On this special episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” host Zach Geballe speaks with Misty Kalkofen, director of education for Another Round Another Rally, and Kevin Denton-Rex, head of mixology and education for Pernod Ricard USA, about the origins of the BarSmarts program as well as how it’s been revamped to meet the needs of today’s bartenders. Tune in for more.
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Zach Geballe: In Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe, and this is the VinePair Podcast. And today, I have the pleasure of being joined by two preeminent members of the drinks industry. I have Kevin Denton-Rex, who’s the Head of Mixology and Education for Pernod Ricard USA. Kevin, thanks so much for joining.
Kevin Denton-Rex: Very happy to be here, Zach, thank you.
Z: Of course. And Misty Kalkofen, who is the Director of Education for Another Round Another Rally. Misty, thank you so much for being here.
Misty Kalkofen: Thank you so much for having me.
Z: Yeah. It’s going to be a really interesting conversation. We’re going to talk about something that I love dearly and we don’t always get to on the podcast with as much frequency as I’d like, which is service and how it’s done well. So let’s start, actually, with the both of you. And maybe, Misty, you can start out by answering this question. Can you give our listeners a little bit of background on yourself, how you got into the bar industry and what you’re doing now?
M: Yeah, of course. I grew up in a hospitality family. When I turned 16, my dad was like, “It’s time to get a job.” And so I went to the restaurant where my sisters were working and got a job as a bus person and never really looked back. All the way through college and graduate school, working in hospitality was the best choice for me because it didn’t interrupt my classwork, etc. And that’s how I got into bartending. I got this great job at a nightclub, where I didn’t have to be at work until 8, and I’d be home by 3 a.m, and I could get all my studies done and I just fell in love with it, to be honest. I finished that master’s program but really never looked back because I realized I’d found a job that I really loved. And there are so many people in the world who never find that. And it’s been just a wild ride since then. Twenty-plus years on the bar and then working for Del Maguey Mezcal for about 10 years before turning my attention now to education working with the hospitality-focused nonprofit Another Round Another Rally.
Z: Excellent. And Kevin, same question for you.
K: Not too dissimilar from Misty, I was working at a restaurant in Ithaca, New York while I was going to school. And I did that through undergrad and grad degree also, and it was something that truly changed my life in the best possible way. I learned to appreciate the people that were making and serving food. I learned to appreciate the people that were washing the dishes, the people that were working the door. All those things were instilled pretty early on in school, and then I worked for the Municipal Regional Planning Organization in Philadelphia as a city planner for a couple years, and that wasn’t for me. So I started back in hospitality in New York City around 2004 and concurrently was playing in a bunch of bands and touring and stuff like that. So that old thing where you played clubs, and then worked at bars is a really good life for a 20-something person in New York City. And then just as the industry was changing around me, I feel like I was in New York at that magical moment where mixology bloomed and happened, and I remember going to Milk and Honey early on and being like, “Holy cow, this is different.” And it got its hooks in me. I just wanted to learn more. I was very lucky to be around a lot of those folks early on. I took the first BarSmarts course and then just never looked back, kept going with it. And I made the jump over to working on the brand side about seven years ago. So it’s a life pursuit at this point.
Z: Very cool. Okay. So we’re going to start with maybe the hardest question I’m going to ever ask a guest because it’s so broad, but I think you two are both very well equipped to answer this. So maybe, Kevin, starting with you, what in your eyes are some qualities or characteristics that make someone a good bartender?
K: So I think, and we talk about this in the program, there’s lots of good bartenders out there, and then there’s great bartenders, and then there’s amazing bartenders.
Z: Okay, well, maybe you can delineate.
K: Yeah, I would be happy to because I think that the distinction is important, but being a good bartender is showing up and doing your job capably, which I know sometimes we feel like that’s difficult. But there’s a lot of folks out there that do a good job. They show up. They’re clean. They do the job dutifully, and that’s what’s expected. But great bartenders are there because they love it, and they can anticipate the needs of their guests. And even if their day isn’t going great, they’re there to help you have a better time to either celebrate those important moments of your life or to help you forget about those bummer moments, even for a little while. And then I think all of us on this call have probably been in the presence of amazing bartenders. And those folks have this preternatural sense for, not only anticipating your needs but for making every person that walks through the door feel special, feel seen, feel important. The drinks taste better. The food tastes better. The music sounds better. All of these things come to life when you’re in their presence, and that special sauce for making an amazing bartender is probably beyond the scope of what we talk about at BarSmarts, but it’s a magical thing to behold and I think certainly something to seek out.
