Here we go! Woke up bright and early this morning (little too early for a bartender!) to head over to the Astor Center.
Nerves were high–there has been so much said about how intense and challenging the BAR is that there would be something wrong with you if you weren't a little bit scared for what lies ahead. But any anxiety was immediately laid to rest when we stepped foot into the Astor Center and were called over to a back table by none other than Paul Pacult. Â He casually sat with a small group of other early arrivals making us all feel at home from the start.
As 9 am hits and it's time to work. We head into the lecture room, find some seats, and prepare to get our learn on... We covered the history of fermentation and distillation, which led us to our first blind-tasting, I was so excited for this! The first flight was one of 6 different spirits and what a trip! It included gin, cachaça, mescal, Armagnac, rye, and Scotch. We learned how to best taste and make a "sensory evaluation." It was really amazing to taste the nuances of each spirit and each category.
Then we went right into gin, the "oldest cocktail spirit", its history and the many kinds that exist. This led us into our next flight consisting of 11 different gins–the variance amongst spirits in the same category was truly incredible. It was also interesting to note the different qualities, and how much the cut between the heads and tails effect the final product.
It was a long day packed with information and tastings, but I can't wait to get up and do it again tomorrow!
This morning started with making and tasting sours. Groups of 5 of us went up and each took turns at spinning different sour recipes that Dale DeGroff had given using different proportions, base spirits, and sweeteners. It was a good way to get the blood flowing and it was especially fun to get up and mix a cocktail in front of Dale and the group. It was also interesting to note how different each drink was depending on the variant factors.
Next we discussed aging and the role it plays in spirits. Historically, barrels were used to carry alcohol simply because it was the most convenient traveling vessel: the heavy weight could be easily rolled and they would float if lost off a boat by sea. Of course, eventually we see how beneficial these barrels were in the flavors and character they imparted on the spirits inside them.
This led us next into rum, its history, and a tasting. One of the things that makes rum so interesting is how many different types exist throughout the world. We went through a magnificent tasting of 11 different kinds that included Batavia Arrack, Smith and Cross, Havana Club, and Appleton 12 before moving into agave.
Here we found agave’s close similarities to wine in that terroir plays such a key role in the final product. We dove right into a tasting of 11 different kinds that included Valley grown Partida, Highland grown Siete Leguas, and mescal like Del Maguey’s Tobala and Illegal’s Espadin.
We began the day today picking up on the history of spirits by exploring the “American school of mixology” and the evolution of the cocktail in the 1800’s. We saw early drinks that were made as “eye-openers” and “hair-of-the-dog” drinks used for stimulation rather than enjoyment. We also saw the evolution of punch both in the bowl with the use of more complex ingredients, and in the glass with desire to make drinks on a small plane more suited for the individual.
Then it was time for Whisk(e)y! Our exploration started with its beginnings most likely in Ireland, and its rich history held in Scotland. We learned about the early struggles of farmers during early production up to the modern age and the industry’s explosion throughout the world. We did a tremendous tasting of Scotch that included editions Auchentoshan, Glenrothes, Oban and Lagavulin and explore the differences between inland and maritime and the effects of peat, water, and blending.
This brought us to Ireland and we tasted Powers, Red Breast, Cooley and Bushmills among others as we learned the differences between these two styles. We also got a rare opportunity to taste French, Welsh, and Japanese whiskies as well.
This all led us to North American Whiskey, its history, and modern production. We saw the early use of rye in America and the eventual use of corn as the Western frontier is explored. Together we tasted a variety that included George Dickel, Blantons, Eagle 17, and Sazerac.
The day ended with some special guests. Richie Boccato, owner of Dutch Kills and Painkiller, showcased his ground-breaking ice program, while Dave Arnolt of Cooking Issues took us through his mind-bending work with gadgets like a centrifuge and whipped cream dispenser.
Today we had a chance to both see and make some great cocktails. Dale whipped up a delicious Tom and Jerry: cognac and dark rum mixed with eggs, sugar, hot milk and spices like nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, and allspice. He also made a Café Brulot, a flamed coffee-drink of brandy, coffee, and spice.
Then it was time to get into Cognac, Armagnac, and Calvados. After a brief history we got to tasting it, with Cognacs like Martell XO and Pierre Ferrand, Armagnac like Delord Blanche Armagnac and Castarde 20 yr. old, and Calvados like Chauffe Couer Hors d’Age. We also dove into some other brandies from around the world like Germain Robin Anno Domini and Gran D’Uque d’Alba.
Our day ended with a discussion with Irish bartender and future owner Sean Muldoon as well as Ryan Maybee, tender and bar owner in Kansas City. It was really cool to hear from a couple young guys in places very similar to ours continue to follow and fulfill their dreams by opening their own establishments.
Test day is upon us. I headed to the Astor Center for the final time this week with my bar tools to take my practical. I was definitely anxious, but once I got behind the bar to make the timed six drinks I felt at home. A long written and tasting examination followed- it was no joke! I’ll have to keep my fingers crossed for a couple months until I get the results.
To have the opportunity to learn from the best in the business, to be able to taste the hundreds of spirits we did, and to meet and study with a group of fellow bartenders and professionals was a truly unforgettable and amazing experience. A big thanks to St-Germain, Beverage Alcohol Resource, and all my new friends for the week of a lifetime!