It takes a few minutes to realize, but Mike Cox vaguely resembles Jerry Seinfeld in appearance and speech, though with a greater sense of urgency.
Cox, a bartender of 35 years and a bartending instructor for eight, is moving quickly behind the mock bar at the Nashua location of Boston Bartenders School when I meet him. It’s a rainy Tuesday morning, and he’s getting supplies ready for the hands-on portion of the day’s bartending class. He’ll be teaching his 13 students, who are on a break in the classroom next door, how to make a Manhattan martini.
Nashua’s Boston Bartenders School, one of its 12 New England locations, is tucked away on the third floor of the Landmark Center on Main Street. With its wide carpeted stairs and high ceilings, the old building feels like the kind of place you’d find a youth theater company or music and dance lessons, not a room full of people eager to learn how to make cocktails.
But walking into the warm, dim space, you see the neon bar signs, rows of liquor bottles — though these are filled with colored water — and the gray-speckled bar top and bar stools you’d expect to find at any happy hour hangout. An ice machine rumbles against one wall. A thick manual detailing the school’s 32-hour course curriculum rests on the bar. This is the spot where 13 students, women and men mostly in their 20s, have come on this damp May morning to learn the art of mixology.
In New Hampshire and elsewhere, you must be at least 18 years old to work as a bartender. Some other states, including California, Delaware and Virginia, require professional bartenders to be at least 21 years old. Arizona, Idaho and Nebraska require their bartenders to be at least 19.
There is no license required to work as a bartender in New Hampshire or other states, though Wisconsin calls its bartender certification (more on that later) a license. Aspiring professional bartenders need training hours and a bartending certificate to work as bartenders in the Granite State, wrote Kimberly Kenneally of New Hampshire’s Higher Education Commission (part of the New Hampshire Department of Education) in an e-mail. Many other states also require bartender certification.
The number of training hours needed depends on the schools’ state-approved program, Kenneally wrote. Schools are responsible for administering a bartending exam, which students must pass in order to get their certification. Alcohol awareness training is also recommended, and most schools offer this as part of their course.
While individuals don’t need licenses to bartend, the state’s bartending schools need to be licensed by New Hampshire’s Higher Education Commission to provide bartending instruction. The commission oversees “career schools,” which are non-degree-granting, post-high school, job-training institutions, such as schools for massage therapy, income tax preparing, modeling, paramedic training and, yes, bartending.
“Every year you have to submit to the state all of your paperwork, including the names of students who have graduated, your curriculum and your schedule,” said Ken Anderson, owner of Newmarket’s Master Bartender School. State officials “can come in for an inspection at any time. They also have the ability to call the students” with questions about the school, Anderson said.
Once licensed, the schools are bonded for their own protection and the protection of their students. Most offer an alcohol awareness training program, such as TIPS, which stands for Training for Intervention ProcedureS, or ServSafe Alcohol Training. These and other alcohol safety programs aim to prepare bartenders and servers to effectively and safely handle difficult situations and prevent underage drinking, intoxication and drunken driving.
Anderson says there is a hefty fine for schools that teach bartending without being licensed by the state. In fact, “the fine for operating an unlicensed school in New Hampshire is $5,000 a month with a maximum fine of $25,000 per year,” Kenneally wrote.
“We can teach you how to throw a cocktail party for your friends, but if it’s something you can get a job from,” the school needs to be licensed, Anderson said.
According to the Department of Education website, the bartending schools approved to operate in the Granite State as of March were Boston Bartenders School, Master Bartender School and New Hampshire Bartending School, located in Hudson. Also included in the list was On the Rocks School of Bartending, which is based in Holliston, Mass., but sometimes holds classes at the University of New Hampshire.
Becoming a master
Anderson took over Master Bartender School in Newmarket from then-owner Roy Alonzo in 2004. He had been bartending for formal functions since retiring from the Navy and thought he would enjoy the switch to teaching.
“I didn’t want to own a bar, because the liability is phenomenal,” said Anderson, who sports a salt-and-pepper beard. “I was not interested in doing that. Teaching is a fun, exciting way of giving back to people. For a lot of college students, it’s a good way to make income a couple of days per week. For retired people, too, it’s extra money. It’s very rewarding.”
Anderson’s students’ ages have ranged from 18 to 72 with “everything in between,” he said. The school sees a lot of nurses, hairdressers and landscapers — people who are looking to make some extra money one or two days per week, he said.
Anderson, who is the sole operator-owner of the 32-year-old bartending school, put together a course load of 30 hours of training. Programs include one-, two- and five-week courses, as well as a weekend class option. He says that all courses cover the same material, including TIPS training.