Z: Misty, is there anything you’d add to that answer or elaborate on?
M: Yeah, I think that I would add on the aspect of what makes a great, amazing bartender as part of a larger team— because an experience for a guest to be really out of this world takes an entire team to be involved. And so a really great or amazing bartender is very cognizant of how they’re working with the other members of their team and recognizing how their actions or inaction are going to affect the other members of their team so that they’re not… You can be focused and be a really great bartender with one guest, but if you’re doing it in such a way that it’s making the other members of your team suffer, then there’s a lot of guests who are probably not getting a good experience. And so a great or amazing bartender is really cognizant of their role in the overall operation of the entire establishment, and that’s equally as important, and it’s something that as guests, we don’t always recognize and that’s when you know you have a great or amazing bartender because they’re doing it. They’re moving well. They’re in that flow, that dance behind the bar with their coworkers in a way that really seems effortless.
Z: Yeah. I’m wondering, too. This actually just prompted a follow-up in my mind. So is the definition of a great or even amazing bartender going to be also somewhat defined by the kind of bar they work in? I would wonder if someone in some of the cocktail bars, Kevin, that you mentioned that first drew you into the industry, what constitutes great or amazing bartending there might be different than in a neighborhood bar or even a dive bar where you maybe just need to do the job differently.
K: I feel like, like beauty, greatness can be found everywhere. And some of my favorite bartenders… Yeah, pretty good, right? I just came up with that.
Z: You must have practiced that one.
K: This stuff just comes out. I think that my favorite bartenders are neighborhood bartenders because they are the ones that know how to facilitate those good times. I think what Misty said is so spot on, that there is no individual great bartender. It’s a team of people who allow each other to be great, so I would never say you have to go to the best bar in the world in order to find the best bartenders. I think just walk down your street, and that might be where that person is, and they most likely aren’t going to reveal how great they are at first blush, which is what’s so great about amazing bartenders — they can be in the background. They can be out front. They’re all things.
Z: Very cool. So, Misty, let’s shift gears just a little bit here and talk a little bit about some of the origins of BarSmarts and where this whole program came from, what it’s set out to do and what it has done to this point, maybe. I know that’s, again, a big, big, meaty topic, but we’ll try and steer the ship a little bit if we have to.
M: Okay. Definitely. Well, BarSmart started in the fall of 2008, so obviously, it has a long history, and it was a partnership between Pernod Ricard and Beverage Alcohol Resource. And for those who don’t know about Beverage Alcohol Resource, it’s partners of BAR, as it is shortened as, are luminaries in our industry. I don’t think there is a great or amazing bartender out there that doesn’t count one of the partners as a role model. And so the partners of BAR are Dale DeGroff, Paul Pacult, Steve Olson, David Wondrich, Doug Frost, Andy Seymour. They’ve really touched so many lives, literally as far as mentors and role models, but through BarSmarts, they reached over 150,000 young bartenders or bartenders across the U.S. and beyond. And so it had two components. There was an online component, and once you successfully completed the online, you were invited to participate in one of the live components that would happen several times a year in various cities around the country, where there would be an opportunity for learning through seminars and tasting. And then in the afternoon, there would be a written examination and a practical examination where you would be making drinks for one of the bar partners or one of us who were working in the back of the house to make all of the nuts and bolts happen throughout the day. And it was pretty amazing because Kevin was talking about how fortunate it was to be living in New York and being a part of the scene as Milk and Honey was opening and everything. But in 2008, if you were living in New York, you had access to these amazing cocktail bars. But in smaller cities, that wasn’t necessarily the case. You might find a few people who were interested in it and really trying to make a scene happen and take place, but it was a very young scene in most of the country. And so to really bring this education around and have these opportunities for young, excited bartenders to meet other people that were interested in elevating the craft was creating a really amazing atmosphere. But also giving them the opportunity to interact with people that they’ve been reading about and learning from, whether it was through books or online space, and have an opportunity to socialize with them as well was really inspiring and really started to create these small scenes throughout the country. And for me personally, to see the communities building, and for me to be able to reconnect with the other people that were working back-of-house with me, we were all growing together, those of us who were working and those who were attending as well. It’s been very, very special and touched a lot of people over the last, 2008, do the math, 15 years.
