kelly magyarics

washington, d.c.-based wine, spirits, travel & lifestyle writer / wine educator


My quest to get Bar-Smarter

"Welcome to your new bar.  I'll need you to make me a Margarita, a Manhattan and a Caipiroska. You have nine minutes."

After waiting outside a conference room at New York's Marriott Marquis until my group was called, I now found myself standing across from the person who would be judging the practical part (i.e. mixing cocktails from memory) of my BarSmarts Advanced exam. Here I was, me with limited actual bartending experience--beyond whipping up drinks in my home bar, either for myself and my husband, or guests; or as research for the cocktail writing I do--suddenly standing across from the Jim Meehan of New York's PDT. Now, I consider Jim to be a colleague and a friend, and he's been a fabulous and helpful source for many wine and spirits articles I've written over the past few years. But now America's Best Bartender, who owns the World's Best Cocktail Bar (as awarded by Tales of the Cocktail this past summer), was standing, clipboard in hand, ready to critique my mixing, muddling and orange twist garnishes. Yikes.

BarSmarts Advanced is a spirits, mixology and service training and certification program designed exclusively for Pernod Ricard USA. It's instructed by the partners of Beverage Alcohol Resource (BAR), LLC, Dale DeGroff, Doug Frost, Steve Olson, F. Paul Pacult, Andy Seymour and David Wondrich (quite an impressive bunch.) BarSmarts is held each year in New York, San Francisco, Las Vegas and other cities.

Most of the students who take BarSmarts Advanced (not surprisingly) are bartenders looking to improve their knowledge and skills--or sent there at the encouragement of their boss. I had requested a slot--BarSmarts is currently by invitation only--to improve my knowledge of spirits and cocktails to help with my writing. The course itself is a steal: $65 gets you a workbook and 4 training DVDs, a set of bar tools, and a chance to attend the BarSmarts Live! Day.

For almost 2 months, I read the workbook, watched the DVDs, mixed cocktails and memorized their recipes using flash cards I made, and took the 4 online quizzes--passing them guaranteed me a spot at the live day, where I could attend seminars taught by the BarSmarts instructors, and take the two parts of the exam that would grant me my certification: a 100 question multiple choice test, including 15 questions based on blind spirits tasting; and the practical portion, where I would need to make 3 cocktails from memory out of a possible 25 (classics ranging from a Martini, to a Sazerac, to a Mint Julep.) If I didn't pass the test, I thought at the very least I'd be more well-versed in making drinks for my friends in my well-stocked home bar...

I passed the online quizzes, registered for the live day, and kept on studying. Since I don't have a mixology background, the making drinks portion of the exam was more daunting to me than the written part--I've always been a good test taker.

The day of the course finally arrived. We spent the morning in seminars where we talked about bar tips and spirit trends. We learned the process of conducting a spirits tasting, and I even got a great recipe for a classic punch from author and instructor David Wondrich.

I used lunchtime as a last minute cram session, running through my cocktail flash cards so I'd be confident when whipping up whatever drinks I needed to ("Gin Fizz has no ice and no garnish, Tom Collins gets ice and a flag garnish; Sidecar served up gets a sugared rim; don't forget the orgeat syrup in a Mai Tai".) Though the instructors encouraged us to use our own recipes and techniques for the cocktails if we had ones we thought worked better, I stuck to the cards. I'm not a mixologist by trade--who was I to improvise?

The doors to the conference room opened, about eight of us were ushered in, and I was led over to a table that was fully stocked as a bar. Jim smiled--he could probably tell I was pretty nervous--welcomed me to my new bar, and showed me where everything was located: glasses, ice, spirits, mixers, garnishes, rinsing station, trash receptable. Each BarSmarts Advanced student needed to bring our own tools, so I took my shaker, strainers, muddler, jiggers, etc. out of my bag and arranged them on the bar. I was so hoping that I would be making the cocktails I've found myself drinking lately: the Aviation, Blood and Sand, Negroni, classic Martini (50/50).

But all in all, I didn't get a bad selection. First up: the Margarita. I poured in the Tequila first, and then stopped myself after realizing I put in less simple sugar than the recipe called for. "Don't worry about it," Jim said. "Let's see how it goes. I like my drinks tart and we can always add a bit more at the end." I shook it, and served it up, with a half salt-rimmed glass (and I remembered to chill the glass with ice before mixing the drink--something that took some getting used to for someone who doesn't work in a bar and typically uses the kitchen freezer to chill the glass...) I tasted the drink, using my finger to suction up some of it through a straw. It turned out ok after all, though afterwards, Jim told me that I could have asked him if he wanted it on the rocks or up--I automatically served it up, the way I would have ordered it and how it was described in the workbook.

Next, I muddled the lime and simple syrup for the Caipiroska, added vodka, shook it and served it. This drink was pretty easy. I then found out I had three minutes left for drink #3. "Plenty of time," assured Jim.

Drink #3, a Manhattan--my in-law's beverage of choice. Pretty well executed (though my stirring technique still has a bit to be desired...), served up with an orange twist (I wanted to flame it but thought in my nervousness I might singe my finger...) Success--though he reminded me that I should have asked him if he wanted it with a cherry or orange twist. I detest Maraschino cherries (so fake looking and tasting...), so again I made the drink the way I would have wanted it. Note to self: in a bar situation, the customer gets to decide. Oops.

So I ended up having a minute to spare. I cleaned up and packed up my tools while Jim made some last minute notes on the sheet on his clipboard. He also told me that he can tell I know how to make the drinks, the next step is to personalize them by making sure the customer gets them the way they want them. Then I was outta there to take the written part.

Ugh...the written test. I was so worried about mixing the drinks, when the written exam turned out to be harder than I had expected. The questions that gave me trouble were just the ones I assumed would. I'm a gin gal, not a big whiskey affionado. So the info about Bourbon's mashbill, bonded whiskey, blended Scotch, etc. etc. was just hard for me to remember. And at the end of the exam were 15 questions based on blind tasting 3 spirits. I was one of the last ones to leave the testing room, and as I walked back to Penn Station, I wasn't feeling exactly confident... But not matter how it would turn out, I thought it was a great experience and was so glad I pursued it.

However, I found out last weekend that I passed! So I'm BarSmarts certified! Yay me!! Not sure which questions I got wrong on the test--and not sure I will or even want to find out...

I really enjoyed the BarSmarts experience, and would highly recommend it to anyone. Check out their website for detailed information.