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Raise the bar

Bartenders do not just mix drinks, they can make an evening memorable, too, Sanchita Guha discovers

education Updated: Dec 10, 2009 10:05 IST
Sanchita Guha

Most of us do not think much about it yet, but the guy who whips up a cocktail and pushes it across the counter is the star of the bar… or he could be.

“This is the one character that makes the true experience of a drink in a bar,” says Yangdup Lama, a veteran of the profession who now runs his own bar school, Cocktails and Dreams, in Safdarjung Enclave, New Delhi, and also in Mumbai. “This starts from the character of the bartender, his promptness, smartness, intelligence, knowledge, skills, body language and ability to perform based on the patrons’ requirement to add that extra bit of something.”

What separates the great from the merely good in this business is how much respect a bartender gives himself. “A bartender needs to be confident when dealing with patrons,” says Vikram Achanta of Tulleeho Portals, a company that has set up a training centre in Shahpur Jat, New Delhi, and has been into wine and beverage education for some time.

That means shaking off the feeling that one is little more than a waiter, and bringing on the showmanship and the knowledge that would enhance the quality of a patron’s evening.

The rise of bartending as a profession has a lot to do with the change in social outlook towards ‘having a drink’. The bar nowadays is far from the older shady joints where a man would down a quick few before heading home. New-age bars are focal points of urban nightlife and the bartender is an integral part of it.

That accounts for the increasing popularity of flair bartending, which has the bartender juggling bar tools and conjuring up a big flame or two to make people gasp.

However, Lama, who trained at the Spanish party town of Majorca, points out, “Most schools, including ours, do teach flair bartending, but what we emphasise on is adding the flair to the real skills of a professional bartender, rather than ending up being a ‘showtender’.”

For a reality check, just recall the scene from Cocktail — Tom Cruise wringing out the sweat from his socks after a hard evening’s work at the bar.

Hard work it is, not just in terms of the hours spent on the job, but also the amount of learning involved. “The average bartender masters five or six popular or signature cocktails and thinks, ‘That’s it’,” says Achanta. An MBA by training, he is the business brain of Tulleeho, while partner Aneesh Talukdar, who is from the hospitality industry, maps out the courses. But a bartender must surprise the customer as well as serve him.

A hindrance to this is a rookie bartender’s unfamiliarity with drinks.

An aspiring bartender may graduate from an Indian hospitality management institute without having tasted most or any of the alcohol offered in a bar. How, then, does one discover one’s inner bartender? “There is no way as such to find out whether one can make a good bartender or not,” says Lama, “but I’d say that anyone who has watched a bartender at work and loves to be a people’s man, who believes that he can relate to what the job means, can opt for the profession.”

With that knowledge, a ready smile and a steady hand, you are good to go.

What's it about?
The most basic description is that a bartender serves drinks to patrons over the counter. But, in fact, the bartender does much more than that — he engages customers in entertaining conversation; he gives them the occasional surprise cocktail instead of sticking to the tried and tested stuff; he may even throw in some bar tool jugglery, which is called ‘flair bartending’. A great bartender can bring customers back again and again. A trained person can work in hotel bars, standalone bars, restaurants, nightclubs, resorts and cruise ships or just freelance, especially in the party season

Clock Work
4 pm: Report to work
4.10 pm: Check store requirement and pick up stock
5 pm: Tea break
5.15 pm: Prepare garnishes and set up workstation
6 pm: Check inventory report
6.15 pm: Dinner break
6.45 pm: Staff briefing
7 pm: Report at the bar
7 pm to 1 am: Get behind the bar, preparing straight drinks, cocktails, speaking to guests, settling bills
1 am: Start winding up station
1.30 am: Handover of imprest (accounts) and cash sales to

Accounts or Front Office
1.45 am: Take stock of liqour
2.15 am: Prepare store requirement list for next day
3 am: End shift. Look for grub

The Payoff
Earnings could be Rs 15,000 to Rs 1 lakh per month, depending on where one works i.e. hotels, upscale outlets or as a freelancer.

