Nerves run high. Walking into the Astor Center at 8:30am, I wasn't sure what to expect. Hopefully a room of people just as nervous as I was. We were greeted by a very energetic Paul Pacult and Doug Frost who were taking roll call and handing out nametags. Some people were old friends or co-workers, but most were strangers getting ready to spend the next four days together.
Once everyone was settled in we were gifted a simple bar kit and tasting mat with twelve numbered circles (soon to be topped with samplings of spirits). We were introduced to Steve Olson, David Wondrich, Paul Pacult, Dale Degroff, Doug Frost and Andy Seymour who were our instructors throughout the course.
Let the learning begin!
Our first day revolved around the roots of spirits and fermentation. Think about how natural the fermentation process is: juice naturally wants to ferment (sugar + natural yeast + water), in a way it is spoilage, but when harnessed it becomes the water of life. From there we moved to the invention of the still and "prehistoric" forms of distilling, including the importance of separating the "heads" and "tails" from the heart of the distillate. The heart, the spirit poured from the still that is considered to be the best, will continue on to the next step in the process, resulting in the final product.
Our first blind tasting...
I have tasted a lot of spirits from around the world as they are brought to me or as I go to them, but I had no idea what we were in for today.
We had six glasses in front of us, all of which were different colors and viscosities. Doug and Steve led us on our inaugural tasting and warned us that there were MANY more to follow, so be sure to spit. They showed their method of tasting and proved its accuracy: nose the glass first from a distance since you don't know what could be in your glass, take note; taste twice, down the center of your tongue first, spit both times, breathe in through your mouth and out through your nose, take note. This process allows you to rinse your mouth with the spirit first, then the second taste allows you to draw out the true flavors.
After an exciting first day, I learned that my nerves were unwarranted. These guys are in our industry and understand where we are coming from; their humor gets you through. The day was packed with priceless information and I am excited for tomorrow and will be armed with a larger coffee and a fresh note pad!
Day two started with a cocktail or 10, no joke!
Dale Degroff started the day off with a Sour cocktail tasting (spirit + lemon + sweetener), the cocktail he says is the most revealing about a bartender. They used Tanqueray 10 in all of our drinks, changing the proportions (1.5 + .75 + .75 or 1.5 + .75 + .5, etc) or changing the sweetener (rich simple syrup vs. honey syrup vs. agave nectar). My recommendation to the class was "Try it with St-Germain!").
Everyone took a turn, jiggering and shaking drinks in front of the entire class of 56 students. Everyone had their own opinion on what tasted the best; it was amazing to hear what 56 people have to say about a simple gin sour.
It's a lot about the wood...
After a break in the day Doug Frost fills us in on the differences between types of wood, the origins, charring, etc. What wood can do to a spirit is mind blowing; at least 50% of the success (or failure) of a master distiller's final product is due to the wood. Spirits come off the still clear and the brown coloring comes from being barrel aged.
Next we had our lecture and tasting on rums of the world. Reading about the different styles of rum is definitely eye opening, but tasting them side-by-side brings it to the extreme. It has been made clear to me that the only way to really appreciate the different styles of a spirit is through a side-by-side tasting.
The second half of the day came with a much anticipated agave lecture and tasting. A passionate Steve Olson, who has spent much time in Mexico over the last thirty years, spoke about how agave compares to grapes for wine making. It was interesting to learn that the terroir affects agave varietals and their final product just like wine – weather; shade vs. sun; highlands vs. lowlands are all factors.
The day concluded with an interesting talk on the importance of cocktail menus. I was excited for this section as it is something I think about every day working in a bar that hasn't had less than 43 drinks in print at one time in the last 4 years. Rocks drinks vs. up drinks, citrus drinks vs. straight spirit, glassware, font, repetition of spirit and so on; all things to keep in mind when planning and printing a drink list. The one point about a menu we didn't see eye to eye on was the number of drinks that should be on a list; they suggest 15 at the most and Eastern Standard at one point hit 60!
Also, there was a pop quiz today!
Today began with Dave Wondrich discussing how bar culture has evolved over time. "By 1850 the American art of the bar is defined," and people knew what to expect when they entered a bar. Dave provided background on Jerry Thomas, Harry Johnson, William Schmidt and many more that shaped the growing culture, scene and craft. The one thing that Dave said that stands out in my mind was that the history of bar culture was created and retold in bars, where people drank heavily and did not take notes, so there are many different versions of the same story!
Bar Facts of Note:
- 1840s Ice and the cocktail shaker entered the scene
- 1850s Straws enter the scene
- 1901 the term "Scotch" refers to whiskey specifically from Scotland
- 1976 Vodka overcomes gin as the number one selling spirit in the U.S.
Next up, Scottish Whiskey, whiskey, whiskey with Paul Pacult!
Paul addressed the class with the history of whiskey. Starting in Scotland and spreading both West to the Americas and East to Japan, whiskey has a strong place in the spirits world. Government and taxes have shaped the whiskey industry. For example, the Irish government decided that they were going to tax distilleries based on the number of stills they had. The distilleries then built the largest stills in the world operating 1 or 2 big stills, instead of 10 little ones. This lesson led into a scotch tasting followed by American and Japanese whiskies.
Did well on yesterday's pop quiz...it's a take home quiz tonight!
The only nerves I have today are for tomorrow's exam.
Our day started with Dale Degroff discussing the post-industrial revolution and the history of the cocktail. Dale explained that the three major influences on the cocktail are immigration, technology and politics. These three factors through the ages have made the cocktail what it is today. There were also key time periods that hurt the cocktail scene, including prohibition.
Pre-prohibition bartending was a glorified occupation: bar keeps would wear jewelry, pressed shirts, ties, vests and jackets. However, during prohibition bartenders moved overseas to make drinks legally while others stayed and skirted the law. Post-prohibition, circa 1937, bars began to open again with poorly trained bartenders and some would say the art had been lost during this period. Short cuts were taken with bottled syrups and powdered sour mix. Eventually the craft returned and the classics started to reappear with the hospitality a bartender should have.
It was a great end of the day with a panel discussion of leaders in our industry and how they got their start. Whether they worked their way to the top or were discovered; the stories were inspiring for a future business owner like myself.
Tomorrow is the big day, need to get some sleep, these 12 hour days are catching up with me.
I arrived at the Astor Center at my designated time slot with my bar kit in hand. My practical started at 10:30am, 6 cocktails in 10 minutes, 5 of their choosing and a creation of my own. There was also a written and tasting section.
After my practical I was feeling pretty good. I like making drinks fast. After everyone finished their practical, we sat down for the timed written exam and tasting. It is all a blur to me now, but the last thing I remember is that we don't get our results until Christmas!
I have to say that after these five days my brain isn't fried - that has a negative connotation - but overflowing with history, methods, facts and more than I could have ever imagined from a four-day course and day exam. I have met great people and learned from the best. I can't wait to put knowledge into action! Anyone thinking about the exam should do it, no regrets.