Z: Obviously, you mentioned 150,000 people participated. So many people listening to this are going to have come in contact with BarSmarts in one form or another. But for those who haven’t, I know you talked about the in-person component, but even just the online component, what were some of the skills and information that was being conveyed in that format for people that were, as you said, especially in the early days, just didn’t have as much access to the beverage information and content that’s now more widely available?
M: I think one of the things that was really remarkable is that the information around how to taste a spirit because that’s something that, unless you have access to some of the really amazing, expensive programs that are out there that really require you to go and spend weeks with them, that wasn’t something that was really being taught to the average person. And so to really be working with some of the best tasters in the industry, we’re talking Steve Olsen, Paul Pacult, Doug Frost — they’re amazing. And to have them really be training you on what to look for, whether or not you liked the flavor, to be able to discern whether what you were tasting was a good distillate or not, and what to look for in a good distillate in various categories. And I think that’s a really basic component that is not necessarily taught all the time. And so that was something that I think really set a really great base level of knowledge for the people that are now creating beautiful back bars across the country.
Z: Okay. So, Kevin, now, when do you get involved with BarSmarts? And what does it look like at that point?
K: I was brought on board for this program in 2017 and it was full steam ahead. We were about to celebrate the 50th live event and coming up on 10 years of the program. So I think many of us have been in this situation before, where you have total imposter syndrome and are like, “Wow, I am way out of my depth here. What am I going to do?” And I do want to take this opportunity to call out a few people on the Pernod side who really brought this to life. Sean Kelly, who deserves so much credit for being the backbone of this program for so long; Laura Piazza; Michael Parker, who’s still with us. He was the admin of the program from day one. There was a village on either side, on the brand side and the bar side, and the larger community of folks that were helping out, like Misty, etc. There’s all these people, and this machine was already humming along really, really effectively. So I focused on not getting in the way, and that’s a hard thing for some people to get their head around. But I just wanted to learn. I wanted to support. I wanted us to continue to reach as many folks, as Misty said, that don’t have that immediate access to something like that. In the conversations that I’d had with the partners, it was like, “Let’s figure out the little markets to go to that maybe don’t make the most financial sense as far as ‘You’re going to get a ton of people and they have a great bar scene.’” You’re there to build. You’re there to connect and spread this love that was distilled by all of these folks. So we went to a lot of different markets, and then one of the first things that I wanted to do was make sure that we translated the program into Spanish because that felt super important to me to make sure that we were reaching as many people as possible and leveling the playing field a little more.
Z: And then, of course, I don’t want to take this necessarily purely chronologically, but it would be sort of silly to have this conversation now, as we’re having it in September of 2022, without acknowledging that the world of bartending, the drinks world has been pretty meaningfully upended by Covid-19 and a lot of what went on, and so we’re here going to talk in a moment about some of the newer and relaunched elements of BarSmarts. But just in terms of what that early period of time was like, in terms of just maybe even wrapping both of your heads around what BarSmarts could be in this, maybe not totally new landscape, but modified landscape, maybe one or both of you could talk a little bit about some of the changes that have come out of this last two and a half year period or so, and say ways in which the changes that have happened to the bar industry and bartending as a profession have helped shape the current version of BarSmarts.
K: I’ll jump in here because we were set to do a BarSmarts advanced course in Providence in April, and then everything shut down, obviously, around February, March. And we all were asking, “What do we do?” Just like everybody else. So we made the decision to make the online program free to out-of-work bartenders on March 17, 2020. And I reached out to all of our global affiliates and said, “Listen, for what it’s worth, this program is going to be for free for the foreseeable future. We would love to get everybody taking this course that wants it.” And within seven days, we had added 40,000 people around the world, so it just shows the immense appetite for bartender education. It shows that this program is important that people know about it, which was really awe-inspiring. But since we had so many new people taking it and we had so many people commenting to us about what they liked and they didn’t because everybody was sitting around, so they had plenty of time to sit on their computer and tell us what they thought, which was the big catalyst for, okay, we need to have some structural changes here to how we approach the online portion of this. Because what passed in 2008 wasn’t… And we made an update in, I guess, 2014, but the world had changed. The world had got a lot more savvy, and particularly online education, not just for bartending, but for everything was so much more advanced and so much more… It was less about being able to stare at a screen for as long as you can and read as much as you can and more about the way people consume information today, which is scrolling and watching videos. And most bartenders, maybe school wasn’t their main gig. So you have to allow people to learn in different ways and at different speeds. So we took a lot of those comments to heart when we started to reengineer the program.
