11/17/2008 online interview with Paul Pacult
Christine LaFave, writer
The Beverage Alcohol Resource (BAR) certification program aims to turn ambitious bartenders into master mixologists in five days.
“During the weeklong bartending intensives conducted by New York City-based beverage-alcohol training program – BeverageAlcoholResource.com, students not only sample spirits but also test their mixology mettle in blind-tasting exams. All jokes about drinking and studying aside, the intensives seek to equip students with knowledge and skills they can use to build bar programs that surprise and delight guests and lift operations’ sales.
Wine writer and consultant Paul Pacult co-founded Beverage Alcohol Resource in 2005 along with fellow spirits professionals Steve Olson, David Wondrich, Dale DeGroff and Doug Frost. Now working to launch BAR’s first master’s program, which promises more-specialized, one-on-one instruction for aspiring bar managers, consultants and critics, Pacult shares his thoughts on what makes a great bartender and how more than ever, good bar service can help bottom lines.”
Q. What are the benefits to an operation of having a master mixologist behind the bar?
A. We’re living in a golden age of beverage alcohol right now. The availability of beer, wine and spirits around the world is unprecedented. We have more spirits available in the United States right now than in any time in history. So right there we have wonderful products; we have great availability, so why not use those to the maximum? Bartending went through a terrible slump after World War II, and all through the ’60s and ’70s, but when Dale [DeGroff] became beverage director of the Rainbow Room [in New York City] in the mid-’80s and put the focus on quality spirits, quality ingredients, all fresh ingredients, [he] made bartending a vocation again. Bartending is looked upon again as something that’s really a respectable vocation.
I was in the P.F. Chang’s in Summerlin in Las Vegas on Friday night, and I was watching the bartender, and the way he was doing it was so good; it was just pushing the brand of P.F. Chang’s forward. With all of that—all of that skill, the little element of entertainment, the element that the bartender knew good stories—he was building relationships with all the people sitting at the bar. I ended up giving the guy a $25 tip even though I had one drink because I really appreciated what he was doing, and he was doing it with such skill and elegance, and he was a great bartender. And I thought, this guy has had proper training, and he’s become their champion in that particular restaurant.
Q. With some of the biggest bar holidays of the year upon us, what quick tips would you offer operations to boost bar sales?
A. One of the best things a bartender could do is to taste what’s on his or her back bar. Ask the bar manager of the location if they could just taste what they have so they know what they’re talking about. Many bartenders—I think this is the biggest failing—don’t know what they’re pouring. Nothing beats tasting. And once you know the taste of something, once you know the difference between [brands], then you’re much more at ease talking about them, and you also know how they would best apply in a cocktail. My suggestion would be to ask your boss if they would be so kind—and it’s only in their best interest to improve sales—to [let you] taste what’s on the back bar so you know what you have and you can talk about it with a lot more aplomb and authority to your customers.
Q. The Five-Day Intensives offer two levels of certification, BAR-Ready and BAR-Certified. What’s the difference between the two?
A. Essentially if somebody passes the BAR-Ready exams, they can go tend bar or manage a bar anywhere in the world. BAR-Certified is maybe two rungs down the skill ladder. That’s more for when a media person, a marketing executive or a brand ambassador wants to know about cocktails. We wouldn’t expect them to know everything that a seasoned bartender should know. But they could pass a level of exams that is considered BAR-Certified, and they would be considered a good bartender. By Tuesday, we ask [students] to declare which level of certification they’re going to be going for, because they’ll have different training. The BAR-Certified group will have very different training in terms of mixology from the BAR-Ready group. It will be much more intense with the BAR-Ready group.
One of the things that Beverage Alcohol Resource ascribes to without any doubt is social responsibility. It goes without saying that we hammer that home all the time for the professional service people and the nonprofessional service people because it’s common sense, and it’s just the right way to go. That is hammered home every day.Back to Top
Q. How do you cover so much material in five days?
A. It is a ton of information. And that’s why there are six partners, because there is so much information that we like to have different viewpoints; we like to have different presentations. These are 12-hour days, usually, starting at 9 and ending at 9. They’re long days, but they’re fun. The first four days are teaching days only, and it’s a mixture of mixology, technique, history, [and] actual practice, but mixed in with that are information and tastings of spirits.
