Is a gin-and-tonic ever worth £9? In the run-up to Christmas, in one of London's most beautifully designed bar spaces, it certainly seemed so. It was a double for a start, I was paying for a premium spirit, and pouring the drink was the type of cheeky girl whose smile makes (male) customers feel rather good.
Unfortunately, the drink didn't live up to the smile. It was flat and didn't taste like a gin-and-tonic - more like gin diluted with water. I returned it, explaining the problem. Another drink was poured but the problem remained. The staff had a taste, but couldn't make up their minds. I chose again and, while their debate continued, turned away to sit down.
If this is happening at the top end of the bar world, standards are only going to get more inconsistent further down. Cocktails have become far more popular over the past 15 years in this country, and there are now nearly 370,000 people working in the pub, bar and nightclub industry. That figure is on the up, so a lot more training will be required if standards are to be maintained.
Unfortunately, taken individually, none of the current qualifications available from the British Institute of Innkeeping Award Body (BIIAB) or in the form of NVQs offers the comprehensive training a bartender needs. In fact, most professional skills are learnt on the job. But this, as the experience related above proves, can lead to fairly varied results. It is also a haphazard approach for a sector that increasingly describes itself as having one
of the most vibrant cocktail cultures in the world.
Tai Altman is one-third of IP Bartenders, an independent bar consultancy that specialises in training. Much of the company's work involves providing expert bartending tuition for clients such as hotels and bar groups. As such, he gets to gauge just how effective these clients' in-house training has been. Unfortunately, he says, he is rarely impressed.
"Every time we do something for one of these companies, we see how woefully inadequate in-house training is," Altman says. "The people giving the training often don't have the skills themselves and, while they're good teaching about health and safety or company policy, they aren't very good at teaching bartending."
Compare this to the situation in France, Switzerland or Germany, where those who want to specialise in bar work can do another whole year of bar school after finishing their hospitality degree to gain the relevant qualification. British students aren't being given the same opportunity to become properly, and professionally, qualified.
Igor Beaulieu is the bar manager of London's globally renowned Met Bar. Two of his most recently employed staff members have been French and German, for the simple reason that Beaulieu trusts the extra training they receive at bar school. "They've got good experience in the basics," he says. "They have learnt all the classic cocktails and they know all about spirits. They don't need to be taught the difference between Armagnac and Cognac."
According to John Crompton, food and drink development manager for Abode Hotels, the lack of up-to-scratch training hits staff recruitment and retention. "A recognised qualification would be useful because it would help people to see bartending as a career to go into," he says. "Bartending and waiting are still seen as just a part-time job and a way to get cash. We are always up against that. But how can you attract people to a job when you can't even get qualified for it?"
Crompton uses bar consultant the Gorgeous Group to provide inspirational training for bar staff, and brands such as Bacardi to give training in specific products. But this is not the norm. For many operators, training for bartenders is some way down the hospitality food chain.
According to People 1st - the Sector Skills Council for the hospitality, leisure, travel and tourism sector - more than half the bar workforce is employed on a part-time basis. At this level, the skills of those serving aren't considered hugely important. "When people apply for jobs in bars in this country," Altman says, "often the manager just looks them up and down, sees they've got a nice cleavage and says, ‘You're in'."
Reluctant to invest
As long as their bar is profitable, the owner does not see the worth in investing in that part-time worker's future. Even at the top end, managers are reluctant to invest in people who might soon move on.
As Beaulieu explains: "If I send some of my people on a course, then I have to know they are interested in becoming a bartender for a career and that they are going to stay here. I often look at people's CVs and see that they have good experience, but have moved on every six months."
This is a merry-go-round that benefits nobody. With a burgeoning cocktail culture to develop, a clearer strategy must evolve if bar workers are to get the training and give back the commitment the sector needs.
"We want to encourage staff to stay longer so they become better at their job," Altman says. "If they are better, they will make more money."
