Get smart! Get Bar Smart, that is!

Ah, bartender-training courses. Get a bunch of young people in a room, equip them with bottles of artificially colored water, and make them memorize such classics as the Sex on the Beach, the Fuzzy Nipple*, or the Where the Fuck Did I Park My Car?. Then, grade them on speed and teach them to juggle!

I think we’re ready for something more serious than that. Since 2006, though, the Beverage Alcohol Resource (BAR) team has happily provided that. BAR’s intensive five-day program aims to match the rigor of a Master Sommelier program. The brains behind it are Dale DeGroff, Doug Frost, Steven Olson, F. Paul Pacult, Andy Seymour, and David Wondrich, each of whom has many years of experience in the spirits industry. I like to say this is like taking a cooking course from Thomas Keller, Alice Waters, and Dan Barber–the BAR guys are that well regarded in the spirits world.

Conducted once yearly in New York City, the BAR program runs you through the whole of cocktail artistry:

  • How spirits are distilled
  • Spirit categories (gin, vodka, tequila, rum, whisk(e)y, etc.)–how they’re distilled, aged, filtered, and so on
  • History of mixology
  • Classic cocktails

This program is so rigorous, from what I understand, that when it’s time for a blind tasting, it’s not enough to say, yeah, this is an aged cognac. No, you need to identify it by brand. If you can’t tell your Remy Martin VSOP from your Hine Antique XO, well, sorry chum. Or as Richard Dawson would have said, “XXX.”

Did I mention the price of the BAR program? $3,500.

Now, don’t get me wrong. This is a great program, and some of the country’s best bartenders have graduated from it. I would start to name names here, but I know some of these people personally, and I don’t want to leave anyone out. But it’s not for everyone, and the BAR team knew that. In partnership with Pernod Ricard, then, they came up with BarSmarts, a study-at-home program. You start by studying the supplied materials, laid out in four modules. At the end of each module, there’s a quiz you need to pass before proceeding.

BarSmarts is available in two expressions, Advanced and Wired. The differences between these are small but worth mentioning.

Advanced is open only by invitation. With a special invitation code, you can lock in a spot by registering online. Wired, on the other hand, is open to all comers. Advanced costs $65; Wired, $45. Advanced gets you a printed workbook, a set of instructional DVDs, and a bar kit with tools selected by DeGroff. Wired gets you those same bar tools, but (and this is the crucial difference) everything’s done online. You study online, you watch the videos online, and using a special interface, you even “mix” drinks online. (I haven’t completed Wired, so I don’t know exactly how this works.)

The other major difference between Advanced and Wired is that the former concludes with a feature called BarSmarts Live. You gather together with the others who completed the course for a day with the BAR founders. The day starts with a morning of further instruction and discussion. After breaking for lunch, it’s exam time–both written and practical. The written exam includes 100 multiple-choice or true/false questions, taken from the material covered in the workbook.

The practical exam includes a blind tasting in which you identify a spirit. (For example, you might have four glasses of brown spirit, and you’d have to say which is aged rum, which is bourbon, which is scotch, and which is cognac.) Finally, one of the BAR guys will approach each student and ask for three specific drinks, chosen from a list DeGroff assembled of 25 drinks every bartender should know.

Lest you think Wired is any less rigorous for lacking the live exams, another difference between Advanced and Wired is in the quizzes I mentioned earlier. In Advanced, the quizzes are 10 questions each, and you need to answer 8 correctly before you can advance to the next module. In Wired, though, there are 25 questions per quiz, and you need to get 20 of them right before you can move on.

The Live event has already happened twice this fall, in LA and SF last month. This Tuesday (11/3), it runs in New York, and then next month, it’ll happen in Vegas. I’m excited because I’ll be attending the New York event. I leave for the city tomorrow morning and return Wednesday afternoon.

BarSmarts Wired is not currently available, but it’ll be offered again starting February 1, 2010. After registering, you’ll have 30 days in which to complete the course.

*I thought I was making that up. Woe is me, but I was wrong.