Historically, an apprenticeship period was required in trades involving skilled labor—like carpentry, tailoring and baking. Today, the term has transitioned into more ubiquitous use as craftsmanship in everything from cheese making to distilling; and apprenticeships—for hobbyists and aspiring artisans—are available at rooftop gardens, butcher shops, bee farms and urban chicken coops.
Not surprisingly, there is also an apprentice program for craft bartenders, called, fittingly, the Cocktail Apprentice Program (CAP).
CAP was started in 2008 as the engine for Tales of the Cocktail, a cocktail festival held annually in New Orleans. The four-day event welcomes some 20,000 attendees to over 90 seminars and dozens of parties that span across the French Quarter in the sweltering July heat.
Like so many tiny cocktail parties, each individual event requires place settings, a properly outfitted room and dozens of cocktails (and occasionally canapés). The shaking, stirring, garnishing and Excel sheet-harried team fueling each is a lean group of 70 cocktail apprentices, chosen from a pool of 400 applicants.
Choreographing the entire drunken dance out of a kitchen in the Hotel Monteleone is Don Lee, a consulting bartender and the cocktail world’s resident genius. “Being a CAP is like going to summer camp or having a traumatic experience—it’s hard to explain to someone who hasn’t done it,” he says.
Formerly an aspiring West Point cadet, it makes sense that Lee would organize his kitchen in a military-style hierarchy. Identified by chef-coat color, four veteran “white coats” manage the entire operation. Six experienced “black coats” assist in management. Twenty returning “gray coats” act as the leaders for 40 “red coats” who are all totally new to the game. A little bit like OK Cupid for bartenders, Lee has a deeply complex system for matching each white coat to his own platoon, which is composed of five squads of three individuals each.
From picking 50 pounds of mint, squeezing 12,700 limes, separating 600 egg whites, batching 26,880 ounces of simple syrup and cutting 9,000 lemon twists, to carving hundreds of individual ice balls, the CAPs are the lifeblood of the event. This year, the team of 70 made 182,000 cocktails total and poured 16,000 spirit tastes. The sheer volume is impressive, let alone the organization required to order, inventory and keep track of it all. Like Lee said, it’s hard to explain if you haven’t done it.
This year there were CAPs from Copenhagen, Chattanooga, Paris, Pittsburgh, Johannesburg, Tampa and everywhere in between. Some of the best bartenders in America have squeezed limes and cut lemons since the program started seven years ago including Phil Ward of Mayahuel (a CAP founder), Joaqúin Simó of Pouring Ribbons, Alex Day and Eryn Reece of Death & Co. and Chris Hannah of French 75 Bar. Leo Robitschek of Eleven Madison Park and the NoMad, Mike Ryan of Sable Kitchen & Bar and John Deragon of PDT have returned for many years as managers. (Track the CAPs diaspora here.)
Having seen hundreds of fledgling bartenders pass through its citrus and simple syrup-coated annals, the Cocktail Apprentice Program just may be the incubator for the world’s best and fastest bar team.