Bartending experience is incredibly valuable. For some it means a flexible income to help them through university or smooth the transition between more lucrative jobs. But it can also be pretty lucrative itself, with top mixologists sometimes able to make five-figure salaries. There’s no substitute for experience, of course, but the right bartending school could help you reach more glittering heights.
How to become a professional bartender
As with all subjects, school can help you hit the ground running, but the real learning starts out in the real world. Don’t assume that just because you like hanging out in bars, you’ll equally like working in one. Yes, it can be a lot of fun, but there’ll be times when you’re the only person in the bar not having any. Bartending can be stressful and some people thrive on that. Find out if you’re one of them before throwing money at a professional bartending school.
Probably the best way to learn bartending is to apply for barback positions. A barback is basically a bar assistant. They do things like clean glasses, restock bottles, and cut limes. You won’t be serving customers or mixing drinks yet, but you will learn how a bar operates fairly quickly. Pay close attention and you’ll become familiar with different drink brands, common bartending terms, and the array of utensils and equipment used. With time, you’ll undoubtedly learn how to make a few common cocktails from your more experienced colleagues.
Alternatively, find a job in a restaurant with a bar or a so-called gastropub. With the emphasis on food and table service, such bars are generally less stressful, allowing ample opportunity to practice on the job. Restaurant chains are also likely to offer good training programmes – at the very least for getting started, if not to continue working your way up.
Such jobs may also expose you to mentorship possibilities. Prove your worth and you may find an experienced bartender who’ll take you under your wing. At the very least, most bartenders will be happy to teach you in the quieter hours. Whatever happens, just remember to be patient. You won’t become Harry Craddock overnight.
Only once you know it’s the life for you should you start thinking about bartending schools. In which case, you’ll need to first decide what you want out of it. Do you simply want to learn to run a bar or do you want to become a true mixologist?
What is mixology?
So what’s the difference between a bartender and a mixologist? They’re two words often used interchangeably, but there are important distinctions.
Whereas a bartender typically mixes cocktails while directly interacting with customers, a mixologist is someone who creates original cocktails or develops existing ones – for example, creating a signature Bloody Mary for a restaurant or a twist on the classic Martini to showcase a new brand of gin.
Think of mixology as the science of cocktails. Mixologists need a wide knowledge of drinks, ingredients (from egg whites to bitters), and how various flavours interact. It also helps to know the history of cocktails and keep on top of industry trends.
Of course, there’s a huge intersection between the roles of bartender and mixologist. It’s not only possible to be both, but very common. While mixologists can work behind the scenes, such as cocktail menu consultants, they’re also often the head bartender.
Top 5 bartending schools in the world
The European Bartending School
Despite the name, the EBS has locations all over the world, and even an online bartending school. They claim to be “the global leader in bartender training” and that isn’t such a wild claim. It’s certainly the largest bartending school in the world – but is it the best?
Established in 1999, backed by several major drink brands, and offering globally recognised certification, it’s hard to argue with the 7,000 bartenders trained every year across their 28 schools. For up to four weeks it’s possible to study at exciting city, coastal and even mountain locations, but they also have schools at the Glenfiddich distillery and the iconic home of Tequila and Mezcal, Jalisco.
The Spirit Lab
Another bartending school claiming to be the best in the world is London’s Spirit Lab. They offer intensive 3-day courses that offer everything from customer care to mixology. It’s an excellent option for refining your skills in a short space of time, and if you already live and work in London, it’s fairly easy to work around your day job.
New York Bartending School
New York’s bar scene makes it a top location to learn bartending in. It’s also home to a school that understands not everyone wants the same thing out of the profession. Whether you’re starting from scratch, developing your mixology skills, or even want to become a sommelier (expert wine waiter), the New York Bartending School has a course for you.
The Mixology Academy
If you’re half a world away from the New York Bartending School, check out The Mixology Academy instead. Based in Rome, they offer a similarly broad range of courses, from beginner and barista courses to starting your own bar and, of course, advanced mixology.
Columbia Bartending School
Let’s face it, you might just be looking for the grandest option available. The Columbia Bartending School is actually part of Columbia University and has been training bartenders for over half a century. Yes, you read that correctly: you really can learn to tend bar at an Ivy League school.