December 2009

Pernod Ricard Raises the Bar

By: Rachel Burkons
Photos By: Elaine Chen-Fernandez
It takes a lot to get a few hundred of the top mixologists in Los Angeles to gather at 8:30 in the morning, but sure enough, in two conference rooms at the Westin hotel in Downtown Los Angeles, the crème de la crème of the L.A. bar scene have come together, some looking slightly more sleep-deprived than others. As they mingle among friends, some are looking rather nervous, while others seem confidently relaxed; but more than anything, the air is abuzz with excitement.

“I’m so excited,” says Robert Recinos, a bartender at Yamashiro in Hollywood. “It’s about more than just the test today,” he continues, when THE TASTING PANEL reminds him that he’s there to be certified by Pernod Ricard’s innovative BarSmarts program, which culminates in an exam later that afternoon. “I want to hear the stories the professors have to tell, and get information you can’t find in just books."

Recinos’s excitement at getting the opportunity to interact with the professors is more than warranted; running the BarSmarts program is Bar LLC, a group made up of some of the biggest names in the cocktail and spirits worlds, including Paul Pacult, Dave Wondrich, Steve Olson, Andy Seymour, Doug Frost and Dale DeGroff. These men, the leaders of the cocktail revolution, are here to pass the torch to the next generation of mixologists, to the innovators who will learn from their knowledge and apply new techniques and ideas that will continue to elevate the art of cocktail crafting.

“This is about growing our industry and growing up as a group. It’s about the passion that drives us,” explains Seymour. “There never used to be anything like this for our industry; we all lied to get our first job and walked behind the bar and pretended we knew what we were doing,” he jokes. But there’s no denying that the BarSmarts certification program is doing good things for the industry by working overtime to educate on-premise staff in everything from tasting to technique . . . and, of course, making a killer cocktail.

Participants at the Los Angeles BarSmarts program listen closely while Dale DeGroff details the evolution of bar tools.  
Launched just a year and a half ago and designed to help bartenders take their spirits and cocktail knowledge to the highest level possible, the BarSmarts Advanced program provides a BarSmarts DVD and workbook that covers the history and basics of spirits, how to properly taste and categorize spirits, the history and use of ingredients and bar tools and how to prepare, craft and refine the 25 cocktails every bartender should know how to make. It also includes tips for creating new cocktails and crafting cocktail menus. The comprehensive program culminates with a full-day event of seminars, tasting, hands-on mixology, testing and certification. 

“This is a true certification program that will help candidates walk in as bartenders and walk out as mixologists who are proud of their profession,” says Suzanne Freidman, Director of the BarSmarts program at Pernod Ricard. “We feel as though we’re responsible for paving the future of the spirit, cocktail and mixology world, so we invite people who are BarSmarts-worthy and who are really making things happen in cities like L.A. and San Francisco. We want to up the ante in the cocktail world."

Although tapping the brightest talent in some of the United States’ cocktail meccas, Pernod is not neglecting the efforts and needs of bartenders all over the country—even all over the world. In addition to the live version of the program, BarSmarts Wired is a semi-annual online edition that allows participants to craft cocktails virtually and engage in the same education as the Advanced certification (the program will reopen February 1, 2010).

There’s been a lot of international participation in both the wired and live versions as well, with mixologists from all over the world flying to participating cities with the hopes of learning from the best and exchanging ideas with their contemporaries.

David Wondrich and Andy Seymour listen while Dale DeGroff speaks to a room full of enraptured mixologists.  

Jason Griffin, a bartender at Stingaree in San Diego, made the trip up to Los Angeles to learn as much as he could. “It is such an amazing experience to be surrounded by so many talented craftsmen,” he admits. “It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to learn how to taste from these experts, and I’m soaking in the knowledge as much as I can.” For Bar LLC, this intense studiousness that’s slowly reaching across the nation is good news that’s sowing the seeds of change.

“Ultimately,” says Wondrich, “I want to be able to walk into any bar in the country and get a really great cocktail.” Thanks to BarSmarts, that goal’s within reach.


THE TASTING PANEL sat in on the Los Angeles BarSmarts and highlights some of the tips and tricks directly from the masters of the trade:

• Know the trends. “Learning about the trends in spirits is definitely worth it,” says Paul Pacult. “Knowing about emerging categories and brands in our marketplace is going to push your career forward."

• Taste, taste, taste! “Wine people cut their teeth on learning how to taste, and now we’re seeing that translated into spirits,” explains Pacult. Steve Olson agrees: “We taste blind, and we taste every day. Practice, practice, practice!"

• Innovate. “Bartenders are always improvising, always looking for better ways to do things,” advises Dave Wondrich. “If you have a better way, do it! That’s the most bartenderly thing you can do."

• Stylized details are key. “Little skills like proper stirring technique are the things that separate us and make us the craftsmen we’re supposed to be,” says Dale DeGroff.

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