In a mid-range bar, a trainee may get only Rs 3,500-5,000 per month. A skilled bartender can make Rs 12,000-15,000 per month in salary plus tips. In a place like Hard Rock Café, this can be Rs 20,000-22,000 per month. As one goes up the career ladder, the pay can rise dramatically. As a freelancer, one can make good money in the party season — about Rs 3,000 for a night’s work, with 10-15 party nights a month. A bartender who rises to the position of F&B manager in a hotel like the Hyatt can earn Rs 1 lakh a month, but he has to be a graduate at least. International openings are in West Asia, UK, Australia etc

. Ability to converse well, as lone drinkers may want to talk
. Friendly, confident body language
. Good reflex (for flair bartending)
. A keen interest in beverages to progress in career

How do i get there?
One can get into training right after school but without graduation, it is almost impossible to become a manager in a top hotel.

Bartending courses tend to be short, spread only over a few months, after which you can study and work simultaneously. A graduate from a hotel management institute will not have adequate exposure to the spirits commonly used in cocktails.

However, a good bar school with focus on familiarisation with wine and spirits and mixology can plug this gap. Courses cost from Rs 20,000-25,000 to Rs 40,000 (for two to three months). Cocktails and Dreams and Tulleeho both supply the bar kit and all the alcohol required for the training. The latter also has a one-month beverage masters course. Bar schools cannot guarantee jobs but help students find their feet in the industry

Institutes & urls
. Cocktails and Dreams Bar School, New Delhi and Mumbai
. Tulleeho Portals, New Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Kolkata
. Institute of Bar Operations & Management, New Delhi
. B’Mann School of Bartending, Chennai, Hyderabad
. Indian Institute of Bartending, Chennai

Pros & Cons
. You could meet very high-profile people, like film stars, as part of your job
. You can reach a high position in the hospitality industry with plenty of perks
. You must work through the night — 4 pm to 3 am — if yours is a popular bar
. Initially, the salary may not not be high and you have to depend a lot on tips

A toast to success

A mixologist talks about the evolution of Indian bartending

How is bartending as a career growing in India?
I started with eight students in 1999 as the first academy to open in India for the specialised skill of bartending. Over the past five years, bartending schools have mushroomed all over the country!

Today, I train selectively about 50-75 a year. But the demand is far more. There are usually always more jobs than bartenders!

How many women opt for it?
Just a handful. But I think you are far safer working in a bar than in any other public place. No one can touch you behind the counter and colleagues are very protective. The way you work, the way you hold yourself, show control and confidence helps you command respect.

My advice to women who want to be in my shoes is: Don’t try and be one of the boys. Work just as hard and efficiently... maybe more. But never forget, you are a woman. Guys tend to ignore you at first; that soon turns to curiosity, then awe. That goes for all truly professional women.

Why is hotel management training not enough for this career?
As part of HM studies, you go through alcoholic beverages from the perspective of background knowledge without foraying into professional skills. So, those wishing to take up bartending and mixology as a career need to upgrade themselves.

They learn the meaning of vodka, its history, distillation process; we teach them how different styles of vodka are distinct. They know whiskey types by definition; we allow them understanding by nose and palate.

Between top bartenders in the West and those in India, is there a big gap in skills, earnings etc?
Sure, there is. Bartending has been a recognised skill there from the turn of the 20th century. They are respected, even feted. For us, it has been just 10 years. Our levels of confidence and knowledge are not quite there. Kids look for glamour and money even before developing themselves.

Also, the mantra of Indian hospitality is: We are here to serve. That’s good, but it can instil servitude, making them feel they are at a lower level socially than the customers. Not so in the West.

Shatbhi Basu, mixologist and founder, Stir Academy of Bartending Interviewed by Sanchita Guha