I went to bartending school and all I got was a fuzzy navel recipe
The customer’s order was simple: “I’d like a fuzzy navel, please.”
Simple for anyone with even a passing familiarity of a home bar kit. Simple, in other words, for anyone but the guy behind the bar: me.
“Uh, what’s in that again? Vermouth?” I asked.
I was sitting in on a course at the Maryland Bartending Academy, where, as part of the first day’s lecture, students make drinks for their classmates.
No notes or recipe books — just novices and lots of booze. My customer was Katie Vachon, a 22-year-old from Anne Arundel County, who was also on her first day.
When she ordered, I had a bar behind me stacked with dozens of bottles, lined up like a boys choir in a United Colors of Benetton ad. I didn’t know what a fuzzy navel was (A highball? manhattan? Chick’s drink? What’s a highball, anyway?), what was in it or where to find the ingredients if I did manage to figure them out. I might be a prodigious consumer of drinks. But I’m a shoddy bartender. Why try, when there are Brendan Dorrs out there whose concoctions are alcoholic Sistine Chapels?
But I am alone in this. When I sat in on the academy’s two-week course, the 11 students there were of all ages — as young as 18 and as old as 57 — and backgrounds. There was a go-go singer, a suburban mom, a couple of 20-year-old guys, several young women in ponytails and a grandmother recuperating from a March heart surgery.
They’re taking the class for as many different reasons as there are whiskeys — bucket lists, first and second careers, fun. But they were all there with hopes of landing a job.
The school, located in Glen Burnie, has been around since 1980, and its two-week course costs $540, which includes tuition and books.
“With this economy, they’re looking for extra income, especially part time, and also a job that’s fun,” said Rose Kaspar, a raspy-voiced instructor at the school.
People here also took the class because bartending is a a little illicit, a little dangerous. It sounds almost like too much fun to be a job.
When she got divorced five years ago, Susan Watkins, a 57-year-old redhead from Tennessee, put it on her bucket list along with walking on a glacier and driving a snowmobile at Yellowstone National Park. “I wanted to do this for a long time,” she said. “But life passes by very quickly.”
Watkins didn’t look like she would know how to make a margarita, let alone make one in under three minutes. But by her sixth day of the course, she could — nearly as fast as young co-eds down shots of tequila — and narrated every step of the way. “Jose Cuervo” and “Triple Sec” never sounded as quaint as when pronounced by her brittle, grandmotherly coo.
Depending on which bar you frequent, Tamarkia Little, a 30-year-old singer who lives in Baltimore’s Waverly neighborhood, was either terribly attired for the class, or awesomely so. She was a vision in pink: pink-purplish eyeshadow, phosphorescent pink top, big crimson lips and a bejeweled bow on her hair.
When she started the course, she was as clueless as I was. “I didn’t know clear from dark, rum from tequila,” she said.
Just eight months before, she had graduated from a medical assistant program at a local technical school but didn’t find a job. She’s hoping bartending might become her new part-time gig to support her two boys.
After just a day at the course, I won’t be able to make a margarita as well as Watkins, or identify all the bottles behind the bar in under five minutes like Little now can.
I just learned a few things: The jigger is the larger cup of a double-sided measurer; the pony is the smaller cup. A hi-ball always carries an ounce of alcohol and two ounces of an additive. Carbonated drinks (gin & tonics, vodka tonics) get an automated lime garnish; incidentally, don’t eat the garnish at the bartending school — they’re most likely fake.
For first-timers, Kaspar recommends word associations to remember recipes. “Very old city” for a Madras, or vodka, orange juice and cranberry juice.
Though for their final exam students must make 20 drinks in 10 minutes to get a diploma, as a sit-in I only had to make one fuzzy navel. Here it goes:
1. Take a highball glass -- typically an eight-inch glass that's between the old fashioned and Collins glasses -- and fill it with ice.
2. Remember "pissed off": peach schnapps and orange juice. Pour an ounce of the schnapps using the pony, or count one "Mississippi" for each half ounce. Fill the rest of the glass with orange juice
3. Add straw, and voila: fuzzy navel.
By the end of the class, the bar was littered with half-made drinks in opaque color combinations; I also made a Madras and a Double O Seven. I didn’t throw the shaker in the air like Tom Cruise in “Cocktail,” and I didn’t get on top of the bar like one of the ladies in “Coyote Ugly.”
I was just happy to have made the darn drink, which would have worked out well — if I was a 1980s bartender and people still ordered fuzzy navels at bars.
Photo: Susan Watkins (above, right) works on her shaker technique at the Maryland Bartending Academy. Ethan Harden (above, center) practices making a cocktail (Jed Kirschbaum/Baltimore Sun)