The Lonesome Train

This article was featured in the March edition of Bartender Magazine

By Philip Duff


As well as designing the award-winning Total Cocktails/Liquid Inspiration/Mixxit and Bols Academy global training programs , Philip recently created the quest for the world’s best gin bartender, the G’Vine Gin Connoisseur Program. You can enter now on , and maybe follow in the footsteps of Sling Lounge’s Martin Lange, who made it to the 2010 finals as a global Wild Card. By the way, Philip likes his Manhattans stirred. Just saying.

I was in a fancy bar a few weeks back. I am a complete wanker, so the bar in question was of course in New York, where I hang my hat every month or so. It was called Beauty & Essex and was absolutely fucking gi-normous. You entered through a large pawnshop, then a not-so-secret secret door, and found yourself in a two-level 400-capacity venue. Wow. Must have cost $5m easy, and that’s in US dollars. Impressed, I sloped upstairs to wait for my date to arrive.

I spied a bottle of Michter’s Rye on the backbar and my heart did that little flip-flop which presages a good drink sliding into my clammy Irish hands. I asked the bartender for a Manhattan with aforementioned, and idly perused the cocktail menu while she shoo – Gaaaaaah! She shook my Manhattan! With the fancy booze! Oh. My. God.

Well, it looked like dishwater and tasted like it too. My lady arrived. She is in the business. I told her. She could see instantly that behind my smiling facade my fragile world had crumbled, and I was clinging desperately to sanity by my very fingertips. She knows the place. Over a second drink, when the black spots dancing before my eyes had abated somewhat, she chatted with the bartender, who confessed she’d shaken the drink because they didn’t have any barspoons. Of course not.

Five large on building, interior, kitchens, tables, chairs, bars, lighting and a couple of hot birds in slinky dresses to hostess. Of course there was nothing left in the kitty for a barspoon. Why, those can cost as much as $2,95 a pop. (shipping included).

Training pays off. My first drink, the dishwater Manhattan, cost $18. My second played it safe – a $12 G&T. Total sales $30 instead of $36; a 20% decline in sales. Training makes a difference and that’s why I am going to bite the hand that has fed and that feeds me, to confess my disquiet at the host of training programs from drinks firms, and the decided lack of people training daily, unspectacularly, but consistently.

I have worked all sides of the fence: designed and taught programs for big drinks firms, worked as an independent trainer and owned a bar. In 2011, there seems to be less and less real training going on.

My Manhattan looked like dishwater and tasted like it too…”

I don’t mean masterclasses with the industry legends, the sort who run Sensology, Mixxit, The Craft and so on. Those are irreplaceable. I mean day-to-day on-shift training. By you: owner, manager, senior bartender. No fanfare. No announcement.

No notice on the staff messageboard. Just teaching all of your staff at least two new things, every single shift. Holding quick pre-shift meetings, before every shift. Tastings for all the staff – not just pointing to a new bottle as each bartender comes in and grunting “New. Try some.”

I think some of this is the result of overload; every bar magazine and trade show is jam-packed with articles about training, trainers, training programs, and what’s happened is that it’s reduced the amount of good, old-fashioned unfussy down-to-earth training going on. It parallels the world of cooking: you know the TV channels and bookshelves are rammed with cooking and chef programs, right?

But did you also know that for years, every country in the first world has experienced a sharp decline in the amount of meals being cooked at home? We are watching TV food porn as entertainment, which has the side effect of scaring us away from normal daily cooking. Training in bars is going the same way. No-one thinks they can compete with Salvatore Calabrese as a trainer, so why even try?

So by all means have the branded trainers come in, or send your staff to their sessions. These programs are not designed to replace the training a staff member should get from the venue themselves, but to supplement it; to explain new products, different cocktails or interesting new procedures, all through the rose-tinted spectacles of the brands.

Staff should get a full in-house classroom training on policies, procedures, technique and service from you – and training does not stop there. Training is a philosophy, not a department or a class. You need manuals, trainer-training, checklists and spec sheets, but more important than any of that, you need a training mentality. It must happen for everyone, on every shift, every day. And if you don’t believe that, well – better make mine a G&T.

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