Turning bartenders into mixologists

Staff training can raise the bar on a cocktail program.

Given all the fanfare surrounding the mixology movement, cocktail lists are garnering as much attention as food menus, making the bartender as important a hire as the chef. Some may argue that the job title “mixologist” is pretentious, but that hasn’t stopped restaurants, from fine dining to everyday casual, from touting their mixology programs—and relying on the guy or gal behind the bar to deliver. Armed with a solid grounding in history, knowledge of the classics, a roster of tested recipes and a good handle on technique, a motivated bartender can execute an upgraded program. We asked a few pros who teach mixology how operators can train up bartenders without spending a bundle. Here’s what they said.

Train the basics

Understanding the components that go into a cocktail, precision in measuring and even perfecting a shaking technique lead to consistency and the development of a personal mixology style. Kathy Casey, president of Liquid Kitchen in Seattle, begins by teaching the templates behind basic cocktails, such as the bloody mary or Manhattan.  “Following the recipe and perfectly measuring also helps control costs,” adds Emilio Tiburcio, corporate mixologist for Light Group in Las Vegas.

Riff on the classics

Once a bartender learns the basics, “riffing on the classics is a good way to develop new drinks,” says Ryan McGrale, beverage director of Tavern Road in Boston. Switching up the base liquors, liqueurs or modifiers from the original recipe to create fresh variations, and using housemade infusions or tinctures, can stamp a drink with originality. He advises his staff to experiment on colleagues—not customers. Some drinks eventually find a place on Tavern Road’s cocktail list.

Hold staff tasting sessions

Mixology pros can taste the qualities that make spirits top shelf and choose the best bottles for the money, says Mike Ryan, head bartender of Sable Kitchen & Bar in Chicago. To get there, a bartender needs to sample many brands, learning to detect nuances in flavor—deciphering the differences in botanicals among gins, for example. “Only then can he start thinking for himself when judging spirits and proportions,” says Ryan.

Connect with the kitchen

Encourage bartenders to think of the bar as an extension of the kitchen. They should work with the chef and vice versa to bring seasonality and local ingredients into the cocktail program through infusions, garnishes and seasonal specials, suggests Casey. A signature cocktail paired with a signature menu item elevates a beverage program in customers’ eyes.

Edit the cocktail menu

Don’t overextend staff. To allow bartenders to focus on doing a few things well (and to keep the number of SKUs down), augment essentials, such as martinis and margaritas, with no more than a half dozen well-chosen craft cocktails, says McGrale. Ensure that all bartenders can execute every cocktail on the list properly. “At Tavern Road, we like to have fun and be creative when developing new drinks, but not venture too far out of our comfort zone—or that of our guests,” he says. 

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