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Setting a high bar

Learning to pour a perfect drink is serious business at Fine Art Bartending School

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It's the first day of class at Fine Art Bartending School, an institute of higher learning where the three Rs are rum, rye and 'rmagnac.

Instructor Evan Maltman -- a good surname for a guy who teaches folks how to pour a beer -- has just wrapped up his opening spiel, during which he spoke a bit about his background in the service industry and a lot about what his 13 students can expect to glean from the four-day course.

But before Maltman continues he wants everybody in the room to introduce themselves. And, while they're at it, explain why they've decided to spend the better part of two full weekends learning the difference between a Red Baron and a Blue Lagoon.

"My name's Patrick, I'm a student at U of W and I'm here because I want to get a part-time job while I'm going to university."

"My name's Anne. I just got a server's job at Earl's and I'm here because I think it will help me move up in the organization."

"My name's Carrie. I already have a full-time job -- I manage an office -- but I'm here because I want to make some extra money for travelling."

Those responses are pretty typical, says Maltman a few hours later during a scheduled break. But every now and again students pay their tuition ($399) with the intention of exiting as the next Tom Cruise from Cocktail. "People who've barely touched a bottle in their life put up their hand and ask, 'When do we get to flip stuff?' " Maltman says. "I'm like, 'Uh, you don't.' "

 

2013 marks a pair of booze-fuelled milestones: A) It's been 40 years since Fine Art Bartending School, arguably the oldest, active business of its kind in North America, got its start in Winnipeg. And B) it was 80 years ago this week that Prohibition was repealed in the United States -- the ripple effect being an overnight demand for experienced barkeeps.

A column in a Pennsylvania newspaper from January 1934 stated that "bartending schools are now mushrooming in the manner of (miniature) golf courses." The writer cited a particularly luxurious academy in New York City that had recently opened its doors.

"There behind a 106-foot bar, serious-minded students take a three-week course in rudimental drink-mixing, fashioning the multiple concoctions of pre-prohibition," he wrote.

Luxurious probably wouldn't have been an adjective used to describe Fine Art's original digs on Sherbrook Street.

"No, it was a pretty small spot with a low ceiling and cheap rent," says Troy Wanner, a graduate of the course who purchased the business from founder John Barkman in 2004. "But back in the day there wasn't any competition, so if you wanted to get your (bartender's) certificate, that's where you went." (There are now nine Fine Art Bartending Schools spread across Canada; Wanner and his business partner, Todd Koch, are based in Kelowna, B.C. They have plans to open two more schools in the Maritimes next year before they set their sights on the States.)

By the time Wanner got involved -- Barkman hired him as an instructor after meeting him -- where else? -- in a night club -- the Winnipeg school had moved to Portage Avenue, near Erin Street. Maltman caught on as an instructor at that location in 2009, a few years after he passed his own bar exam.

"A while ago we noticed the classes (on Portage Avenue) were declining in numbers," says Maltman, who also studies education at the University of Manitoba. "That part of town isn't what I would necessarily consider to be a hip, happening area of the city so when the lease came up, the owners asked me what I thought about renewing. I said, 'Let's get out of here.' "

Nowadays, Maltman and company teach out of a chic, 1,000-square-foot space located in a character building at 222 Osborne St. With its hardwood floors, brick accents and long, sleek bar, the room seems like a perfect spot to bend elbows at the end of a long, work week. Only problem: there isn't a drop of hooch in the joint.

"I have had a few people come in here who were totally put off that what you see behind me isn't real alcohol," Maltman says, again addressing the class as a whole. "But if it was I doubt we'd get much work done."

Here's a dumb question, then: if what we're working with is coloured water, how will we ever know if the "vodka and cran" we throw together will wet somebody's whistle or not?

"It all comes down to measuring properly," Maltman says. "In terms of appearance, it doesn't matter what you use; the drinks you make should look the same as they normally would."

With that, Maltman kicks things off with 30 minutes of show and tell. ("What's this?" A shot glass. "What's this?" A bar rag. "What's this?" A shaker tin.)

Once Maltman is satisfied everyone in the room is familiar with the tools of the trade, he invites three students to step forward and pour him a proper, one-ounce shot of "gin."

After critiquing the trio's efforts, Maltman asks for three more volunteers. As soon as everybody has had a couple of goes, Maltman hands out copies of Fine Art's official text, which, in addition to chapters titled "Tequila Drinks" and "Whisky/Whiskey," contains units on employment tips, identifying minors and responsible service.

Days 2 and 3 see the class -- an even mix of guys and gals ranging in age from 18 to 30 -- divided into smaller groups. For five hours each day, people take turns behind the bar filling "drink" requests or critiquing each other's work. Maltman drifts back and forth, offering tips where need be.

Day 4 is when everybody gets tested on what they have learned. The passing grade is 80 per cent.

Laurie Andrusiek is one of two pupils in the current crop to score a perfect 100 per cent on the exam.

"Basically, the test consisted of Evan asking me how to make 25 drinks, including what goes into each one, the method it's made and what type of glass it's served in," Andrusiek says, mentioning a Godfather.

("That's three-quarters of an ounce of scotch and one-quarter ounce of amaretto served in a rocks glass over ice.") as one of the libations that almost derailed her.

For the time being, Andrusiek doesn't intend to use her freshly-minted diploma to land work.

"I already have a pretty good career, but I do have a bar at home where I like to entertain. So I'll probably frame it on the wall and use it mostly to wow friends and family," she says with a laugh. "But it's nice to know I can make a little extra cash if need be."

About that, Maltman admits there are no rules stating potential Sam Malones need a degree in mixology to get a bartending job.

"Definitely not. But I will say this; after being around for 40 years, we are pretty well-known. Barely a week goes by when I head out for a drink without running into a former student behind a bar, somewhere."

david.sanderson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 30, 2013 D11

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