Altman's company has gone some way to bridging the gap between the cocktail-making skills agenda and the wider qualities needed to be a top-class bartender. Bartending, of course, is not just about mixing a good cocktail. With the changes made last November to the licensing laws, bar staff have become personally responsible for not serving a person who is already drunk.
Seemingly in opposition to that responsibility is the pressure to make money. But to resolve that problem, good bar training also teaches upselling, pushing premium brands and introducing customers to new (and more expensive) cocktails. It is about good customer service that connects to each individual, makes them happy to be at your bar, and keeps them coming back for more.
Does this training exist? IP Bartenders' four-day course is a good model and, as it is accredited by the BII, represents one of the most comprehensive programmes. But it is only a stepping stone to a more substantial qualification. As Altman admits, training is still in its infancy.
"We are trying to change that," he says. "It would be great if prospective employees could turn up with an industry-recognised certificate. At the moment, that's only a fairytale."
There is, though, a desire from within the industry to come up with the goods. Not content with its BII accreditation, IP Bartenders has also been involved with the Wine and Spirit Education Trust and would welcome working with City and Guilds to develop a qualification.
At a higher level, the Academy of Food and Wine Service is also in discussion with People 1st on how best to develop a series of more in-depth qualifications for front-of-house staff in general, including specific modules for the bar sector. "What we have to ensure is that there are a core number of qualifications fit for purpose," says Philip Rainsford, policy and strategic programmes director for People 1st. "We don't need a plethora of different awards which will confuse people."
People 1st has been facilitating the new Vocationally Related Qualifications (VRQs) qualifications from City and Guilds, and both imagine a similar new VRQ qualification that could focus on bar service.
With all the many consultancies and companies that have developed their own qualifications already, there must be enough expertise to create a more reliable approach to training. In turn, that should create a more reliable gin-and-tonic - especially when it costs £9.
British Institute of Innkeeping Awarding Body (BIIAB)
The basic qualification from the BII is the Level 1 Award in Responsible Alcohol Retailing. The day-long course covers the essential responsibilities of those selling alcohol - issues such as underage sales, serving people who are drunk and the licensing objectives. It does not, however, cover cocktail-making skills. The BIIAB also offer courses for becoming a licence holder, advanced courses for licensees, and specific courses on drugs awareness and door supervising.
National Vocational Qualifications Level 2 Bar Service covers bar preparation, management and the serving of basic bottled and draught drinks. It also covers a degree of customer care. Cocktail preparation is only an optional module. Level 3 develops these themes, with more on bar supervision. Colleges and training schools nationwide.
Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) The WSET has broadened its reach recently to include more spirit- and cocktail-based courses, as well as wine. But the Level 2 Professional Certificate in Spirits is solely a product-knowledge qualification, and does not include any practical bartending or cocktail-making elements.
Specialist bartending training centres There is an ever-growing number of companies, consultancies and bar specialists who will provide some sort of bartending training. A trawl on the internet will reveal someone near you.
Many are consultants, such as the Gorgeous Group (www.gorgeousgroup.com), the Worldwide Cocktail Club
(www.worldwidecocktailclub.com) and Soulshakers (www.soulshakers.net), which offer comprehensive training for bars they help to start up.
There are others, however, whose core business is training. IP Bartenders offers a four-day Professional Bartending School, incorporating its Professional Bartending Skills Course. Importantly, the course is the only one in the country accredited by the BIIAB. The school covers cocktail skills and the challenge of making money while still serving responsibly. It also emphasises the importance of the bartender's role, how to maximise sales opportunities and how to perfect the customers' experience.
Shaker Bar School operates two training academies, one in Birmingham and the other in London. Its five-day International Bartenders Course covers customer service but has a greater emphasis on cocktail knowledge, with three days spent on learning the essential classic and contemporary cocktails for the modern bar scene. The company also offers an Advanced Bartenders Course for those with at least one year's bartending experience.
The Training School in London's Docklands is a larger hospitality training provider with three courses specific to the bartending trade (foundation, intermediate and advanced cocktail). These cover all aspects of cocktail preparation as well as practical training in running a bar. The Training School also offers the BIIAB's qualifications for licence holders.