Mixology 101

Monday’s news editor learns how to report from behind bars

Danielle Pope may not be a professional bartender yet, but thanks to a two-week bartending class by Travis Merriman (left) she can make one fine martini.

Monday’s news editor learns how to report from behind bars

Turns out, James Bond is a bit of a girly man. His typical martini with a slice of lemon — shaken not stirred, of course — isn’t just a diluted version of the classic gin martini, it’s a rebellious (or ignorant) request to bruise the gin. But then, that’s Bond.

For the dozens of students who have floated through Travis Merriman’s Fine Art Bartending class, it’s almost always one of the first questions he’s asked: how do I make the James Bond “Vesper”?

Not long after learning the techniques of the perfectly crafted martini — the icing of the glass, the proportions of vermouth, the stirring of the gin — it becomes clear that, when it comes to prestigious drinking, James Bond really doesn’t know what he’s doing. Of course, he still makes it look enviously cool. The first rule of the trade also quickly becomes apparent: that a bartender might not always know what she’s doing, but with enough confidence and flare, you can make just about any mix look cool.

In the mix

It’s 6 p.m. Monday after an already long day of work, when my first bartending class takes place. The course is set up in two-week sets of four-hour blocks. That means, if I want to pass the course, I’ll be balancing my nine-to-five shift with a six-to-10. Plus study time.

It already sounds like a lot of work, but how sweet would it be to earn the title of professional mixologist at my next party, or walk around toting a certificate of bartending potential, or just be able to create some damn good drinks after a long day? Pretty sweet.

Bartender hopefuls beware, however. Merriman is quick to tell us the ice-cold facts: there is no regional or national standard in bartending and the hardest part of becoming a pro bar rag is just that — getting your first gig. Sure, extra training, a flashy certificate and perhaps a recommendation from one of Victoria’s prolific bartenders can’t hurt. But the course, which costs around $500, by no means guarantees you job placement. In fact, it’s a pretty good opportunity to find out who’s not made for filling the cups.

Merriman starts with a booze history lesson from the spirit-making wells in Egyptian times to Speakeasys and prohibition, to current-day classics, like bacon Vodka. We review key facts about distillation, chemical reactions, brew measurements and alcohol percentages. Wait — history, chemistry, math? I thought this was a pour-and-stir education. There’s even a test at the end to complete our certificate.

By the time we learn the names and locations for our bar equipment, from the speed rail to jiggers and strainers, muddlers and slings, and get our first set of recipe cue cards and homework to fill out, my glass looks a lot more full than I was expecting.

A sticky education

By day two, we’re already mixing the coloured water, getting to know each other and learning a thing or two about bar culture — complete with its sexism, brash humour and catty preferences. But there’s also a happy nature that comes with the serving territory, where outgoing personalities collide with rushed orders and teamwork.

Today, there are four of us in class, one less than the night before: Claire, a barista looking for her way up the pouring chain; Bill, a bartender-in-training for his future gig; Erin, an airport bartender/server hoping to better her skills; and me, a mix-curious journalist who wants to serve it straight up.

Merriman, 38, comes with a resume full of experience. He was a bartender at the Sticky Wicket for 10 years, delivered brews for Lighthouse Brewing for five years in the company’s early days and haunted a number of other bartending gigs around Victoria. Almost exactly a year ago, when work was scarce, he set up his own school in an effort to pass on his pouring knowledge to others hoping to break into the biz.

“This is honestly one of the best gigs I could ever ask for,” Merriman says. “You’re part of that same culture that goes back hundreds of years before things like bacon Vodka … and it’s really cool to be part of history like that.”

Each evening we delve into that history, then cover liquors from whisky to wine, learn pouring techniques, practice taking orders, break glasses, spill coloured water, explore premium brews and sample bar stress. I struggle.

By the end of the first week, I can already feel the droops under my eyes. I wake up each day dragging my feet, buy the lunch I had no time to make, then try to fit in all my studying between the hour of work and class, then class and sleep. I dream in jiggers and fractions: one ounce of reporting, half an ounce of tequila, three-quarters of an ounce of shuteye. I breathe with an odd combination of anxiety and excitement. How did I ever once manage work and school?

One bartender, coming up

Suddenly, it’s week two. Merriman has been running his school solo for the past year, but just in time for my course, he has taken on assistant teacher-hopeful Brendan Brewster, who brings with him international knowledge, flare bartending skills and a whole keg of personality.

Brewster fills the class in on little-known facts, like how ancient monks believed they achieved godly powers from their fermented beverages, and teaches us how to double-fist cocktail shakers. He even passes on a few special recipes, like one for espresso martinis (think: Van Gogh Espresso, coffee liquor, vanilla vodka and iced coffee). It’s a great injection just before test day.

And then, it happens. I leave my study guide at class the night before the test, sinking my chances to catch up on needed recipes and bar talk. Luckily, Merriman is willing to grant me a new test day and, after more sleep than I feel I’ve had in years and ample study time, I take my bar exam. I pass, and learn that most — but not all — of my classmates did too.

I walk home with my shining new Bartending Certificate of Completion, feeling proud of my exhaustive accomplishment, if not a little pour-heavy. It’s then that I notice a tiny grammar mistake on the paper. My inner copy editor struggles not to pen it out, and I realize the moral of this story: we all have our specialties, and the mixes that stump us. Turns out, I prefer to make my shots with words. M

Check out more on bartending at: fineartbartending.com.

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