As with all questions worth asking in life — it depends! If you ask 10 bar managers, you will find 5 say yes and 5 say no. Many people become successful bartenders just by working their way up from dishwashers, bussers, barbacks, or servers. Many bar managers I’ve spoken to admit that their best bartenders were those that had attended formal bartending training. At the end of the day, bartending school is knowledge and experience gained and whether or not you should sign up for bartending school depends on your current financial situation, how much free time you have to devote to your craft, the school available near you, and how much of a self-motivator or self-starter you are.
Types of schools
First, let’s talk about the variety of bartending schools. When looking at schools, you can almost certainly find an in-person course close to where you live. There are also tons of online courses to choose from. As I mentioned in a previous post, there are two main aspects of this field: bartending and drink mixology. Bartending schools tend to cover only one aspect of the bartending profession, so be sure to ask questions about the curriculum and pick the course that fits your goals. Do you want to learn to make drinks? Or do you want to work as a bartender?
For example, many of the best online bartending schools tend to key in on mixology. They cover the popular liquors, accompanying liqueurs, and focus heavily on cocktails that we’ve all come to know and love — or hate! MasterClass also offers an excellent mixology course covering cocktails history, palate science answering why some cocktails are so popular, and it gives you the tools to explore your own cocktails.
In-person schools are great for getting experience working behind a bar. Unless you have space and materials for a full-functioning bar at home, this is invaluable. I attended Texas School of Bartenders’ two-week, 4-hour per day in-person course. I chose this course because I wanted the hands-on experience of being behind a bar. Jim, our instructor, was amazing and during our classes, previous students would swing by just to say hi to him. That must speak for something.
In-person classes build good habits
Here are my takeaways from the class and why I recommend attending an in-person class if possible:
Bottles galore! Jim’s set up had each student behind their own bar with real spirit bottles (filled with water), speed gun, and ice rack. A great way to get familiar with liquor names, liquor types, and typical bar setup.
He even had it down to the details: food coloring to distinguish whiskey from vodka from Amaretto etc; full garnish trays with plastic garnishes to drill down when to use limes, lemons, oranges, cherries, or olives.
Basically unlimited glasses. As a bartender, you will serve drinks in several types of glasses, and again, there is no substitute for practicing with real glasses. We had at our disposal Collins, stemmed, shot, and standard rocks glasses.
We mastered the skill of counting our pours. Pouring is something that many bartenders I’ve encountered in the field have poor accuracy with. Note that some finer establishments are against pouring. It is cleaner, classier, and most consistent to measure everything out with a jigger. That said, having speed with accuracy is highly coveted in most establishments, so free-pouring is a vital skill to master.
In each class, we practiced opening up and closing down our bars. I can’t emphasize this enough: these processes are very VERY strictly enforced in real bars. I’ve seen bartenders get written up to General Managers for poor clean-up. I’ve seen bartenders get chewed out during a shift because of their poor clean-up the night before. These processes ensure a clean, welcoming, respectable bar environment and keep out fruit flies.
Lastly, TABC certification was built into the class. No need to take a separate 2-hour course for our legal certification to serve alcohol. Another aspect to consider.
A few daily bartending drills that we did:
One bartender behind the bar while the rest of the class orders drinks and acts rowdy.
Speed drills: Jim would call out 4–5 drinks at a time and students would make them as quickly as possible. Levels, colors, garnishes, straw types were all checked for accuracy.
Shot drills: Jim would call out multiple orders of multiple shots requiring quick multiplication for maximum efficiency and speed. Levels and colors were all checked for accuracy.
We drilled over 100 of the most popular cocktails and juice drinks, wines, beers, and shots. In each class, I would make between 250–350 drinks. Muscle memory is essential in this field, so that practice was great.
As you can see, the course forces you to build good habits. After the class, finding a job was incredibly easy — partly due to Jim’s network. He knew many of the bar owners in town and always had an updated list of establishments that were hiring. As someone new to the industry, that network and support are incredible. Within a couple of weeks, I had 4 interviews lined up and 3 job offers. I’ll cover interview tips in a future post, but needless to say, formal bartending schooling helped significantly in giving me the confidence and knowledge to nail the interviews.
Invest in yourself
I mentioned financial investment. Texas School of Bartenders cost $500 and I checked that is approximately the market price of an in-person course. That may be steep for some folks, but I will say that investment in knowledge, experience, and a network is always worth it. Also, to put it in perspective, I more than made up for that cost in one weekend of working at a real bar.
There’s a lot of fun and money to be had in the field of bartending. Plenty of interesting people that you’ll encounter. Plenty of new perspectives that you’ll gain. Bartending school is a great booster to the industry. Go out there and get it!