It’s our belief that if indeed one is going to be a good mixologist, you have to understand first, what are the ingredients? And since spirits form the basis certainly of alcoholic cocktails, you have to know what gin is; you have to know what Scotch whisky is. Our feeling is, let’s teach the basics first of what is distillation, what is maturation of wood, what are the different categories of spirits, and then move on from that foundation into the mixology part. And then on Friday, there’s a lot of weeping and gnashing of teeth, because Friday is exam day. But what’s interesting is the fact that two-thirds of people who are taking the course have graduated.
Q. How are you making sure that it all sinks in, that students aren’t going to forget everything the day after the exams?
A. That’s a really good question. The exams, first of all, come in five different parts. It’s very, very tough. There’s the written exam, which is true-and-false, essays, multiple choice—around 100 questions that focus on those three areas. They’re very intense. Then you have the blind spirits-tasting exam; then you have the blind cocktail-tasting exam; then you have the practical exam, where somebody has to stand in front of one of the partners or one of our designated judges, who are often some of our “A” students, and show your stuff.
You’ve got to make five drinks within 15 minutes, so we get to see how good they are. And you can throw any question at them. Plus, [students] have to make [their] own drink for the class. And then the final part of the exam is the menu critique, where we will give them a mockup cocktail menu and just ask them, “What’s wrong? What’s right? What are the good points, what are the bad points of this cocktail menu?” So they have to pass all five of those elements, whether you’re going for BAR-Certified or BAR-Ready. And our feeling is that once people have gone through those five elements and they’ve passed it, just keeping up with them in terms of [maintaining] relationships helps. We’re constantly bringing some of our graduates in to help us. We’re also developing a master’s program. Right now we’re looking at the fall of next year, where we’ll have the availability of further, much more intense one-on-one study for graduates who have been deemed BAR-Ready. So all of this continuing education is just happening all the time.
Q. Consumers’ and operations’ interest in mixology and in using fresh and house-made ingredients in cocktails certainly has grown, but bar programs vary widely. How do you meet the needs of students who come from differing backgrounds and whose managers have differing goals for their bar program?
A. I think that this is where having two levels of certification really helps. We figured right from the start that certainly there’s a large element of people who are interested in spirits and cocktails who wouldn’t really be ready to have their feet put to the fire by some of us in tests, and that’s why we have those two levels, so that it’s a little bit easier maybe for people who aren’t. We feel that if somebody comes to one of our five-day classes, if they come in as BAR-Certified and gain that certification, then we absolutely welcome them back to come back whenever they feel ready and get the BAR-Ready certification. This is really an ongoing series of opportunities for these people, which I think is really the best way to do it rather than just to think that everybody could do one test. That’s just unreasonable.
Q. What advantages do you think a weeklong, broad-focused intensive in spirits and bartending offers versus in-house instruction or other bartending programs?
A. We cover so much information, and a lot of the information you really don’t find in any books, you don’t find in any other training programs. We’ve all been consulting for restaurant chains; we’ve all been consulting for hotel chains at different levels. And we looked at all those programs, and we thought, what’s lacking in these? One of the fun things that we do is we taste spirits blind. We feel that that’s really the best way to figure out, what is a gin? We have a lot of people coming in not knowing the difference between gin and vodka, and I think this is a great way to show them what each category can do, and then by extension, what can they do with cocktails?
Gin isn’t just gin—it’s London Dry style; it’s Plymouth style; it’s Genever; it’s what’s considered like the new international style. And I just think, well, how is somebody going to learn unless they’re having the real thing? I also think [with] the history of cocktails, we saw holes there, because understanding how cocktails developed, not only in the U.S. but in other places of the world, I think having that background is absolutely essential.