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Is Bartending School Worthwhile?

The Path to Becoming a Professional Bartender

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Customer service skills are key to being a great bartender

Customer service skills are key to being a great bartender

Steve Debenport / E+ / Getty Images

Regularly, ads appear in the back pages of newspapers and free publications offering the temptation of making big money by attending bartending school in order to become an aspiring professional bartender. I'm regularly asked by people whether  attending bartending school is a worthwhile path to becoming a professional bartender. Quite simply the answer is no.

While culinary trade schools offer students instruction and hands-on experience in kitchens, making sauces, shucking oyster and deboning chickens, bartending schools substitute foam wedges for actual garnishes, colored water for liqueurs and outdated recipes in an attempt to extract the maximum amount of tuition from students with the least amount of effort. Foam "lemons" are of no use in teaching a student how to make a twist or a horses neck or even to flame a peel. Colored water has a different viscosity than, say, a high sugar liqueur, meaning that it pours differently and will change the mouth feel of a cocktail. Furthermore, watch any good bartender and you will constantly see them tasting small portions of their drinks to ensure quality. Colored water does not allow a student to actually learn how a given cocktail should taste. Drink recipes are taught quickly, but the concept of how to craft a drink or instruction on drink families is nonexistent.

Acceptance of bartending school graduates among professional working bartenders is challenging at best. Graduates are perceived to have not "paid their dues" in the industry and to have received poor instruction. Pages such as the Awful Bartender on Facebook regularly post bartending school videos showing bartending school instructors poor techniques, nonexistent knowledge and strange preparations.

Job placement at bartending schools is virtually nonexistent. Graduates are given a cheap diploma and then shown the door, told to go out to local bars, restaurants and nightclubs and apply for positions. Most reputable restaurant operators will not consider bartending applicants without real world experience. A bartending school graduate may know some recipes, but they have not proved that they can handle tense situations with intoxicated patrons, count money quickly and accurately or even produce drinks in a quick and efficient manner. All of these considerations trump any instruction bartending school may have imparted. In my experience, most bartending school graduates are turned down by the majority of establishments that they apply to and those that do find employment often struggle to adapt to the rigors of an actual professional bar.

If you are still considering attending bartending school, here are five questions you should ask before enrolling;

  1. What is the average amount of  time for a graduate to find a professional bartending job after graduation?
  2. May I speak to some of your alumni about their experiences at this school?
  3. What type of job placement assistance do you offer? May I speak to some of the employers that you work with to get their opinion on your graduates?
  4. What percentage of your graduates are working as professional bartenders after one year?
  5. What training do you offer on Point of Sale restaurant systems? Handling intoxicated customers? Cash handling?

For the purposes of this article, the term bartending schools refer to businesses that offer instruction in bartending to nonprofessional bartenders. This article is not about instruction for working professional bartenders such as Beverage Alcohol Resource or BarSmarts.

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