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Shaking up the cocktail scene

Do Boston’s bartenders need to sharpen their skills?

By Luke O’Neil
Globe Correspondent / January 29, 2011

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Bartenders don’t get the respect they want. Some don’t keep up on the latest trends in drinks. And Boston is considered by some a second-class city when it comes to the cocktail scene.

These are a few of the things that four local bartenders are trying to change. Last month they incorporated a Boston chapter of the United States Bartenders’ Guild, and already they’ve signed up more than 50 members. For $100 in annual dues, members will have access to training, education, networking, and a rigorous accreditation program.

The guild is not a union in the traditional sense. Rather, it will be more like a graduate-level study group. There will also be no pressure for local bartenders to join, said Corey Bunnewith, founder and president of USBG Boston.

The idea, he said, is “to build and foster a progressive community — not of just bartenders but bar enthusiasts, media, anyone who is interested in the craft.’’

Bunnewith, who tends bar at the Citizen Public House and Oyster Bar near Fenway Park, and Kirsten Amann, a server at Toro in the South End, said they were inspired to start a chapter of the nonprofit guild last summer while attending Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans, one of the biggest gatherings of bartenders and industry types in the country. After meeting with bartenders from other parts of the country who were USBG members, Bunnewith and Amann wondered why Boston didn’t have a chapter, especially since the guild has existed since 1948. Along with two Cambridge bartenders — Alex Homans of the Russell House Tavern and Robert Hoover of UpStairs on the Square — they launched the local chapter in late December.

Guild members — especially career-minded bartenders — are encouraged to work their way through the USBG Master Accreditation Program. Through the program, bartenders can attain three levels: “spirits professional,’’ which requires a written exam covering all aspects of the spirits world; “advanced bartender,’’ which incorporates a live practical evaluation conducted by the national chapter; and “master mixologist,’’ which requires the applicant to research and defend a written thesis. The idea is that bartenders will be able use their accreditation levels to show prospective employers that they have expertise in the field.

Keeping members abreast of developments in the world of cocktails, spirits, beer, and wine is also central to the guild’s mission. The chapter plans to offer tastings, trips to distilleries and breweries, as well as lectures and discussions — about everything from the science of tasting to the various uses of ice, said Amann, who is also a cofounder of the local chapter of Ladies United for the Preservation of Endangered Cocktails, or LUPEC.

“It could be something like a comparative spirits tasting where you try different whiskeys side by side,’’ Amann said. “The way that you learn is by comparative tasting. We’re going to do a seminar on off flavors in beer. People talk about being able to tell when wines are off but not as much in beer. We’re going to do field trips to local wineries and breweries to support our local beverage industry people and teach ourselves about the art of distilling and the craft of making beer.’’

Learning more about the craft and working through the accreditation program are the reasons Tyler Wang signed up and paid his dues. Wang, an apprentice at Drink, a bar in the Fort Point neighborhood, said he hopes his involvement with the guild will elevate his bartending skills.

“Bartenders want to learn, network, and make it more than each person behind their own bar,’’ Wang said. “This community that USBG is going to help create is going to help out our city as far as the bars go, create a network, just a way for us all to share ideas, stuff we’re working on, new cocktails. It’s really going to be beneficial.’’

But not all local bartenders are as enthusiastic.

Alexei Beratis, beverage manager at Towne Stove and Spirits, has joined USBG, but he said not all the bartenders on his staff are sold on the idea.

“I had a conversation about it with some of my staff, and they were of the opinion that it was a waste of $100 dues for just a bunch of people that want to slap themselves on the back,’’ Beratis said. “Not having the program in place here, I really can’t argue, but it certainly motivated me to join to find out if it’s really something of use.’’

Beratis said he’s withholding judgment until the guild has a chance to prove itself. He said he hopes the group will help raise the level of proficiency of bartenders all over town — which he said is uneven.

“I think it’s got the potential to do that,’’ he said. “We do seem to be a cocktail town. A lot of people like to go out and have interesting, well-made cocktails. If they can improve the quality of cocktails and bartenders throughout the city, I think it will be a worthwhile effort.’’

Jamie Walsh, bar manager at Stoddard’s Fine Food and Ale, said that while he supports the idea of the USBG he also remains skeptical.

“My only concern about it is that in these types of things it tends to be a little elitist, a little bit pretentious, and I think there’s so much of that now in our industry as a whole, with the idea of craft cocktail making, wines, foods, and craft beer,’’ Walsh said. “I just hope it doesn’t turn into some kind of secret society. Maybe they should go from bar to bar and say, ‘This is what we’re doing here, from nightclub bartender to day bartender at the Ritz-Carlton to the bartender at Eastern Standard.’ If it’s for everyone it should be for everyone.’’

Indeed, Amann said reaching out to a diverse array of bartenders is the plan.

“One thing that is a major goal of mine is to have it be all kinds of bartenders,’’ Amann said. “There is a strong community of bartenders in the city, but it can be a lot of people from the same kind of places, craft cocktails and artisanal bartenders. It’s important to me that this becomes an organization for everyone. Whether it’s a beer bar or Chili’s, everyone is a bartender.’’

Perhaps through the USBG, she said, professional bartenders in Boston will come to realize there’s nothing wrong with their career of choice, despite the stigma it can have.

“I feel like there’s this perception that it’s like a thing you do while you’re trying to figure out what you want to do with your life, or you didn’t graduate college,’’ Amann said. “I feel like we’re moving into a period where people are going to start to see it differently. I want [USBG Boston] to be a place where people can feel supportive about choosing this as a career — a place where people can learn a lot and network, and feel like they’re networking with people who believe in the craft of the bartender.’’

Luke O’Neil can be reached at lukeoneil47@gmail.com.