It’s my fourth day at the New York Bartending School and I’m sitting next to one of my classmates who I’ll call Malissa. Malissa is a short woman in her 20s with long dark hair. She works as a receptionist at a gentleman’s club, but she wants to be a bartender. If she can just pass the bartending test, she can get a job behind the bar instead of behind the reception table. The girls behind the bar look like her, she tells me. But despite the fact that they get to wear clothing at work, they make good money.

“I could get a job making drinks and make so much money without even having to have a job where the guys look at me,” Malissa says. One night, she counted out $3,000 in tips for each bartender. This is why she’s spending nearly 40 hours and $695 taking this bartending class.

Working bartenders rarely have a positive impression of bartending school. Ask your neighborhood drink slinger for his impression of someone who just paid hundreds of dollars for a job that requires zero certifications and you’re likely to get one answer: suckers. There are more than 580,000 bartenders in the U.S., but most learn their skills on the job. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “No formal education is required.” Yet week after week, bartending schools in major metropolises around the country fill up. There are seven bartending schools in New York City alone.

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If you asked me a month ago who filled these classes, I’d tell it to you straight up: bored, rich millennials. But I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Bartending school, I learned after taking the two-week class, isn’t about skipping the grunt work it takes to move from bar back or busboy to bartender. It’s about starting the class with nothing, and leaving with a little more than nothing. And for some people, especially the non-native speakers of English who tend to populate these classes, a little more than nothing is a hell of a lot.

Night One: Tyler Wonders Why He Came

It’s the middle of November in Manhattan and it’s just barely cold enough for the New York Bartending School in midtown Manhattan to have the heat going. The practice room where students learn to tend bar is dark — club dark. A sign by the door reads, “Bar School Lounge. Where the glasses are clean, and the Martinis are dirty! Oh, and getting naked is always an option!” Top 40 Pandora, commercials and all, plays over the surprisingly adequate sound system. There’s a middle aisle that’s sandwiched on either side by two long bars. Three shelves behind the bar are filled with a standard set of liquor bottles filled with colored water. Every five feet or so the liquor bottle lineup is repeated, representing a whole new bar station.

It’s 5:45 p.m. on a Monday night. The class lasts until 10 p.m. and I’ve just finished a full day at work. I wasn’t expecting a response when I sent emails to bartending schools around New York City asking if I could take their class and write about my experience. Bartending schools have a general reputation of being a rip-off, and I figured no school would want media exposure that would potentially exacerbate the image problem. And I was right – but then New York Bartending School wrote back and agreed to let me in.

The bartending class costs $395 for a week, or $695 for a two-week mixology class. Week one is about highballs, cocktails, and shots — around 60 in all. Week two focuses on cocktail theory and taste. Upon completion, the school promises you’ll have the foundation necessary to secure a bartending job. A job board helps you out, and if you still can’t manage to find a job after three weeks, the school’s administrators have people who can help you. There are regular catering gigs that look for New York Bartending School graduates, plus a job placement program. Students are guaranteed to make back their investment, if only through the school’s contacts. But first you have to pass two tests. One is a speed test, 16 drinks called out at random that you have to fix in six minutes. Then there’s a written test: 50 questions about brands, drinks, and theory.

That first night, I make my way to the back of the room and take off my jacket. A short guy in his early 20s with glasses and a cheeky grin is already there.

“Hey, I’m Tyler,” he says. Despite the heater, Tyler keeps his peacoat on, like he has somewhere else to go.

Tyler is not committed to bartending school. In the real world he’s studying to become a realtor and needs a part-time job. He came to take advantage of the free tester class people can take before they commit to paying for the full class. He tells me he really wants to know if the liquor bottles are filled with real liquor.

Five more people slowly file in, including Malissa. I’m the only one who looks through the bartending guide we got at the door. Flipping through the pages, I think to myself, “This is all stuff I can find online.”

Which, technically, is true. A quick Google search for “Is bartending school worth it?” yields a hard NO. Tyler admits he Googled whether or not he should pay for bartending school before coming, but figured the first class was free, so what could he possibly have to lose? He figures you can learn all the basics and drinks that you need to know online, but it’d be nice to know what it feels like to pour a drink.

Tyler and I chat and then a woman comes over to us and says hello in a thick accent. Ayla, as I’ll call her (she asked not to be named), is from Istanbul, Turkey. She’s been here for a month and a half, and she’s looking for a steady job. Her dyed platinum blonde hair is tied up in an Ariana Grande-style ponytail, and she’s eager to talk in her broken English to anyone who will listen, except when she goes outside for a smoke break when she wants to be left alone.

