My growing interest in the world of cocktails -- the recipes, the stories, the people, the methods -- has been a continuous learning experience for the past several years. And starting this site last year only kickstarted that; delving into the history and backstories of various drinks and talking to the great bartenders of the age, especially during the current cocktailian renaissance, has taught me quite a bit. (To think that I once ordered a Manhattan at a hotel bar in Los Angeles’ Koreatown, simply because it was the most sophisticated-sounding cocktail I could think of…and never mind that I couldn’t have told you what on earth vermouth was, even if you’d held me at gunpoint.)
The first cocktail website I found was Robert Hess’s Drinkboy, and the essays there were an excellent primer. Then a friend dragged me to Angel’s Share, and the warm welcome (despite the fact that our party of three had schlepped across town in a driving rainstorm; we must have looked like drowned rats) and excellent drinks (“what’s an Aviation?” I thought. “Oh well, better order it”) set the hook. I stumbled across Gumbopages shortly thereafter, and that led to Dr. Cocktail’s book, and then the Pegu Club opened, and a passion had well and truly taken root.
Why do I mention all this? Well, one of the milestones along my path was when I ran across the names Dale DeGroff and David Wondrich. I’ve learned from them over the past few years, but that learning has only accelerated recently. Along with some other master mixologists -- Andy Seymour, Doug Frost, Steve Olson, Paul Pacult -- they’ve started Beverage Alcohol Resource, a high-end spirits-education concern. I knew I couldn’t afford their five-day program (and since I don’t work in the industry, I had little hope of anyone else paying for me to go), but I followed it with interest. I was especially excited to hear when Pernod Ricard partnered with B.A.R. to offer BarSmarts, a comprehensive educational program aimed at working professionals and committed enthusiasts.
The BarSmarts Advanced course sounds neat -- a workbook and other educational materials including video, coupled with a daylong seminar with the B.A.R. partners reinforcing the concepts you’ve been studying, plus a practical exam (imagine making a drink for Dale DeGroff -- gulp!) But if you don’t live in a city where the BarSmarts seminar will be held, what to do? Fortunately, Pernod Ricard and B.A.R. opened up the BarSmarts curriculum to distance learners with the creation of BarSmarts Wired. After registering for BarSmarts Wired and paying a $45 fee, you get access to the complete curriculum covering such things as the history of distillation, how to taste spirits, an introduction to bar tools, recipes for the 25 cocktails you should know, bar service, and more. (In the interests of disclosure: Pernod Ricard picked up my registration fee.) I learned an awful lot about how to taste, as well as tons of really good information about each of the basic spirits, their origins and history, and the various varieties of what's out there. Another great highlight are the videos produced to accompany each module of the curriculum, in which the B.A.R. principals (plus some guest stars like Audrey Saunders and Julie Reiner) give very engaging lectures expanding on the workbook, demonstrate techniques, and make some really great-looking cocktails. There are four modules, and they recommend that you take a week to go through each. (This is a good recommendation, as there's lots of information in each module, and the intervening tests can be a little tricky. Offline study -- you can print out .PDFs of the workbook -- is essential.)
Your $45 fee also includes a nice BarSmarts-emblazoned messenger-type computer bag and a solid set of bartending tools that itself is worth the fee. (Well, I'm not nuts about the Hawthorne strainer therein, but everything else is great...and I particularly liked the all-in-one zester/channel knife/paring knife.)
And they've come up with a nifty way to do the practical portion of the final exam -- their "DrinkBuilder" interface presents you with an assigned cocktail to make, and every step (ingredient selection, amount of pour, technique, glassware, garnish) is a multiple-choice question -- the software even builds, shakes and pours virtual cocktails in front of you. (CocktailNerd has some good screenshots on his review.)
The upshot? I'd highly recommend BarSmarts Wired if you're an enthusiast who wants to take your skills to the next level, or if you're a pro who's not able to get to one of the BarSmarts Live events. Given the equipment and the quality of the instruction, it's a bargain at $45. One caveat, though: at the moment, they're only accepting registrations through the end of September. However, once you register, you'll still get four weeks to complete the course. Pernod Ricard and B.A.R. may bring back the course in the future, but if this sounds good and you have some time to devote to study, tasting, and practice, it's really an excellent program.
I look forward to taking the regular BarSmarts Advanced course soon, and I'll give you an update on the comparisons between that and the Wired version.