Studying for the Bar: Where Bartenders Hone Their Skills in Vegas

Photo by Anthony Mair

Photo by Anthony Mair

Hopefully, at some point, at least one bartender has absolutely knocked your socks off with his or her cocktail game, spirits knowledge or crisp service. You might have wondered where they came by such prowess. Chances are, it wasn’t strictly on-the-job training. A mixology mecca of unrivaled volume and proportion, Las Vegas offers bartenders continuing educational opportunities from neophyte to master. Here are four programs in which I’ve personally participated:

Crescent School of Gaming & Bartending — This is where shiny new bartenders are minted, the first and best step for those who’ve never held a shaker. Over three intensive weeks (three hours a day, five days a week), students are immersed in spirit origins, cocktail categories and bar operations, and get behind the bar to learn free-pouring accuracy on their first night. Quizzes and practical demonstrations lead up to the final: making 30 cocktails accurately in 10 minutes. (There are some pros who could barely do that right now!). The course readies its graduates to apply for entry-level barback and bartending jobs. A 12-week option adds bar management and hospitality principles.

Southern Wine & Spirits’ Academy of Spirits & Fine Service — Novices become proficient or better through in-depth exploration (tasting!) of spirits, fortified wines, cordials and liqueurs, pisco and cachaça, as well as beer, sake and the anatomy of the cocktail. Students meet weekly to learn from Southern’s mixology team, led by executive director of mixology and spirits education Francesco Lafranconi, along with mixologists J.R. Starkus and Leann Kruger, guest speakers, master distillers and other industry luminaries. The 12-week course culminates in a written test and a practical final that is also a class-wide cocktail competition. A new academy begins this summer; to get on the invitation list, contact Kandi Johnson at Southern (702-876-4500).

The Alchemy Room at Wirtz Beverage Nevada — Ongoing education is essential for the working bartender who wants to stay relevant. How else could they keep up with the volume of new liquor products pouring into the market each year? Director of strategic activation Drew Levinson created and helped design the Alchemy Room as both a cocktail development lab and demonstration bar for maximum interaction. Features include overhead cameras, retractable screens, multiple bar wells and enough space for entire restaurant staffs. “The success of the room has inspired the construction of Alchemy Rooms in our other states such as Illinois and Wisconsin,” Levinson says. And when it’s competition time (such as Bacardi’s recent MGM Resorts Cocktail Competition; see left), this is where winning cocktails are born.

Las Vegas Chapter of the United States Bartenders’ Guild — Established in California in 1948 as an expat chapter of the United Kingdom Bartenders’ Guild, the USBG today counts about 3,000 bartenders, mixologists and beverage professionals among its membership countrywide. The Las Vegas chapter was founded in September 2001 by a dozen of the same, including Vegas’ founding father of mixology, Tony Abou-Ganim. Today, the USBG provides its members with ongoing educational opportunities, exciting competitions, incremental testing (from beverage professional all the way up to the Master Accreditation Program), networking and lifelong mentorship. Aspiring members can register online and take the 50-question test to determine eligibility.