Ask the bartender: How to break into the business

Sean Kenyon knows how to pour out both drinks and advice. A third-generation bar man with almost 25 years behind the bar, he is a student of cocktail history, a United States Bartenders Guild-certified Spirits Professional and a BAR Ready graduate of the prestigious Beverage Alcohol Resource Program. You can find him behind the bar at Squeaky Bean -- and here every week, where he'll answer your questions. Q: I really want to become a bartender. What is the best way to get started? Do you have a recommendation on bartending schools?

A. This answer won't be what you want to hear, but in the end it will be rewarding.Some things -- like passion and personality -- can't be taught, and if you don't possess these two qualities. you can stop here: Bartending isn't for you. No one walks off the street and gets hired as a bartender with no experience. If you really want to be successful behind the bar, it takes a strong work ethic, time and dedication.

First, you need to find a job in the bar/restaurant industry: host busser, server, etc. This will help you develop key customer-service and hospitality skills, and you can learn how a restaurant runs. Once you are in, you have to show your management and co-workers that you are a great team player, hard-working and willing to do whatever it takes to help the restaurant run well. This will take a few months, maybe a year as you establish yourself.

Next, you need to express to management that you would like to get behind the bar, and ask if you can barback or volunteer your time to train for free behind the bar (read: sacrifice). Basically, put yourself in a position so that when a slot opens up, you are the obvious choice. While you are doing all of that, increase your knowledge by reading books about cocktails, cocktail history and methodology, such as Craft of the Cocktail by Dale DeGroff, Imbibe by David Wondrich, and the Joy of Mixology by Gary Regan, to name a few. Taste spirits and cocktails, keep notes.

Most of what you will learn will come once you get behind the bar. There is no substitute for real-world experience. Forget about generic bartending school. I recommend starting online with BarSmarts Wired (, an online program conducted by six of the key figures in the beverage industry: F. Paul Pacult, Steve Olson, Dale DeGroff, Andy Seymour, David Wondrich and Doug Frost. It covers every aspect behind the bar.

Once you become a bartender, respect your craft and keep learning. Continue to seek out educational opportunities dealing with hospitality, cocktails, spirits, wines and beer. Higher Bar education classes like the Beverage Alcohol Resource five-day program and the Court of Master Sommeliers are great ways to expand your knowledge. The United States Bartenders Guild is a great resource, and there is a local chapter ([email protected].com).

There are no guarantees all of this will get you behind a bar -- but in my 25 years in this industry, I have seen this work many times. In my opinion, bartending is the greatest job in the world. When you get there, drop me a line, you owe me a drink...


Post your questions for Sean Kenyon below, or write [email protected]

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Sean Kenyon
Contact: Sean Kenyon