Before long, Alex, our teacher, walks in and introduces himself. He’s Hispanic, with a soft face and generous eyes. He looks like the type of guy who would listen to your complaints without judging you. In other words, he looks like the perfect bartender.

Alex wastes no time telling us to get settled behind the bar. Each person gets his or her own station with a full set of glasses, a standard set of liquor bottles, and a sink. Before long, everyone has a bottle in hand.

“Now make a vodka soda with Grey Goose using the free-pour method,” Alex instructs us.

Bottle practice is a large part of what draws people to bartending school. You can memorize hundreds of drinks from an online database, excel at customer service, and know how to upsell every scrooge in the bar, but it doesn’t matter if you can’t actually pour the drink.

Free pouring is what you see your local bartender doing. It means pouring straight from a liquor bottle topped with a plastic spout without measuring out each ingredient. Instead of measuring, you count; one second equals about a quarter ounce of liquid.

This should be easy, I think. I turn my bottle 180 degrees and count off six seconds in my head. Then I look to my right. Tyler’s repeatedly turning his bottle horizontally and vertically. The liquid dribbles each time he gets the bottle upside down because the spout is turned the wrong way. A woman two stations down figured out how to get her bottle to pour correctly, but she’s pouring Absolut instead of Grey Goose. We have a long way to go.

We spend the rest of the class practicing the pour. At the end of the night, Tyler isn’t sure he’ll come back. He is the kind of person I expected to find in bartending school, but he is the opposite of the type of person who sticks with bartending school. That first free night is the only time he shows up.

Night Two: Mary Does It Twice

Night two starts much like night one. A woman named Mary takes Tyler’s station next to me. She’s short and thin, with long curly brown hair. She’s from Brooklyn but doesn’t have an accent. With Tyler’s departure, we are the only two people left in the class who speak English as a first language.

This is not atypical, Bryan Evans, the owner of the New York Bartending School, tells me. “It’s always a mix,” Evans says. “We do a Spanish class, but we get a mix from Russia, from Poland, from Japan, China.” A woman recently asked if there was anyone at the class who spoke Mandarin, and a few months earlier, two people from Israel paired up to help each other out. “It just takes them a bit longer, but we don’t care how long it takes, because they can just take it over again.”

It’s the school’s policy that students can always come back and repeat the class. In fact, Mary was taking the class for the second time as a refresher. She took it for the first time five years ago when she was 18, but went to the University of Massachusetts soon after and ended up skipping the school’s job placement program.

The night I meet her is Martini and Manhattan night. Throughout the night, we learn how to make the martini glass classics, plus variations like Appletinis, Cosmopolitans, and Rob Roys. Put ice in the Martini glass, build the drink, stir, pour, repeat. We do this for four hours over and over, with a 15-minute break in the middle.

“Make me a Rob Roy with Black Label,” Alex calls out.

I turn around and grab the Johnnie Walker Black Label. But before I start pouring, I hear Alex again.

“That is Jack Daniel’s, I want Black Label,” he says.

He’s looking right at a woman two people away from me who has a bottle of Jack in her hand. She pauses, looks at the Jack label (which is also black), then back up at Alex. “Let’s start again. What type of whiskey goes in a Rob Roy?”

Clearly the people taking this class aren’t big drinkers. Alex remains impossibly patient throughout as we make the same mistakes over and over. He corrects us quietly, again and again.

While mixing drinks next to me, Mary says she won’t take the test again because it gave her anxiety last time. She couldn’t remember many of the 60-odd drinks she needed to know to pass anyway. But the refresher was still something she wanted to do, test or not. She’s working as a hostess at a restaurant with zero upward mobility, she tells me. So she signed up for a refresher, dusted off her aging bartending book, and got to work practicing Black Russians, Martinis, and Cosmos. Bartending, she figures, is a better way to earn money to put toward her ultimate goal. Mary hopes one day to make her own perfumes.

Night Three: Alex tells his story

I’m in the second hour of mixing drinks on the third night. There are different people next to me from the previous two nights — only four people and I have been to all three classes — but the routine is the same. We come in, Alex tells us how to make 10 to 15 new drinks, and then we practice making them as Alex calls them out and corrects our mistakes. Over and over.

Alex holds the role of teacher with ease, but he never went through this class or any bartending class like it. He became a bartender (then a bartending school instructor) the old-fashioned way, by starting from the bottom. Alex tells us this as he flips through a slideshow of the dos and don’ts of getting a bartending job. He got his start at a tequila bar, then moved to a bar that specializes in pisco.

