You probably will never set foot in the Academy of Spirits & Fine Service, but what happens in Southern Wine & Spirits of Nevada’s state-of-the-art classroom dramatically impacts your experience at bars, restaurants and lounges throughout the city and beyond.
Francesco Lafranconi, Southern’s executive director of mixology and spirits education has overseen the Academy since 2000. Initially just seven weeks, the now 12-week certificate course aims to educate bartenders and other beverage professionals about the manufacturing, history, marketing and consumption of the products they serve.
“It’s been a great opportunity for us to really show suppliers what kind of added value education is,” Lafranconi says. “The ‘the more you know, the more you sell’ message came across well. Suppliers started to develop ambassador programs for their brands. And so the vision that [Southern boss] Larry Ruvo had in 1998 when he met me in Italy has really paid off.”
Lafranconi famously says, “We’re not drinking, we’re learning,” but notes the class truly is “a career-path changer.” It was for me.
I graduated from the Academy in winter 2009, when lessons were held in a standard classroom with long desks, noisy chairs and, at the front of the narrow, rectangular room, a partial wet bar setup that could have also suited a chemistry class. The lectures were interesting and challenging, but mostly theoretical, historical and anecdotal, with very little demonstration other than tasting samples and watching presentations. It was rather like taking a shot: It got the job done, but left ample room for improvement.
Just in time for the Academy’s 15th anniversary, Lafranconi and Southern have unveiled a high-tech, completely renovated Academy Room, one at last befitting the world-class education that goes on there.
Unveiled on July 27, the new design turns the former Academy room on its end—literally. The 1,700-square-foot room’s focal point has shifted 90 degrees to the right, and there’s stadium-style seating for 50, meaning there isn’t a bad seat in the house. Three wells make up the 41-foot-long bar, two oriented for right-handed individuals and one engineered for southpaws.
The key to the whole operation is Lafranconi’s “race track,” a design Lafranconi says he’s been working on since 2009. It’s an oval channel sunken into the steel hull dedicated to garnishes and 12 frequently used bottles. The track’s infield holds a chilled, oval bin for up to three varieties of ice (cube, crushed, spheres or spears). The rest of the bar boasts chilled drawers, hidden cubbies, a trash chute, ice-carving station and high-end Italian faucets (Lafranconi: “Of course, Italian!”), plus a knife rack and wide swaths of space for tools and bitters.
“I took functional design from a lot of different concepts around the world during my travels,” he says. “I decided to make this the bar of the future, the best of all worlds, old and new.” In addition to the cocktail-centric prep spaces, dedicated draft wine and cocktail lines sit next to the beer lines. There are condiment trays, refrigerators for dairy and produce, a freezer for sorbet, a cooler for chilling cocktail glasses, and bottle shelves and cabinets galore. And soon, a complete coffee station will anchor the right side of the bar along with high-power blenders, for barista and pool-bar training.
Likening his $2 million baby to everything from a unicorn to a Ferrari, Lafranconi says every detail of the proprietary patent-pending design is custom—except for the commercial hand sink. (“Why reinvent the wheel?”)
“We are honoring the craft of bartending by focusing on functionality and details, and we are able to meet the needs of the bartender, but also keep them healthy, allowing them to do the right moves behind the bar,” Lafranconi says. Here, the bartender no longer leans against the bottles, pour spouts against knees, sharp corners digging into hip bones even before the bending, lifting and turning begin—all the makings of repetitive motion injuries. The counter height has been raised from about 30 inches to 35. The bar wraps around the bartender’s hips like a tool belt, placing everything he or she needs within reach; Lafranconi calls this the “cockpit,” the “bridge of command.”
It’s the subtler touches, however, that will attract liquor brands for educational seminars and lure local mixologists to use this as their menu-creation space. Usually, when you break a glass near the ice bin, you are compelled to “burn” it. That is, scoop it all out or melt it down in case a shard landed among the cubes. Not here. Turn a knob, and a faucet at the bottom of the ice bin floods it with hot water, burning the ice for you in seconds.
Although Lafranconi led the project, it was a team effort with his colleagues, including Leanne Kruger, formerly of Southern, who suggested the hot-water faucet beneath the ice bin, and mixologist J.R. Starkus, who devised screens to hide the backbar (which means no longer scheduling a team to remove every competitive bottle when a brand books the room). And the entire company stands to benefit from the renovation, with certified cicerone Sam Merritt using the space for beer education, Level 3 sake master Luis DeSantos for sake and Asian spirits, and master sommelier Joseph Phillips for wine instruction.
“It’s all about details, ergonomics and functionality,” Lafranconi says. But the ergonomic attention doesn’t stop at the bar. Guests and students will enjoy the comfortable bar stools and desk chairs. The table surface is gently underlit for observing the clarity and color of products. Cameras capture the action behind the bars for display on high-definition 80-inch TVs or for live-streaming broadcasts across the world, zooming in tight on the smallest details of the demo. “You can see a fruit fly,” Lafranconi points out from the control panel next door. Blackout curtains, surround sound and soundproof insulation make this as much a recording studio as it is a demo kitchen. And he’s already thinking of potential improvements for his Academy 2.0. “It’s like the Apollo project,” he says.
Finally, Lafranconi crowned the room with framed black and white photos of 20th-century celebrities and luminaries, from presidents to actors: “The idea is to show how alcoholic beverages are so intertwined with civilization: cultural gatherings, celebrations of life, and social and political meetings and events.”
For its students, the Academy room will be a place of learning. It will also confirm that bartending can be a smart career choice, one that might take them in any number of directions. Says Lafranconi: “Whether somebody is not fully dedicated or committed yet, or somebody is in between jobs and trying to decide what career to choose, when someone works behind this bar, they will fall in love, and they will really have a whole new perception of what bartending is all about.”