“The course is designed to teach 100 core drinks, with different alcohols, including tequila, scotch and bourbon,” Anderson said. “We teach students the major brands listed by price, so [they’ll] know what other alcohols are similar.” Anderson says he keeps his list of drinks up to date to account for new trends and drink popularity.
His course, like others, also covers customer service and is held in a mock bar for hands-on training and practice, which composes the majority of the course. Anderson says the 15-stool bar has seven serving stations and replicates the atmosphere of serving in a real bar.
Like Boston Bartenders and New Hampshire Bartending schools, Master Bartender School offers free lifetime refresher courses and has a job assistance program in place for students.
“It tells potential employers that you’ve been to bartending school,” said Anderson, who still bartends for private functions. “It gives them a reference point of what level of knowledge you have” as a bartender.
He says he hasn’t had anyone fail his course in years.
“My policy is if a student is not ready, they just stay some more. People come in and practice all the time. ... If you’re going to work in adult education, you have to be flexible. Everyone works differently. Some people are hands-on learners and some learn better by reading.”
As long as his students “are doing the right thing legally and being good stewards of the community” by not sending people out into an unsafe situation, Anderson says he is happy. It’s about knowing and exercising your responsibility to the people you serve, he said.
Another perk of owning his own school is working with people who share his passion. He’s had some parents and kids take the course together, and as a father himself, he enjoys seeing kids come to the realization that their parents are people with interests of their own, too.
And then, of course, there are the success stories:
“One day, I was in a local pub with my wife, and a [former] student came up to me and said, ‘I want you to meet my dad.’ And [the father] hugged me and said, ‘I just want you to know that every morning, I used to hand my daughter a $20 bill. But ever since she’s gone to your school, I haven’t given her a nickel,’” Anderson said, laughing.
Behind the bar
Back at the Nashua school, Mike Cox leads his 13 students from the classroom to the mock bar. He instructs about half the students to take positions behind the bar with him, while the other half will watch and switch spots later in the class.
Owners Dean and Linda Robinson opened the Nashua school in 1994. A native of St. Thomas, Ontario, Dean had spent 13 years managing a nightclub and banquet facility and was looking for a change. He and his wife decided to move south to Nashua, and they purchased what is now the school’s home, space that was for sale at the time. Linda began teaching afternoon bartending classes and designed a detailed 32-hour syllabus for day, evening and Saturday courses at the school, which is affiliated with roughly 110 bartending schools in the U.S. The owners eventually hired two instructors, Mike Cox and Doreen Rose, to teach the course.
Dean says the school attracts a variety of students, about 300 per year. Younger people tend to take classes in the spring and summer before going back to school. Older folks come year-round, usually to brush up on skills for banquet hall and country club jobs. His students’ ages range from 18 to 60, he said.
His favorite part of the job is getting feedback from students and seeing them land jobs at bars and businesses near and far. Both of his children have gone through the course and worked as bartenders. He says that students leave the course with a certificate, a résumé with the school’s logo, a laminated bartender’s identification card and hours of training.
“The 32 hours is what makes our school stand out,” Dean said. “People have to get the proper training.”
Cox sets a clean cocktail glass on the bar mat as his students look on. A metal bar shaker is nearby. He fills the glass to the top with ice to keep it chilled and picks up the shaker. Cox reaches for a stoplight green liquor bottle, “sweet vermouth” for the martini. He pours some of its contents into the shaker and then adds some colored water “whiskey” and “bitters.” He stirs the mixture with a long, upside down metal spoon and pops a cover onto the shaker, tossing the ice out of the resting cocktail glass.
“Just stir for show,” Cox says. “I didn’t do anything really, did I? But the customers like it.”
Then, magic happens. Cox, his elbow high, shaker pointing down, pours the smooth liquid into the glass, almost a foot below. A coppery stream cascades into the glass. His students give it a whirl.
One student’s drink comes out a little short. Cox encourages her, telling her it’s no problem and turning it into a lesson to never add more vermouth to correct a short drink. It is too strong. Adding more will throw off the flavor of the whole drink.
Cox slides from one drink demonstration to the next, lacing his presentations with helpful tips and personal stories and then giving his students a chance to practice on their own.
He tells them of the time an elderly woman asked him for a drink on the rocks, which should be made directly in a glass for one portion, not in a shaker, he says. Cox says he told the woman that she could get two drinks as opposed to one if he prepared the drink in the shaker, or not on the rocks.
“I know I’ll get two drinks,” Cox says she replied. “I’m an old lady; I only need one. Mind your business.”
Students chuckle and so does Cox. “You’re doing a great job,” he tells the young woman to his left.
New school on the block
New Hampshire Bartending School opened its doors in Hudson three years ago. Peggy DeVito had been working as an instructor at other bartending schools for nearly 20 years and was ready to break out on her own.