Z: And, Misty, for you, with your long involvement with BarSmarts, when it comes to revamping or just looking at a program like it and assessing both the legacy but also recognizing that any program that is going to remain vibrant and vital to the industry needs to adapt and evolve, were there specific things that you said, “Hey, we really need to work on making sure that this component is really up to date and feels really relevant?” Because I think one of the things that I would imagine is challenging, is that the drinks landscape does change relatively rapidly, even setting aside things like global pandemics. Things do change, but, of course, the fundamentals don’t. So what have been some things that you feel like have been really important to highlight in this revamping process?
M: Well, I definitely think technique and tools are things that change very, very quickly, and so they definitely needed an upgrade. I think that even every three to four years, there are going to be things that we need to reevaluate because think about just, let’s say, ice. How we were using ice, the ice we had available in 2008, and now, going out in just about any bar that has a craft cocktail, no matter where you are in the country, you’re going to find an amazing ice program with large cubes and things like that. So the way you work with those different types of ice is different. So we have to constantly be recognizing that people need to know those techniques and how to work with the tools that are most relevant at that particular time. So I think that’s a big thing. But I’d also like to go back to the previous question a little bit because I think one of the things that’s very obvious in how Covid-19 impacted our industry is that we lost a lot of people. A lot of people left the industry because they recognized there wasn’t a safety net there for them, necessarily, and so we’re seeing such a young group of people coming into the industry right now, which is super exciting. Anytime you have a new generation coming in, they’re coming with a fresh perspective. Us old guard, maybe we’re seeing the same things and just thinking the same things over and over again. To have this young, youthful energy is really exciting. But they’re coming in and being thrown into positions. And a lot of the managers, because they’re so short-staffed, are saying, we just don’t have the time to train. So really thinking about what are the tools that you would need, not just to move forward with the proper tools and techniques, but coming onto a bar, having never worked in hospitality before or even as a bar back, what are the things that you need to know? I think that was even more important coming out of Covid-19 than staying up to date, up to date, up to date just because our industry has changed so much.
Z: Yeah. And I’m wondering, hospitality is, I think, a thing that we’ve talked about a little bit on this podcast before and certainly chatting about this episode as we’ve been planning it. I wonder, hospitality, it is one of those things that is, I think, sometimes hard to talk about because it’s such a thing that you feel as both a guest and, frankly, as a person working in an establishment, in the same way, that, Kevin, you said earlier, that beauty can be found anywhere or perhaps great bartending can be found anywhere, I also think that great hospitality can take on so many different forms that understanding it or defining it in any one way is tricky. So, Misty, for conveying both the importance of hospitality and maybe how to provide great service, what are some ways that BarSmarts does that while, of course, acknowledging that any given bar or restaurant setting is going to demand a certain kind of hospitality that another one might not?
M: Well, one of the things that I really loved as far as being part of the new BarSmarts was the opportunity to have Kevin interview me on video because he had really thoughtful questions as far as how to get out from all of us who participated what is hospitality because, like you said, there’s no one thing. What is the definition of hospitality? It depends on who the guest is. It depends upon what night it is. It changes for every single person, but it’s a recognition of more than anything about how to read the cues of your guest because they set the tone for what their expectations are, and then you have to rise above them in order to be good or great. And so I think really having those conversations with lifers, those of us who have been in the industry for a while, to really talk about what our experiences have been. Knowing that those experiences aren’t going to be the same for every person but you can learn from them and you can take the nuggets that are going to help you to be a really great bartender and recognize opportunities to go above and beyond with your guests.
Z: Yeah, that’s really cool. And, Kevin, it sounds like you guys spearheaded some of this. What were some of the takeaways for you in talking to people like Misty about hospitality?
K: Where do I begin? Misty had the whole studio crying, it was amazing. For me, it was super important when designing the program that we had someone that was able to speak to every type of bar experience. So, folks that worked in casual dining, like chain restaurants, in neighborhood bars, in fancy pants cocktail bars — someone like Misty who has done the gamut of the experience. And in crafting the hospitality section, the course is divided into basics and professional, and hospitality is a subset of the professional module. I knew there was no way to tell a young bartender — or any bartender, for that matter — what hospitality is. It was better to present folks that are like them having a conversation or talking about their experience in terms of different subjects. So whether that’s collaborating with their team or building a diverse team or building regulars, all of these subjects that matter to us in this business and then having folks riff on it a little bit and then providing some study questions at the end, which a lot of places will do pre-shift. Bars and restaurants will get together and have a meeting about the night and talk about what to expect. I threw in some questions so that you can watch this module, you can watch this shorter clip of people talking about hospitality, and then you can answer some questions as a group. And I think that’s a more conducive way to understand this emotional terroir that is hospitality rather than having someone dictate it to you.
