Setting the BAR higher

by ShakeStir Staff

Photo Courtesy of Daniel Krieger

We had the chance to talk with Paul Pacult, renowned spirits expert, journalist and mentor. Paul is one of six behind the helm of Beverage Alcohol Resource, widely known as BAR, a five day intensive program where students learn all about the cocktail culture, hospitality and spirits. The six founders are esteemed members of the industry, including Paul Pacult, Dale Degroff, Doug Frost, Steve Olson, Andy Seymour and David Wondrich. Read on to get motivated before your next shift, steal a glimpse into some of the longest (and most intellectual) days in the industry, and see what makes BAR so special.

SS: How did BAR come about?

PP: Beverage Alcohol Resource LLC was fittingly conceived over drinks in the bar at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in San Francisco in March 2005. At the time, I was Judging Director of the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and Steve Olson, Doug Frost, David Wondrich and Dale Degroff were judges that had been appointed by me. Dale and I had been friends at that point for more than 15 years. He and I had actually been discussing starting a spirits and cocktail school with an innovative approach. Indeed, we had surveyed locations in New York. Simultaneously, Steve and Doug had been talking about reviving their Sterling School of Spirits, which had operated in the 1990s. Long story short, following the third round of drinks I sprouted out the magic words, “Hey, why don’t we put on a play in the barn?” No, that wasn’t it. It was more like, “Hey, what if the five of us pooled our century-plus of experience and expertise and started a school that would be the most innovative and informative school for spirits and mixology ever conceived?”

If I recall at that point Frost ordered another drink, but eventually we agreed to meet over the summer to refine the concept and formally organize a company. In July of 2005, we created BAR LLC at Keens Steakhouse in New York. In June of 2006, we taught our inaugural BAR 5-day program, which included present day superstars Tad Carducci, Christy Pope, Josie Packard, Jack Robertiello, Paul Tanguay and Andy Seymour, who became the sixth BAR partner two years later.

SS: What do you hope that graduates learn during the course?

PP: BAR 5-Day attendees learn, most of all, that like any craft, bar tending is a tough but tremendously rewarding job or, at its best, lifelong vocation. They also learn that scores of talented people have come before them since the 1800s and that knowing about the dedication and propagation of mixology pioneers will affect the students’ approach to learning. BAR teaches that we’re merely building another layer of expertise upon the foundations laid two centuries ago. Also that hospitality is a genuinely noble profession whose core premise is service to others. The purpose of bar tending is to make your customer happy. What’s better than that?

SS: What makes the course so intensive?

PP: Any program that includes 36-40 handpicked students, 10 instructors and up to 6-8 back-of-house assistants and runs for four 12-hour days of intense learning followed by a day of exams is going to take its toll on all people involved. During the first four days of instruction, we sample between 160-180 spirits and teach 29 modules, each one dedicated to one particular facet of distilled spirits or mixology. We do it this way in order to take the students far outside their normal everyday routine to strip them down mentally so that they are more receptive to the truckloads of information being transmitted by the BAR partners and our appointed teachers.

Besides that, it’s really the only full week that the BAR partners have throughout the year to be together. We’re all insanely busy with our own businesses and commitments. That’s why now there is but one BAR 5-Day each year.

SS: Walk us through a day during BAR 5-Day.

PP: Are you sure that you want to do this? You have the stamina? Okay, let’s take Wednesday, by which time a bit of weariness is creeping in for everyone. We start at 9:00 AM sharp with reviews of the previous day’s quiz; then at 9:15 AM Dave Wondrich, BAR’s historical oracle, teaches the history of mixology from 1862 to Prohibition until 10:00 AM.

At 10:00 AM sharp (you get the concept of being prompt?), Steve Olson and I teach what is mandatory to know about Scotch Whisky until 11:45 AM, including a blind tasting flight of 12 prime examples of Scotch. What’s special about this module is that both Steve and I are Keepers of the Quaich, Scotland’s exclusive whisky society, so the data that’s being disseminated to the students is the most current available and the most authoritative.

There is a 30-minute break, then at 12:30 PM sharp, Doug Frost and Wondrich teach about other world whiskys, most notably those of Japan and Ireland, until 1:30 PM. There is a lunch break of 45 minutes, at that point then Olson and I teach North American Whiskey from 2:15 to 3:45 PM. Then the group is treated to a Pop Quiz, then there’s a one-hour break.

From 5:00 – 6:15 PM, Dale Degroff, Andy Seymour and Wondrich teach Historical Cocktails, in which classics such as Old Fashioned, Manhattans, Sazeracs, Aviations, Clover Clubs and Blue Blazers are demonstrated, discussed and dissected. From 6:15 – 7:40 PM one guest bartender, like Audrey Saunders, comes in to talk about her experiences of opening bars. Once Audrey is done, another guest speaker who is a successful bar owner/operator discusses another side of the Business of the Bar until 9:00 PM.

It’s a full day.

SS: Why should bartenders invest in this course?

PP: Bartenders should view taking the BAR 5-Day as investing in THEMSELVES BECAUSE NOWHERE ELSE WILL THEY RECEIVE THE LEVEL OF INFORMATION as at the BAR 5-Day. No other bartending program can offer the degree of authority that BAR does, period. If you think I’m kidding, peruse the bios of the BAR partners and the testimonials on the BAR website and you’ll get my point.

SS: How do you choose who will take the course?

PP: Steve, Andy and I form the BAR partners committee that determines who gets accepted. That total is only 36 people per year. We always make every attempt from among all the applicants to accept several overseas applicants each year. It’s important to the partners to have young and mature, women and men, US citizens and overseas citizens, and talented people of all races and nationalities attend each BAR 5-Day. The hospitality industry offers unlimited opportunities for everyone and BAR likes to reflect that reality.

SS: How do you achieve success with BAR? (The list of graduates is tremendous).

PP: The success of the BAR 5-Day is something that we attribute directly to the willingness, perseverance and creativity of our students to succeed themselves with their own careers. We like nothing more than to see a BAR graduate write a great new book or open a successful bar that furthers the tenets of hospitality and community. It would be a misplacement of truth to say that we deserve credit when in fact the 5-Day students are the real heroes of the whole enterprise. They inspire the BAR partners. That’s the real story here.

SS: Any words of wisdom to aspiring bartenders?

PP: Yes, never for a single moment think that you cannot be a great bartender, a successful bar owner, or a genuine spirits expert. People who are curious and who apply themselves can change the world. That’s what BAR is all about. Changing the world for the better, one drink and one customer at a time.

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