Bartending is, by definition, a social industry. While training programs and bartending schools exist, many assert that the best way to learn the trade is simply by doing, alongside experienced mentors and peers. For craft bartenders, the annual Cocktail Apprentice Program (CAP) serves as that on-the-ground education, doubling as an incubator for the world’s best and fastest bar team.
Started in 2008, CAP is the engine behind Tales of the Cocktail, the New Orleans bartending festival celebrating its 20-year anniversary, an event that is itself a space to network and exchange ideas. For five days in July, the festival welcomes thousands of industry professionals for seminars and events—everything from career fairs to spirit-specific happy hours to tours of the city’s best bars. Behind the scenes, an eager group of apprentices are shaking, stirring, garnishing and taking care of all of the background work to properly quench the thirst of the cocktail enthusiasts in attendance.
Overseen by the Tales of the Cocktail Foundation, CAP has a track record of training the very best. Alumni of the program demonstrate a technique-driven approach to drink-making that no doubt comes from extensively honing their craft—from Joaquín Simó’s highly conceptual cocktails to Chris Hannah’s history-driven menu to Jack Schramm’s science-minded Jello shots.
This year, in the festival’s first return to an in-person event since 2019, just 57 total apprentices – a smaller group than the 70 in previous years – were selected. Of these, 32 were first-time applicants, chosen from a pool of more than 400. Hailing from four countries and 14 states, plus Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, the 2022 class joins returning CAP members, who will offer their guidance along the way. Mentorship is built into the experience, where the colors of chefs’ coats help identify participants: “White Coats” act as managers, “Black Coats” assist in managing, and “Gray Coats” are the leaders for the brand new “Red Coats.” Because the pandemic put a pause on the ability to collaborate firsthand, apprenticeship feels more important than ever.
“Of course, there were many opportunities to spread and share ideas and mentorship over a laptop screen during the pandemic. But as we all know, the distractions at home and the fatigue of a screen can take away from concentration and engagement,” says Trevor Kallies, CAP Director and White Coat. “This program thrives on hands-on and in-person interaction.”
The program truly is hands-on: At the most recent in-person Tales festival in 2019, apprentices shook and stirred more than 11,000 pounds of Kold-Draft ice, poured more than 8,000 bottles of spirits and juiced more than 2,000 limes. Beyond making drinks, participants are responsible for ordering ingredients, taking inventory and keeping track of it all—acting as bartender, operations manager and event planner all in one. The volume of work is hard to visualize, but for those who play a part in it, the impact is beyond measure.
“I applied for years to get into the Cocktail Apprentice Program, but I was determined to be a part of it because I knew it could open doors for me,” says Mary Palac, who participated as a Red Coat in 2017 and as a Gray Coat in 2019, and has also been a member of Punch’s Bartender in Residence program. Past BIRs Nathan McCarley-O’Neill, Richard Beltzer and Parker Luthman have also gone through the training. “The knowledge, friends and colleagues I have gained from this program are truly invaluable,” says Palac, “I’m so proud and grateful to be an alumna.”