What it takes to become a bartender, according to Johnny Michaels

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Who has a bead on cocktails like Johnny Michaels? Nobody. But he does have some advice for you.

He's got the posture of Iggy Pop, hair by pillowcase (as he himself was quoted as saying), and the golden touch with your drink.

He's the punk rock poster child of mixology, the guy wielding a Japanese mixing glass in one hand and a Hawthorne strainer in the other, before anyone knew what any of that stuff was, much less the difference between Dolin blanc and cherry heering. 

He's an inspiration as he shakes and stirs, having been at the forefront of the local mixology movement, even penning a book, Northstar Cocktails, all the while helming the big, badass bar at La Belle Vie. 

Well, he's on his own now, getting ready to open a new place out in White Bear Lake. Why White Bear Lake? We'll find out that and other things, like the fact that there will be no food, just crunchy snacks and the main event — cocktails. 

But first, a treatise on what it takes to get into the game if you're so inclined. What to do, what not to do, and how he can help you. And oh: He's looking for folks. So if mixing up Mayan Timeshares or Nights in White Satin is your dream job, read on. 

From Johnny:

"The best way to break into the bartending business is not enrolling in some sort of "bartending school." I feel bad for the people who think that if they want to be a bartender, they should pay some money and go to a school. Instead of paying their way through school, they should toil away as a bar back, soaking up way more information every shift than they even realize.

I feel so bad for these people who pay money for a worthless certificate issued by clueless, washed up (I take that back, you have to be really good at something before you can be called washed up) bartending teachers. They walk out of these so-called schools with a certificate, then try to get a bartending job somewhere in the TCs, only to be condescendingly rejected by some of the more experienced, pompous mixologists/bar managers in town. I frequently hire these demoralized people as barbacks, not bartenders. I explain to them: "This is how you really learn about the business. You might think you want to be a bartender, but starting off as a barback, you will get the chance to observe things up close and make a more informed decision about whether you really want that life or not. You will be expected to work really hard for very little money as a bar back, but if you want to become a bartender, that's the best way to do it."  

My theory of why there are more male mixologists than female ones is that women are smart! When a woman is hired at a restaurant for a front of house position, the option of being a server rather than a bar back seems like a no-brainer. If one is a server, one can expect to make way more money than a barback does, while also working around half the hours. Servers frequently get "cut," otherwise known as being granted permission to punch out early, because the food orders have pretty much died off. So while the servers get done early and then go out drinking with their co-workers and significant others, the barbacks are still working. They're the last people to punch out. By then, all the bars are closed! No fun for the hardest workers! But if you want to bartend, you have to pay your dues. You've gotta pay to play.

As a bar manager/lead bartender and the person in charge of hiring people for the bar staff, I can honestly state that all things being equal, I'll hire a woman over a man every time. Bartenders have never been in higher demand than right now. It's also really rare to find bartenders who are the complete package: super fast, strong, good looking, knowledgeable, and super personable/charming when it comes to guest relations. Bartenders like that are usually found at places where they enjoy working while also making the most money.

Another often overlooked, super valuable skill for a lead bartender is to possess is the ability to "coach up" people who don't have a diploma from the school of hard knocks, but are very attractive and possess great customer service skills. Luckily for me, I love coaching up rather inexperienced people who have great, positive attitudes. I've found most of the more skilled bartenders in town don't have the inclination to invest any of their energy coaching up rookiies looking for a free education, but for some reason I do.

Speaking of which, I am helping open and run a new craft cocktail bar in White Bear Lake (just 15 minutes from St. Paul). I am looking for somewhat inexperienced people who possess great, positive attitudes and wish to gain some valuable work experience that will help them climb the ladder and get better jobs in the Twin Cities. Want to break into the business and have fun while doing so? Contact me at [email protected]


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