An Ivy League Education—in Bartending

America’s most elite educational institutions have a long tradition of schooling their students on how to serve a proper cocktail.

“I got interested in [bartending] because I hated drinking,” says Rachel Luo, a senior at Columbia University’s Barnard College. A year and a half ago, the sociology major decided to take a class at the Columbia Bartending Agency, which, since 1965, has helped Columbia students learn bartending skills and then get gigs around the city. At the time, Luo had no interest in mixology, refused to drink the usual college swill, and didn’t see herself as the typical party animal destined to become a college bartender. And yet—the six-week class fit into her schedule, the organizers seemed pretty cool, and, yes, she liked the idea of earning some extra cash.

“But as I got to know a lot about liquor and the nuances of alcohol, I began to realize, ‘Oh, this is really cool, it doesn’t have to taste terrible,’” she explains. Today, she is the communications director for the CBA, which is now student-run and certifies hundreds of graduates each year.

While the Ivy Leagues may be associated with preppy elitists, legacy admissions, secret societies and Jared Kushner types primed for a soft landing into finance jobs, they also have an oddly everyman tradition of bartending classes. In fact, all eight Ivies currently offer some form of beverage training. Many of these courses were established long before bartending would have been considered a legitimate career option (especially by Ivy League parents shelling out $70K a year in tuition).

“The Harvard Bartending Course is a branch of a nonprofit student-run organization called The Harvard Student Agencies, which has a main goal of providing students with meaningful business experience,” says Marcus Miller, a “first-year” (in Harvard parlance) and the current manager of the course. Taught since 1964, the course’s final exam once consisted of students forming a circle and mixing drinks for the person to their right until someone passed out. But today, classes are held at the school-owned, student-run Cambridge Queen’s Head Pub. Its textbook, Bartending 101: The Basics of Mixology, has reportedly sold a half-million copies since its initial publication in 1985. Focused less on cutting-edge technique than foundational skills, students familiarize themselves with spirit flavor profiles and how they best pair with modifiers and mixers.

Whether academic or extracurricular, today most of these Ivy-sponsored courses seem designed to help students more thoughtfully consider how, why and what they drink.

“We know underaged people are drinking,” said Robert Sullivan, director of Yale Catering, in 2013. “We’re trying to see what we can do to make sure underage students understand what a drink is supposed to look and taste like.” Since at least the 1970s, Yale has hosted a number of various bartending schools. Now in its eighth semester, the current iteration is taught by John Clark-Ginnetti, who also owns 116 Crown, a New Haven cocktail bar where classes are held. It’s free to all undergraduates and run in collaboration with the Alcohol and Other Drugs Harm Reduction Initiative (AODHRI). If it sounds tiresome, that’s hardly the case—students learn about cocktail history, barroom vernacular, creating ambiance and crafting the drinks themselves. Most students in the class are currently part-time bartenders or aim to be. (In Connecticut, individuals need only be 18 to serve drinks.)

“The idea is that, the more you know, the more you will think about something and care about it being done well, and this thoughtfulness permeates all parts of the experience,” says Clark-Ginnetti.

Meanwhile, Penn offers three very brief courses designed to provide the basics of bartending: one on alcohol safety, one on mixology and one that includes both of these plus TiPS bartender certification, a program designed to teach future bartenders how to prevent underage drinking and curtail dangerous behavior. (For an extra $40, students can purchase a bartending kit.) Brown’s bartending courses are in partnership with their Student Agencies, which offers placement at the students-only Grad Center Bar, in operation since 1969. Dartmouth also has a TiPS certification program, which “gives students the skills they need to intervene with their peers in social situations to prevent alcohol-related incidents.”

Princeton’s Formal Services Agency likewise certifies students with TiPS while linking them with bartending opportunities at alumni events. (“Have you ever wanted to mix cocktails while chatting with Princeton Alumni?” the signup form asks). Columbia Bartending’s students, too, are connected with a roster of private gigs—birthdays, housewarming parties, Shabbat dinners—often for well-heeled alums.

“We’re all very intelligent and motivated to go on to great careers—people see that, see the value of hiring one of us to come into their homes,” says CBA’s Luo. She says that while bartending on a recent Saturday night, she met the creative director for a major advertising agency who was so impressed he asked to see her résumé.

Some Ivy Leaguers, though, do aspire to become full-time beverage professionals. Luo estimates that 20 percent of the current class has a high-level interest in mixology, while another 20 percent plans to get jobs in the bar world. Pamela Wiznitzer took the course back in 2005. After time at a Murray Hill sports bar, she worked her way up to top cocktail bars like Dead Rabbit and Seamstress before becoming a noted beverage consultant in Manhattan. Luo says several of her former classmates have gone on to become professional bartenders.

If the other seven Ivies treat this sort of training as extracurricular, Cornell dedicates an entire school to it. With over 1,000 “hotelie” students, the School of Hotel Administration is among the best hospitality schools in the nation. The program offers courses in Food & Beverage Management, which covers wine and food pairings, introduction to fermented grains, hard ciders, and sake, and an upper-level class on beverage trends, alcohol regulations and wine and spirits list development.

“Back when I was at Cornell, you were fancy if you told people you drank G&Ts,” says Cheryl Stanley, who graduated from The Hotel School in 2000 and today teaches several courses within it. “Now [the students] all know their brands.”

Leo Robitschek, vice president of food and beverage for the Sydell Group, recalls visiting Cornell back in high school, and laughing out loud at the idea of a bartending program. (He ended up going to the University of Miami, where he majored in finance.) “[I thought,] ‘Who would study to become a bartender?’ But now we’re seeing lots of Ivy Leaguers in our business.”

With the cocktail bar and craft beer and spirits boom over the past decade, there are many more professional hospitality opportunities than when Stanley and Robitschek were in school. Back then, Stanley claims, you pretty much had to begin your career at a major hotel chain like the Four Seasons. Today, you could go to work for a restaurant group, spirits conglomerate, brewery or buyer. “You now hear students saying, ‘I want to first intern at Campari, and then I want to go to the NoMad and then I want to do this and then I want to do that,” says Stanley. “They can look to our alums out there that are already doing these things.”

But for most, bartending—whether mixing craft cocktails or slinging rum and Cokes—remains a standard point of entry to the industry. Luo believes that the simple act of mixing drinks has the ability to shift how academic elites see the world. “The thing I really like about [our class] is that it teaches these people from really privileged backgrounds—upper class—who have never had customer service experience before, how to learn elemental labor skills,” says Luo. She adds: “There’s nothing that will humble you quite like bartending.”

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