Z: One piece of BarSmarts that I think is important to note, even if in some ways it’s… I don’t even want to say it’s not the part that people are always excited about because I think there is a part of this that is compelling, and I agree with that. And that’s the element of the bartender as this person who has a lot of responsibility in an establishment. You not only are responsible for making drinks generally and serving guests, but also for ensuring that you and the guests walk a line between enjoyment and safety, for lack of a better word. Alcohol is an intoxicant, and it’s important that the people working at bars and serving alcohol have a real understanding of that role that they play in people’s enjoyment and safety. And so how does that play out in BarSmarts without being… I think sometimes that can be the part of the conversation that seems un-fun.
K: It seems un-fun, but the dialectic of being the person who is helping to create the party and also the one that is making sure the party is under control, it’s like that Spider-Man line: “With great power comes great responsibility.” I feel like there’s a lot of folks that really take pride in that and respecting the shift. To quote one of our luminaries in the industry, you have this awesome job. And a young bartender, maybe they think it’s cool to give their friends free drinks and misbehave and stuff like that. But I think a lot of young folks are like, “This is my career, and I want to take it seriously. And I love that I can be the good time for so many people. I love that my job is to spread joy.” That’s so cool. What other job is your primary focus to bring joy to others? It’s one of a kind. But the responsibility that comes along with that is the point of differentiation, again, between a good bartender and an amazing bartender. But I’m sure Misty has something much cooler to say than that because you’re so good.
M: Oh, well, I agree with everything that you just said, but one of the things I really want to call out of what you said is that you said the word career, right? And one of the things that I love about the new BarSmarts and just this commitment to education that we’re seeing throughout the industries, it’s really a recognition that this is a profession. It’s a career. Any of the old guards, like myself, how many times did somebody come in and say, “But what else do you do?” Because it was just that bartending was just supposed to be this means to something else that was going to be your real job. And it’s really this recognition now that this is a career, it’s valued as an honorable profession, as it should have been the entire time, and I think with that, you are willing to take on and recognize the responsibility that comes with that. But it also results in these really cool changes on a personal and professional level as far as how you’re willing to advocate for yourself and your role and how as an industry, we’re willing to organize as a community for rights, such as a living wage and health care, and that’s something very different than when this all started in 2008. There were some of us who really felt a career profession. We were feeling that in our blood, but it wasn’t the way that it is now as far as even the guests recognizing it as an admirable career and professional goal and path. And I think that’s super important, and it changes the amount of responsibility that you’re willing to take on because of that.
Z: Very cool. Well, this has been really interesting. I want to leave people with just a little bit of basics on how they get involved. So, Kevin, if people want to get involved with BarSmarts, what do they do?
K: You just head to BarSmarts.com. And if you’re an individual, you can just sign up as an individual. We haven’t changed the price since 2008. Try to make it super fair for everybody, given the work that we put in. And then if you have a venue or multiple venues, you can sign up under what’s called Staff Certified, just fill out a short application. And what’s great about that is you can track the progress of your team. There’s a global job board so you can post open roles. You can track your team’s progress. You can reward them. There’s a profile function. You can build out your resume and then be able to share that with potential employers. The program’s going to be live in Spanish in October. Lots more to come. My role continues to be to stay out of the way and let this thing keep chugging along. Our goal is to get it out to as many folks as possible and just continue to evolve the program to suit the needs of the industry because that’s our responsibility.
Z: Awesome. Well, Misty, Kevin, thank you so much for your time. Really cool to hear about the history of BarSmarts, where it is now, and a little bit about where it will continue to go in the future. So thank you so much for your time. Really appreciate it.
M: Thank you so much.
K: Thank you.
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And now for some totally awesome credits. So the VinePair Podcast is recorded in our New York City headquarters, and in Seattle, Wash., in Zach Geballe’s basement. It is recorded by Zach, mastered, and produced by Zach. He loves all the credit. Keep giving it to him. Drop his name in the reviews. He’s going to love hearing how much you love him. It is also recorded in New York City by our tastings director, Keith Beavers, who is the managing director of the entire VinePair Podcast Network.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.