Ask the Bartender: How Can I Learn the Trade?

That’s a good question for the person who pours your favorite drink.

What's the best way to learn to bartend? I'm not looking to change professions, I just want to have a bigger repertoire at home than the martini and margarita. I feel like I'm in a rut.—RandyFirst, let's lower those expectations. Bartending is a specialized field that takes years to learn. A cooking class can teach you to make a few wonderful and basic salad dressings, but that's not going to be the same as what the pantry chef can whip up at the Herbfarm.Such is the case with bartending. Sounds like you just want to learn how to make better drinks at home, and luckily you can do that one drink at a time—at a bar.First off, don't get wrapped up in the myriad Bartending 101 books. These are great for looking up recipes, but then so is Google. The books also generally assume you want to be a bartender. You don't—you just want to be a better drinker. So start with a real live professional instead.Next time you go to a bar, sit near the well and order your favorite drink—let's say a Manhattan. Ask the bartender to make it his or her favorite way, ask questions, and take notes. If a customer orders a Manhattan, bartenders have to make a drink that fits a certain spectrum of generally expected flavor, something near two ounces of whiskey, a half-ounce of sweet vermouth, and a dash of bitters. Give us license, and that's when you can learn something.Within that simple Manhattan recipe are infinite variations that you can try at home without having to follow any of the rules or expectations a working bartender might. The most popular sweet vermouth at bars, for example, is Martini & Rossi, mostly due to its price. But I don't let that crap into my house.Experiment at home with vermouths that may cost a bit more. Hunt for them at wine shops and grocery stores with strong selections, or ask your local wine seller to bring in a few bottles for you. Do the same with the bitters. Angostura is the classic, but with so many different bitters on the market, you might eventually become as obsessed with finding your favorite bitters as some people are with finding a signature cologne.Repeat the process with another favorite drink, or take the ratios for the Manhattan recipe you got and substitute rum or bourbon. Play around. Easier said than done, but there isn't a boozy mistake you can make here that a few ice cubes and some ginger ale can't fix.The bar isn't the only place to find inspiration. If you like dark or aged rum, for example, look at cookbooks and online for desserts and other dishes using rum. See what fruits and spices go into a dish, and play around with them in a glass.Don't get discouraged because you're not a bartender; just start with the basics and experiment on your friends. Making drinks at home allows you to do things far too tedious for bars to do—like soaking cinnamon, apples, and pears in vermouth to make a batch of something that might once have resembled a Manhattan, but now requires tequila and some weird can of grass jelly from Uwajimaya.Got a question for the bartender? Send your boozy plea to

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