This time around bartending, I am expanding my horizons even further with working in a restaurant/lounge that encourages me to learn, in detail, about all the the different spirits and liquors we carry and to try the extensive wine list while pairing it with the foods we serve from the kitchen. I am even encouraged to develop my own drink recipes for our specialty cocktail menu. And here I thought I had learned all that I could about bartending. I hadn't even begun to scratch the surface!!

To the customer who asked me about bartending school the other night-I honestly have no idea. Some people in the industry are strongly against people going to bartending schools and others don't seem to mind at all. I am neither for or against the schools simply because I have never gone myself. How could I possibly recommend something I have never even tried personally?

What I tell anyone who is thinking about becoming a bartender is that 10% of the job is knowing the drinks and 90% of the job is your personality. It takes a strong personality to conduct a bar and entertain patrons. Just keep that in mind.

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