The slideshow is the second, arguably most important, part of the class. Without the information about how to get a job, learning how to pour drinks is essentially just a hobby. He’s telling a group of hopeful bartending school students his experience because he wants us to know the type of questions people will ask us when we look for a job. “Where’s your bartending school license” is not one of the questions, but “What’s your experience” definitely is. That experience question is what drove Alex to work at a wine bar, then a whiskey bar, so he could pick up as much experience as possible.

But Alex’s main piece of advice is, when you go out for an interview, don’t show your bartending school certificate. There’s a stigma among many bar managers and bartenders that people who go to bartending school lack the know-how to be a good worker, or that they aren’t willing to work their way up. Like me, they have an image in their mind of who goes to these classes, and that image can hurt a job applicant in the market. People who are hiring a bartender prefer someone with enough experience to know the basics but who’s also green enough to adapt to the bar’s methods.

Bartenders are hired on the basis of their bar knowledge and their winning personality, not a piece of paper. It’s Alex’s most salient lesson.

Night Four: Eric’s Never-Ending Class

It’s 8:30 p.m. and I’m shouting out cocktails. Eric, my partner for the night, is making them. He speaks little English but works as a busboy at a Dominican restaurant in upper Manhattan. I’m actually half-shouting, half pointing to the name of the cocktail on a list, because when I say it, he doesn’t always understand me. It doesn’t seem to phase him, though.

Eric doesn’t care about the job placement programs or the internship-esque experience. He believes if he can get a certificate, he can work in a club, where the real money’s at. He’s been stuck taking the class over and over, since he hasn’t been able to pass the tests, but he keeps coming back.

He makes a drink wrong and I try to point it out. He doesn’t get what I’m trying to say, but Malissa steps in and tells him in Spanish, and he fixes it. They both laugh and talk in Spanish for a bit. Knowing just enough English to get by is good enough in Manhattan, especially in Washington Heights, the majority-Dominican neighborhood where Eric lives. Most of his customers will speak or understand Spanish if he continues working uptown like he wants to. Not fully understanding a white guy from California as he shouts over a Top 40 playlist isn’t a problem as much as comic relief for Eric.

I can already tell he’s not going to pass the speed test. But I get the feeling he’s going to keep coming back until he can. He really wants that club job.

Down to the Last Seconds

Week one of bartending school ends with Mudslides and Blowjobs using real alcohol. Alex gathers us around the bar where he has a bottle of Baileys, a bottle of Kahlua, and some whipped cream. He tells us we can make a Mudslide, which is a layer of Baileys and a layer of Kahlua, or we can make a Blowjob, which is the same shot but with whipped cream on top.

All the other students go full whipped cream, not realizing the consequences of a Blowjob shot. But I don’t.

“Ah, Nick knows what’s up with the whipped cream,” Alex says, trying to suppress a laugh.

A Blowjob shot, as frequent shot takers know, can only be consumed by putting your hands behind your back, picking up the shot glass with your mouth, and tilting your head back until it’s finished. Alex held every person who added whipped cream to that standard.

Finally, it’s time to take the test: 16 drinks in six minutes called out by Bryan Evans, the owner. I’ve had plenty of practice and I’ve memorized the drinks. But actually making them on the spot while a small herd of other students watches is another story.

I’m no Brian Flanagan, but I complete the drinks Evans asks for and push them forward with what I think is time to spare. Wrong. Evans pushes the Negroni back to me and says something is off.

“Make it again,” he says. Then he turns his phone around where he’s keeping time, and I see 17 seconds on the clock.

I grab the Tanqueray off the shelf behind me and the sweet vermouth from the rack in front of me and simultaneously pour in four counts of each. I turn to where the Campari is supposed to be, but it’s gone, and with so little time to spare, it seems impossible that I’ll finish. So much for finishing with a happy ending, I think.

But then I hear my name. “Nickolaus! Nickolaus!” Ayla shouts and points to the opposite side of the shelf where the Campari is supposed to be, right where I left it.

I snatch the bottle, pour in four counts, garnish, and put in a straw. I push the drink forward and yell, “Done!” Evans turns his phone around again and there’s two seconds left on the clock. I pass.

My certificate is by all means just a useless piece of paper. Getting a bartending job takes personality and luck, as any of the teachers at the bartending school willingly told me. But for the students I took the class with, it had little to do with that piece of paper and everything to do with what that paper stands for.

It stands for taking initiative in their lives and trying to get a leg up in a competitive job market. No one knew much about alcohol coming in, but they all had hope that a baseline of knowledge from the school could help them out of whatever circumstance they were currently in. You won’t find them in some trendy speakeasy anytime soon. Yet in a couple months they might be working your next catered event, filling your beer at your local bar, or passing you a drink at the gentleman’s club. For them, it’s the first step of the American Dream.