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Cocktail Conference Apprenticeship: Joining an Army of Bartenders

In the previous articles, we discussed the tradition of apprenticeship in bartending, its roots in French kitchens, and examined the possibilities behind bartending as a guest at someone else’s bar. In this final portion of our exploration of apprenticeship, we’ll be looking at how to apply to become a part of the force that helps the major cocktail events of the world succeed – and why it’s such a great opportunity for you to springboard your experience, resume and career.

While singular stages and guest shifts dole out a shot of experience at a time, apprenticeships at major cocktail events provide a mega dose.


An Army of Drinkers Needs an Army of Bartenders

While any time behind a bar is a chance to learn, there are some opportunities that are even more structured and involved. As cocktail conferences swell in size, the needs of thirsty attendees increase. To answer the call, conferences like Tales of the Cocktail (TOTC) and San Antonio Cocktail Conference (SACC) have created their own personal army of apprentices.

Years ago at TOTC, Don Lee and John Deragon pioneered a philosophy and organization strategy now increasingly in place at conferences around the world – now called CAP (”Cocktail Apprentice Program”). As per the official CAP page:

“The Cocktail Apprentice Program is an exclusive mentorship program for up-and-coming bartenders to learn alongside some of the biggest names in the business during the five days of Tales of the Cocktail. Since 2008, more than 350 apprentices have gained extensive experience working and managing large-scale, high-volume events while providing an invaluable service to Tales of the Cocktail Foundation and the industry as a whole.”

Programs like SACC or TOTC are a whirlwind that lasts for nearly a week. The result is an exceptional challenge for the staff: to keep each and every seminar, tasting room and event supplied with the cocktails they need at the exact time they need them. (Oh, and to clean up afterward too!)

In the tradition of French Chef Auguste Escoffier, these are tightly regimented operations with tiers of authority denoted by chef coat colors. The organization is key when it comes to overseeing hundreds of gallons of spirits, citrus, and syrups from batching to bevvying.

The payoff for the hard-working bartender is some of the best networking imaginable. In a single hour, a CAP may provide seminar cocktails for a bartending wizard or pour drinks for a marketing headhunter looking for a brand ambassador or a teammate who happens to run a bar in a market you’re looking to move to… or all of the above! It’s not uncommon for these experiences to trigger big career changes, sometimes mere months after conference wraps up.



Planning for Success

If you’re looking to find a spot in one of these Apprenticeship program, planning is a huge part of the process, believes bartender and St. Germain Brand Specialist Amanda Carto. Hailing from Austin, TX, Carto is a two-time Cocktail Apprentice at Tales of the Cocktail and is manager for the Prep Crew at San Antonio Cocktail Conference. “Set clear, achievable goals with a time frame,” says Carto, “whether it be a week, a year, three years or a decade. You are allowed to edit these goals as you continue your journey. Always be kind to yourself and be kind to others along the way.”

While it’s definitely possible to get involved quickly and directly with cocktail conferences and volunteer, a CAP-style position at a large-scale event is the result of an application process, sometimes at the end of some cajoling on the part of a mentor or friend. It’s not something to be taken lightly, and definitely requires some thought.

With hundreds of attendees, dozens of events, seminars and parties, there’s a lot to be learned. Garnishes have to be cut to spec, fruit has to be juiced, product has to be inventoried. While many cities have cocktail events, such as Thirst Boston or San Diego Cocktail Week, some have taken a page from Tales of the Cocktail’s organization methods and created an apprentice program that supplies the skilled hands needed for a successful large-scale event. Applying for SACC’s Team Taco, (the semi-official moniker for the Prep Crew), is more than just an excuse to enjoy San Antonio and tattoo a taco on your body, it’s a very serious affair for serious professionals.


Team Taco

“Team Taco’s mission is to serve as a team of hospitality professionals for the production and execution of seminars at San Antonio Cocktail Conference,” Carto explains. “Every year, we choose roughly 70 individuals from different parts of the world who are at different points of their beverage career. We structure the teams and carry over a culture from year to year where our prep crew members can all mentor one another in hopes to take…our Team Taco ways of leadership, strong work ethic, event execution skill and more…to their own markets.” The experience is a gift that keeps on giving, as Team Taco helps develop “working relationships and friendships that ultimately last years beyond the week we came together to work in San Antonio,” adds Carto.

Any application process can be terrifying, and it’s easy to psych yourself out. Relax, you’ve got this, and your friends have your back. Reach out to others who have experience with the program, lean on friends for advice, and take your time. Working on your answers before submitting is a pro move. Prepare for this the same way you would any interview.

Leaning on your community is especially helpful if you’re not the strongest of writers, as it’s always good to have an extra set of eyes helping you edit. Having a friend write application essays with you is also a great way to make sure you both stay motivated and see it through to the end of the process. Again, it’s important to be mindful of your reputation. While applications are anonymous, the bartending world is still fairly small, and bad reputations can precede you.


Tips for applicants:

  • Read the questions carefully. Read them again. Write your answers. Read the questions again.
  • Don’t psych yourself out. The worst that can happen is you try next year.
  • Read your responses aloud. These applications are looking for authenticity. Do you sound like you?
  • Don’t be shy about your accomplishments, but don’t be a hotshot either. The people reading your application won’t be impressed with bragging.
  • Have fun with your responses and be as charming as you would be with a guest at your bar.
  • Do not wait until the last minute.
  • Find a friend to apply with you as an accountabili-buddy.
  • Take it seriously, but not too seriously. You’re a bartender, not a bookkeeper.


Believe in the Process

The application process with any program is going to change from year to year. It’s important to believe in yourself, and the process. The more prestigious the program, the more competition you’ll be up against. While being waitlisted or denied is definitely not a happy place to be in, take the opportunity to examine your approach. There’s always a better way, and if you keep at it, you’re sure to find it. Many of the veterans of programs like CAP or SACC were cheering from the bleachers for a few seasons before getting their shot.

In the early days of programs like these, it was fairly easy to walk on as a masochistic bartender with some time to kill and a hunger for knowledge. Getting your foot in the door early with smaller or, ideally, local cocktail events is a great way to step your game up. Even if your friendly neighborhood is lacking in a cocktail event, you can always be a hero and import what you’ve learned on your travels.

The road stretches as long as you’re willing to walk it. It may be hard at times, but it’s almost always rewarding. Striking gold with an apprenticeship is one of the bigger rewards along that path. “Believe in the process,” advises Carto, “because there are people who believe in you, your achievements, and your successes yet to come. As you continue on your journey, remember to raise people up along with you.”



Cocktail Conference Apprenticeship: Joining an Army of Bartenders

About the Author: J. Endress

J. Endress

J. Endress is a restaurant industry veteran with nearly 20 years of experience, over half of that behind a bar. He's an alumnus of the BAR 5 Day program, Tales of the Cocktail's Cocktail Apprentice Program, San Antonio Cocktail Conference's Leadership as well as a Camp Runamok Squirrel. He is the co-founder of the travel and lifestyle blog Two by Tour. Follow J. on Twitter @86composure for all things literary, nerdy and boozy.



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