DeVito says that 95 percent of her courses is hands-on training, which she, like Anderson and Dean and Linda Robinson, believes is the best way to teach bartending.
“People can study and write it 100 times, but actually making drinks” is how they absorb what they’re learning, she says.
In her courses, DeVito offers students tips and tricks for remembering drink ingredients, mostly having to do with word association. This comes in handy when students are learning 100 drinks in her two-day seminar, she says.
“If we’re making a Fuzzy Navel, I’ll ask them, ‘What fruit has fuzz?’” DeVito said. “A peach. Then navel is associated with oranges, the second ingredient. They have to retain it by thinking about it.”
The owner-operator says that opening her own school and designing its courses involved a lot of trial and error. She has incorporated speed rounds into the curriculum and isn’t afraid to be fussy when it comes to how her students “present their drinks” or how consistent and balanced they are.
In addition to the two-day seminar and what she calls her Extreme Class, DeVito offers a four-day Art of Mixology course. She says the four-day course is slower-paced and allows students more practice time, while “the two-day course is good for someone right out of school or [who] has been a bartender or waitress.”
DeVito says that high school and college students tend to absorb material more quickly — like “sponges” — but that most older students also get the hang of bartending fairly quickly.
“I spend a little more time with them. Anyone can practice or retake a course for free. They know if they don’t get it, and then they just come back the next week so they’re comfortable. The important thing is that they understand it and are comfortable with it.”
In her 30 years of bartending, DeVito has seen drink trends come and go and certain classics rise to the top.
“Drinks that stick around forever are Cape Codders and Screwdrivers,” she said. “Now they have Cosmos, which is another drink that sticks. There are also crazy margaritas, ‘skinny’ drinks and appletinis.”
The drinks that stick are the ones DeVito’s students will need to learn. By the end of her course, students will be able to make any type of martini because they will have an understanding of the proper “balance of cordials and spirits,” she says.
“A lot of bartending schools don’t update their drinks,” she said. “It’s important to know what’s going on.”
The art of pouring
About a week after Mike Cox’s rainy Tuesday class, three young women stand behind the same bar just after 6 p.m. It’s their first day of a two-week-long evening course taught by instructor Doreen Rose at the Nashua school.
At the other side of the bar, five other women, who are a few classes into their course, are making highballs. With two courses going on at the same time, Rose sticks by her three new students and pops over to the more experienced students when they have questions for her.
Rose holds up a clear jigger, a tool used for measuring drink ingredients that is essentially two different-sized conjoined cones that face outward. She points to the lowest line encircling one of the cones.
“That first line is one ounce,” says Rose, who has been teaching for 13 years.
Then she demonstrates the first of the evening’s many pours, which is called, simply enough, a bottle lift. Rose holds a tall glass in her left hand, tilts a faux vodka bottle, and smoothly raises the bottle up and back down. She tilts the glass into the jigger to measure her pour: A perfect one ounce.
Rose encourages her three beginner students, all set up with their own materials, to give the pour a try. She tells them not to block the bottle’s air hole; doing so will create a sloppy pour.
As the women practice the pour again and again, Rose talks to them about the course requirements. On the last day of the course, they’ll be taking two tests: a written True/False and multiple choice exam, and a hands-on exam for which they will be required to make 30 drinks. Students can retake either exam if they don’t pass the first time.
“I’m here to help you; not to judge,” says Rose, smiling. “I want you to feel confident when you go behind the bar.”
Rose goes on to teach the women additional pours: the glass drop, the combination, the two-handed pour, which involves a soda gun, and more. Some of her instructions sound more like dance steps than pouring techniques. As they practice pouring, the women swap stories and encourage one another.
“You’re going to be pouring drinks at home like this,” says Rose, laughing, at one point.
Two of the women, who have young children, make mention of sippy cups and smoothies. One says that her goal is to bartend full-time. The other is a stay-at-home mom during the day and says she’d like to supplement her evening waitressing job with bartending at the same restaurant.
“Bartending is an art,” Rose says. “You have to keep smiling even if it hurts. And it will hurt sometimes.”
Having the hustle
The instructors at New Hampshire’s three bartending schools have a lot in common. All seem to focus on keeping the customer happy though that might mean different things to different people. Rose says it’s about having a good personality. Anderson thinks it’s about achieving a balance of different customer service techniques.
“You have to listen to people; not give advice like you see on TV,” Anderson said. “You want to be friendly. … You want people to feel comfortable.”
But perhaps the most important thing, Anderson says, is a sense of urgency.
“People that lack urgency in our business don’t make it,” he said. “People have to hustle. It can get pretty crazy behind the bar sometimes.”